In 18 years of writing National Interest I have often been advised by many who get riled with it to go, get my head examined. But even I am not unhinged enough, at least not yet, to start my first National Interest in a publication I will be editing very shortly by upending the central premise of its cover story of the week. But in this era of information overload, when everybody knows everything better than you, and certainly has an opinion on it, when there are no surprises left in self-proclaimed "newsbreaks", the one thing you would expect a great weekly cover story to be is provocative. So here are some questions this week's cover provokes me to ask.
If Narendra Modi is empowering his civil servants in a manner nearly unprecedented, is it making the bureaucracy stronger, or weaker? Is he ushering in a Babu Raj, or ending it? Is he subverting the power and authority of the political executive, or is he restoring it? Is he breaking away from "tradition", or what was intended to be the "system", or is he going back to it? What if I said, instead, that what Narendra Modi is doing is putting a decisive end to a 10-year Babu Raj? Before you give the familiar advice, Shekhar Gupta, go, get your head examined, examine some facts first.
Though, admittedly, this isn't the most obvious thing to do these days. Contrary to what you think, the UPA's decade was, in fact, the heyday of Indian babudom. And no, it did not simply make civil servants all-powerful and ministers weak. In a way, it made both weak, underconfident, ineffectual and self-pitying.
Except, it made the bureaucrat's life more comfortable, and his working tenure longer by at least five years, if not more. Never in India's history have we seen a decade where so few lateral entrants, technocrats, experts, specialists were brought into the bureaucratic system. Dr Manmohan Singh was appointed finance secretary and RBI governor laterally as a technocrat. His closest advisor and reformist alter ego, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, had also served as a laterally inducted finance secretary under him. It was remarkable, therefore, that not one non-IAS person was brought into the economic bureaucracy by them between 2004 and 2014 to disrupt its cosy arrangements, provide intellectual variety or challenge. Dr Singh appointed his first "outsider" in a key economic job in his last year in power: Raghuram Rajan as RBI governor. That too when it became evident that, intellectually, a lesser appointee would not be able to calm global concerns and save India from a catastrophic ratings downgrade.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee had brought in at least R.V. Shahi as power secretary from the industry and his radically new thinking sparked wide-ranging, power-sector reforms. Under the UPA, the bureaucracy was presented no such challenge. Instead, it expanded the bureaucracy phenomenally by setting up a maze of new regulators, some with multiple members. Soon enough, nobody knew who was regulating whom, what and where, as all governance was strangled by these crisscrossing wires.
It was as if a regulator had to have at least two qualifications: be a career civil servant, and to have retired from service. A much younger, workaholic and brighter officer we will hear a great deal of in the Modi years (let's give him the old-fashioned, civil servant's gift of anonymity for now) recently asked me: do you notice how the government seems to have set the minimum age for appointment of a regulator at 60? Why can't a 40-year-old expert in her field be a regulator? But why am I going on and on about regulators? The reason is, it is a telling metaphor for a decade when bureaucrats got more pampered than ever before. With extended, post-60 tenures, a proliferation of new Bhavans across New Delhi, including some of the oldest commercial avenues of South Delhi, the seniority principle was followed as if for a decade we had a caretaker government under the EC's code of conduct so it could use no meritocratic discretion. They even gave themselves that most stunning gift of all, New Delhi's toniest new enclave, discreetly named New Moti Bagh (in my more recklessly honest moments I call it the New Kremlin), where more than 100 Lutyens-sized bungalows were built in the 21st century on a purely "self-financing" basis, which is a story for another day. Check how many of these are occupied by retired officers on these wildly proliferating sinecures.
Sure enough, the states took this cue as well, creating similar mini retirement havens in their information commissions, power tariff regulators, tax tribunals and so on.
