Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken bold foreign policy initiatives. He has tried to improve relations with our immediate neighbours, taking them to a higher level. He has allowed oil companies to import oil from Iran, ignoring American pressure. He has also given great importance to defence preparedness. These initiatives are wholly welcome. The initiatives on domestic economy do not appear so favourable, however. He has done a U-turn on the Aadhar programme. The BJP had earlier opposed this project on grounds of national security and privacy issues. There are also indications that he wants to loosen the requirements of FDI in retail. He is also trying to push anti-people measures, like softening the Land Acquisition Act. These policies, it seems, are being prompted by the bureaucracy. Modi should appraise the character of bureaucracy before relying on its advice.
It is from such a bureaucracy that Chief Minister Narendra Modi was able to extract good work in Gujarat. Perhaps he followed the suggestions of Kautilya. A friend narrated an interesting happening. Some students at IIM, Ahmedabad, wanted to open a school in a rural area instead of taking up corporate positions. Suddenly they received a phone call from Modi offering them support from the state government! It appears Modi had heard of their interest and took proactive steps to rope them in. Such openness is indeed to be welcomed.
But there is a difference between Modi as CM and Modi as PM. Now he is akin to the sovereign ‘King’ that the Manusmriti and Kautilya speak of. The work of the state government is mostly to implement the policies that are determined by the centre. Major policy departments lie with the centre under our Constitution. These include foreign affairs, communication, foreign trade, currency and income and excise taxes. Many items which were on the state list and the concurrent list, have been usurped by the centre over time like electricity, environment, mining and labour. Consequently, the chief minister of a state has essentially been reduced to a vassal.
The question is whether the bureaucracy that Modi was able to manage when it came to policy implementation would be equally robust in framing those policies? The nature of collective bureaucracy has been described by the sociologist Max Weber. He found that the tendency of the bureaucracy is to work by the rules. Bureaucrats implement rules without application of their minds, as though they were robots. If the Union Government decrees that all schools will open at 8 am,that will happen across the country. The fact that sunrise occurs early in Guwahati and late in Ahmedabad does not enter into the decision matrix of the bureaucrat.
Such a mindless bureaucracy is not suitable for policymaking at the centre. Technically speaking, they do apply their minds, but do so as dictated by their personal consideration. Former secretary to the Union Government, Kamal Taori, says unequivocally that bureaucrats are driven by their immediate self-interest of moneymaking and power-mongering. It is obvious that the bureaucrat will make money, whatever be the policy—both in planting trees as well as in cutting them down.
The most common method of influencing policy decisions is to provide unconditional benefits to bureaucrats. One large business house routinely provides scholarships to children of IAS officials for foreign studies. They know that the officer will sooner or later hold an office when returns can be sought. Such an officer would scarcely frame a policy detrimental to the company’s interests.
So much time elapses between policy formulation and its visible impact that the bureaucrat responsible for the bad policy can never be located. So bureaucrats will continue to make policies dictated by business houses and foreign powers and Modi will be implementing the agenda of these paymasters of bureaucrats when he relies on them for policy formulation. He needs a council of advisers chosen from independent-minded people, who can stand up to him and tell him where he is wrong so that the right policies are made.
The writer was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM, Bengaluru.