Modi hints his patience wearing thin on lethargic bureaucracy

Modi hints his patience wearing thin on lethargic bureaucracy

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After being in office for 20 months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot hide his exasperation with the bureaucracy – a far cry from the days when he had just been sworn in. Modi finds that the more he counts on the bureaucracy to shed its inertia, the more things appear to be unchanging.

In fact, Modi’s interactions with the top bureaucrats are now said to have a familiar ring. A tough talking prime minister is not mincing words in seeking results. His reliance on them is more than even on his own ministers to deliver on governance.

Ministers too have shed their initial reluctance to speak about their problems. Bureaucrats have become so powerful in this government that they often defy
them, and if any new idea is to be implemented, then they try their best to ensure that it fails.

Insiders say Modi too no longer believes in what he was often accused of boasting – ‘the same bureaucrats’ can bring about change in rest of India as they did in Gujarat. As one official put it, Modi has, perhaps, realised that India is not Gujarat and the law of entropy is more fiercely at work in Lutyens’ Delhi: that everything eventually moves from order to disorder and you may not be able to do much about it?

Cut to May-June 2014, Modi thought an empowered and re-energised bureaucracy could be put on a mission mode. In his very first meeting on June 4, 2014,  Modi met all the Union government’s 77 secretaries at his 7, Race Course Road residence seeking their suggestions. He did not mince any words in urging them to “tell me how to run my government.” He even said, “don’t hesitate to call me if you get any idea” as he gave them his phone numbers, email and his official RAX line.

For many BJP leaders, it marked a style different from the Vajpayee era (1998-2004). Even though former diplomat Brajesh Mishra held unbridled powers as Vajpayee’s principal secretary and national security adviser,  they could still sneak their word to the former prime minister or to his deputy, L K Advani.

To be fair to Modi, say some ministers, he has never stopped them or secretaries from coming and telling him directly what they thought on any issue. His penchant to run things directly through the bureaucracy has often acted on their inhibition to speak up – until the PM called them for an opinion. It was sometime in December last year after the drubbing in Bihar that Modi got a wake up call.  The feedback was that, nothwithstanding several flagships schemes, many measures were slow in reaching people. 

With the Uttar Pradesh elections next year, the government and the BJP will have to do more than their best to counter the perception that nothing big has actually happened to better the people’s lives. Modi’s first reaction was that, perhaps his own ministers and the government machinery had failed to send out the right message. Later, he thought that he must start reviewing the actual progress made on so many announcements. “When I do not know about your achievements, how would a common man know," he is said to have told a Union minister.

Last month, Modi began to review progress made on important Cabinet decisions taken by his government with his ministers. In separate meeting with bureaucrats, Modi pulled up some them, taking strong exception to people's complaints and grievances related to the customs and excise sector and directed strict action against the officials responsible.  
He got all ministers including those belonging to the NDA alliance partners to present their achievement card. Issues ranging from ministries of food, agriculture, chemical and fertiliser, rural development and water resources (Namami Gange) were taken up. 

Modi asked his ministers not to be cowed down by red tape or a systemic drag and asked them to maintain timelines of key Cabinet decisions. He told them that he would sit with them every month and tasked the secretaries to ensure quick delivery. He also wanted the government departments that have extensive public dealing, to take up public grievances immediately.

Regular meetings

Knowing that the buck stops with him, Modi began to invest more seriousness to his regular meetings of PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation), an IT-based multi-modal platform under which he interacts with top officials of various Central departments and state governments via video conferencing.  Modi reviewed the progress of vital infrastructure projects in the road, railway, coal, power and renewable energy sectors, spread over several states.

In the hunt for better ideas when his ministers were not so vocal, Modi, who had banished the Groups of Ministers (GoMs) of the UPA era, also set up eight group of secretaries, who made presentation to him by giving suggestions on government schemes and policies. They were asked to “ideate” to focus on quick delivery of the Centre’s programmes.

The eight groups, as of today, are tasked with: accelerated growth, good governance, employment generation, farmer-centric initiatives, education and health, innovative budgeting and effective implementation, Swachh Bharat and Ganga rejuvenation with people's participation, and energy efficiency and conservation.

Finally, on January 30, Modi carried out a bureaucratic reshuffle to bring in new officers to head crucial departments such as agriculture, telecom and information technology and moved out others who were unable to match his expectation. 

The reshuffle brought in new officers to head 10 crucial departments such as agriculture, telecom and information technology.  The loud message was that non-performing babus would be penalised.

The underlying message was that Modi had signalled the government’s patience was wearing thin on the recalcitrant bureaucracy--despite his promise several times that he would ensure that no official would be persecuted for doing duty for public good.