Simplifying bureaucracy should be PM’s new mantra

Indian Express

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The needle of change must be shifted more sharply, democracy is not an acceptable cover for non-performance.

There is a telling vignette in Arun Maira’s interesting new book, An Upstart in Government. Maira was a member of the Planning Commission in the rank of minister of state between 2009 and 2014. A consultancy group made a presentation to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the nine steps that his government should take to ratchet up growth to 9 per cent per annum.

Vajpayee heard them out and then observed: “We know all this. The question is how will it be done.” Vajpayee put his finger on our leadership’s deepest dilemma. They know what is wrong. They know what must be done. But they do not know quite how to do it. The problem is that they are running out of time. People are losing patience with the explanation that it is the vagaries of democracy and the labyrinthine procedures of bureaucracy that stall the needle of change.

Worldwide, public support is drifting towards the left and right extremes of the political spectrum. This is because of a growing sense that the mainstream centrist politicians are doing nothing to correct the tilt towards the “one percenters” — those with incumbent resources, skills and power — and against the interests of the rest and to bridge the deepening income divide. This drift is leading to the emergence of a new breed of politicians who are contemptuous of political convention and who are championing social and economic nationalism. This breed is receiving unexpected public acclaim. Donald Trump is a standout example.

Last year, when he announced his candidacy for US president, he was the jokey butt of almost every talk show. His anti-immigration, protectionist, racist and sexist pronouncements were not expected to strike a chord. Today, he is leading the pack of hopefuls for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Jeremy Corbyn is another case. A few months back, he was an irrelevant, aged Labour Party backbencher. There were few who thought he could muster the support of 35 MPs — a requirement for contesting the Labour Party leadership.

His extreme leftwing, eurosceptic, anti-Nato and anti-nuclear positions were deemed extreme and a recipe for unelectability. As it happened, he not only secured the 35 signatures (just) but also won the election. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras offers another example. He, too, is anti-establishment and leftwing. His re-election cocks a snook at the advocates of “responsible economics”. All of these examples are reflective of a subterranean current of fear at the tension between the opportunities offered by an open internet shared economy and the uncertainties of an international order riven by civil war, terrorist threat, refugee influx and cyber espionage. It reflects doubt at the ability of the conventional mainstream political leadership to manage this tension.

There is a message in these trends for our leadership. Last week, our TV and print media carried commentaries of global CEOs, economists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, think-tankers and others on what should be done to restore India’s standing as a favoured haven for private investment. This was in the run-up to and during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US. They said nothing that had not been heard before. Or that was not known to him and his able advisors.

Or, indeed, that is not already on the agenda of the government. Infrastructure must be improved, bureaucracy must back off, procedures should be simplified, factor markets (labour, capital and land) should be structured to operate more efficiently, the fiscal regime must be transparent, predictable and stable, contract terms must be respected. So on and so forth. Still, it was important that they said what they did. For it contained a subtle message. The needle of change must be shifted more sharply, democracy is not an acceptable cover for non-performance, and if worldwide trends are anything to go by, there will be social and political consequences if the current gap between promise and delivery is not bridged quickly.

So the perennial question. What is to be done? Clearly, we must not dispense with democracy. That is our bulwark and it needs to be nurtured. We should, of course, debate whether the Westminster first-past-the-post system needs to be reviewed. But this debate, if ever triggered, would be contentious and long. And in the meantime, frustrations will mount. The government cannot afford an idle parlour game. So the focus should be on our other systemic blocker: the bureaucracy.

Maira offers another telling vignette. He wanted to hire two people from outside the Planning Commission to infuse new ideas. There was no budgetary allocation and the inter-ministerial approval process was too time-consuming. So he persuaded the Tata and Mahindra groups to “second” two of their executives at no cost to the commission. He then discovered that there was no mechanism for hiring individuals to do specific jobs.

Only consultant organisations could be hired and that too following a competitive bid. So the two secondees were asked to form a consultancy organisation. This organisation submitted a “no cost” bid. They were told this would attract undue attention and that they should put in a number. They eventually won the contract with a Rs 1 lakh charge. Maira commented: “Things are never simple in a procedure-bound bureaucracy.”

Maira got what he wanted because of persistence and jugaad. But, as I am sure he will admit, this allows for only a temporary fix. It cannot compel a systemic change. For that to happen, the bureaucracy has to undergo a root and branch overhaul of its procedures and conduct rules. The Administrative Reforms Commission report offers a blueprint. Maira himself has left behind an implementation model for the Niti Aayog. There are other experts who have written on the subject. The point is that this must now be the focus of the prime minister. He does not need legislative support. He has the administrative background. He is technologically savvy. The simplification of the nature and system of bureaucratic governance should be his new mantra.

This article first appeared in Indian Express on October 5, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.