Making bureaucracy work

Though India is one of the worst governed countries in the world, cracking at its seams in just about every area, from social welfare, food distribution, to environment and riddled with rampant shameless corruption, it is clear that the Indian media does not take the issue of governance seriously. We agree that news about Kashmir and meeting the Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf is important. But why is it that the remarks made by the prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to a group of non-resident Indians on his recent trip to New York regarding a key issue of managing the country has not received a single comment. Vajpayee cracked what he considered a joke, saying that he has realised after many years that the bureaucracy will not change. Instead he will have to change himself.

The prime minister should not be surprised at this self-realisation. Indian ministers have been doing this repeatedly, which is why protecting the status quo has become the param dharma (supreme duty) in a country, which desperately needs change.

Then a few days ago, the press reported this time in its tidbits column that urban development minister, Anantha Kumar remarked after a verbose intervention by his ministry official that the country has two problems; one, bureaucrats and their complicated procedures and two, politicians who do not understand bureaucrats and their complicated procedures.

How painfully true. Take any minister who gets appointed to head a ministry. Since most of our ministers are clueless about what needs to be done with the department under their charge, they listen carefully to their guardian officials and within a few months, you can see a dramatic change in them. Even the most open-minded critic becomes a fervent defender of past and present government policies. There is no question of change, no question even of keeping the promises, however banal, they made before taking over the chair. Change is now mired in complex procedures and there is always a problem for every solution. The result is almost always the same - confronted with the articulate and intelligent class of our generalist super managers our clueless politicians soon become the biggest agents of status quo . There is, therefore, no scope for imagination and innovation left in the governance of the country.

But it is also equally clear that the few politicians who can deliver on the development front, are those who can work their bureaucracy. And the key to "work" is knowing, not just what is wanted, but also how to get do what is needed to be done. Many bright ideas go down the drain when the politician simply says I want this done, but cannot instruct their officials precisely on how they want it done. God, in India is definitely in the details, and very few politicians know how to reach him. We have seen this parody played out countless number of times. An interesting idea is relegated to the dustbin of history simply because implementation needs constant and clear-headed direction from the top.

In fact, a big issue for Indian politicians is to figure out how they can receive independent information from non governmental sources and continue to function within the government. The officialdom has a tidy way of managing their ministers' minds by belittling outside advisers or dismissing their ideas as "unfeasible". We know of one chief minister who makes sure that he travels to find out for himself how programmes can be implemented. It is this knowledge-based governance, which will help us to see some change. Today it is hard to find a politician who has any understanding of the developmental challenges facing India.

If the media wants to report on the state of governance, a key indicator to track would be to report how much the minister knows about how to implement the government's lofty programmes. And how much the minister differs from his or her officials. In other words, does the minister have a mind and is the mind his or her own.

But why blame the bureaucracy only. We have inherited and then perfected a poisonous system. At a recent dinner, eu commissioner, Chris Patten, former British minister and governor of Hong Kong, was very surprised when he found every Indian around the table grumbling about the Indian babu . "But I have never seen smarter bureaucrats than yours," said a perplexed Patten. "How can they be so bad?" Then one of us pointed out that the real reason was that when you mix the extremely rigid bureaucratic system of Britain with the atrociously hierarchical culture of India, you get a deadly cocktail. The Indian bureaucratic system.

The fact of the matter is that unless we have smarter and more committed breed of politicians, the bureaucracy will continue to rule the roost, as the prime minister himself has admitted. Now that Vajpayee has realised a major problem in India's governance, we hope that he will soon write a guide book on how prime ministers and ministers can get the bureaucracy to work. But that is assuming he knows how.

- Anil Agarwal