By M D Nalapat
Even in 2017, it is a sign of inertia in practices and procedures that rotation every three years or less continues to be the norm in the higher administration.
During his 13 years as Chief Minister of Gujarat, it was in Year 4 that CM Narendra Modi hit stride and ensured that his administration fully broke away from past governance practices. The change created the Modi Model of Governance (MMG) at the state level. Those looking towards an MMG at the Central level are optimistic that Year 4 of PM Modi’s first term will similarly mark the arrival of a governance change designed to ensure that India’s demography evolves into a boon, rather than a nightmare. This will involve transformative changes in the functioning and policies of ministries such as Finance, Home, Defence, Law and HRD, including the introduction of much greater accountability and horizontal recruitment. Even in 2017, it is a sign of inertia in practices and procedures that rotation every three years or less continues to be the norm in the higher administration. Senior police officers get moved out of districts just when they have understood the roots of crime there and are working out correctives. Poor results are hardly surprising from a civilian bureaucracy, where individuals shift from Animal Husbandry to Home to Fisheries to Defence at the whim of their seniors. As a consequence, they rely on drafting skills, rather than performance for success. Or that officials in their 40s—who are more likely to make a success of tough jobs than those a decade and more older—would by then have lost their “inner fire”, as the calendar, and not substantive results, decides their promotion. This criterion has become the norm even in the higher command of the armed forces. Precisely when it is the younger officers who often have a far more realistic grasp of what needs to get done to win the next war (rather than the last few), than those more senior.
As Prime Minister Modi reminds the world, India is a country of 1.26 billion souls. Which is why it is desirable for government to trawl much more widely for expertise in the core operations of government, than has been the case since Queen Victoria took charge in 1858. Take as an example national security. A single individual, the National Security Advisor, advised by a National Security Advisory Board comprising a few retired civil and military personnel, is tasked with formulating and implementing the entire national security strategy of India. The agencies working under an NSA’s supervision are, with rare exceptions, headed and manned by individuals with a police background. The police in India, as also the civil and military personnel of this country, may be the best in the world. Even so, they together form only a small segment of the skillsets available for deployment within our 1.26 billion population. For example, a Mahindra Group manager in Africa, or a Tata division head in China may have domain knowledge sufficient to be an outstanding success in particular jobs in the MEA. However, not only are they not thus seconded, there are, in practice, no structures which enable such outside talent to be involved in the making of policies involving locations in which they have worked with visible success for years. And in our university system, the UGC has reduced academic “success” to a series of numeric metrics that are entirely removed from the cultivation of the originality and 360-degree vision needed for cutting edge results.
The 8 November 2016 DeMo experience shows the risk involved in continuing with a narrow base from which is drawn the designers of policy. RBI officials, apparently, believed that Rs 500,000 crore of cash would be burnt or buried, rather than returned to the banks, while the rest of the demonetised cash would stay in the banks, improving their viability. The national security apparatus calculated that DeMO would stop counterfeiting and terror funding. The Finance Ministry pushed for DeMo as a way of exponentially increasing tax collections, while others argued publicly that this single measure would remove corruption. These objectives do not all seem to have been fulfilled, despite a high cost in terms of lost jobs, economic dislocation and loss of confidence in the monetary authorities. Had India moved by then to the Modi Model in display in Gujarat, a host of individuals, many from outside, would have been involved in deciding on such a step, rather than just a handful of bureaucrats who recommended this measure to the political leadership.
After DeMo, the next transformative policy being implemented by the Modi government is GST. Although there has been broad-based consultation, at least on the record, in practice it would appear from the scheme finally unveiled that ultimately only the opinions of a few civil servants mattered. The design of the GST is such as to make it extremely cumbersome for many, especially those too small to afford high-priced chartered accountants and advocates on tap. Millions of service providers will need to fill in many more forms than was the case in the “more complicated” past. Much more time will therefore go in matters of compliance, leaving less for carrying on business. And should there be glitches in the GSTN software, there could be substantial slowdowns in economic processes, apart from the fact that India is not South Korea, where high-speed internet penetration is universal. It is difficult to fathom why this very essential measure got delayed by three years, when it could have come into force in the glow of Modi’s 2014 victory, latest by early 2015. Or why GST has not been made “saral” through a single (and lower) rate and easier paths to compliance. His admirers expect that PM Modi will ensure through broad-spectrum administrative changes that the Central government begins to function as smoothly during 2017-19 and beyond as the Gujarat government did from the fourth year of CM Modi’s first term in the job. A Modi Model of Governance (Central) is due.