The UPA appointed more former bureaucrats than politicians as governors. In fact, curiously, even more policemen than IAS officers. It never sent a political appointee to a significant embassy. Dr Singh also empowered his most trusted bureaucrats and fast-forwarded his chosen agenda. Examples: Rahul Khullar (his PS in finance ministry once) as commerce secretary and then TRAI chief, and Shyam Saran and Satinder Lambah to push the nuclear deal and a likely Kashmir settlement. Both outflanked their ministers.
In the UPA decade, when the bureaucracy was so pampered, was it particularly powerful? If you think so, name five civil servants who made a mark. I will stop at three: Shyam Saran and Shiv Shankar Menon from the foreign service and M.K. Narayanan from the IPS. I will further qualify each one. Saran, one of our sharpest foreign secretaries, had his moment in that brief 2007-8 period when Dr Singh hit a foreign policy purple patch, particularly after K. Natwar Singh exited. He declined rapidly later in his role as a climate change negotiator as Manmohan Singh lost political capital. Menon, with his talent, could have achieved a lot more under a more effective prime minister. Narayanan drew his power from a more distant past. T.K.A. Nair and Pulok Chatterji, principal secretaries to the prime minister, were the weakest in that position in our memory.
In fact, the UPA's tenure will be remembered for how weak the civil service felt under its watch, how many senior officers went to jail or were harassed by the CBI, and how many turned against it. These include its most trusted appointees: home secretary R.K. Singh, Intelligence Bureau chief Ajit Doval, RAW chief Sanjeev Tripathi, Army chief V.K. Singh, petroleum secretary R.S. Pandey, and you can keep counting until you reach CBI chief Ranjit Sinha and CAG Vinod Rai.
So here is the contradiction, and my proposition: weak political leaderships pamper bureaucracies but weaken them too, and the reverse is true as well. The most powerful civil servants in our history, intelligence czars B.N. Mullick, R.N. Kao, T.V. Rajeswar, evergreen secretaries from S.S. Khera, P.N. Haksar, L.P. Singh, T.N. Kaul and B.K. Nehru in the 1950s, '60s and '70s on to N.N. Vohra, A.N. Verma, Brajesh Mishra, N.K. Singh, and that most versatile of all (and in my book the quiet custodian of India's nukes for a decade), Naresh Chandra, had one thing in common: they served under strong prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee. This is sufficient evidence that strong leaders empower bureaucracies and then use them as instruments of their authority.
That is precisely what Modi is setting out to do. Restoring the authority, or to use that quaint Urdu expression, iqbal, which lends to no translation, of both the political class and its loyal civil servants, is a timely idea. What you do with it for five years will be an entirely different challenge.
MEANWHILE: M.K. Narayanan just resigned as governor of West Bengal. Normally, I would not have mentioned the story, but Sanjaya Baru, who was an eyewitness, has outed it partly in his The Accidental Prime Minister, so here it is in some detail. At a banquet at New Delhi's Hyderabad House, Narayanan walked up to me and shoved his finger straight into my eye, asking why my then paper (The Indian Express) was going after Pratibha Patil, then the UPA candidate for president. Even if our stories were correct, he asked, were they necessary and how did we decide what to publish? All the news that is fit to print and so on, I said. You think you are The New York Times and this is America, he said, and how, if dirt on important people was all I wanted to publish, he could give me dirt on anybody. If it was in public interest I would, I said.
Neither of us would normally lose an argument. It was a genuine brawl. But in the course of time we made up and I understood him better, for his brilliance, energy, patriotism and even his sense of humour. In 2008, as trouble erupted in the Kashmir Valley and many in the establishment and the commentariat were losing their nerve, it was Narayanan who stood firm. I would go so far as to say that he saved Kashmir for India. And sense of humour: we met recently at a wedding in Hyderabad. As we were being ushered in for dinner, we were asked to enter the banquet hall from the rear to a corner reserved for VIPs. "In my life, I have forgotten the last time I entered any place from the front entrance," said the spymaster. If he ever wrote a memoir, it would tell us what a bestseller really is. But if I know him, he won't. His secrets will stay with him.