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Battling the Babus - India Today

Prabhu Chawla ()
July 13, 1998

Title: Battling the Babus
Author: Prabhu Chawla
Publication: India Today
Date: July 13, 1998

Atal Bihari Vajpayee has a problem. The well-knit, well-
entrenched bureaucracy seems to be waging an undeclared war
against his already wobbly government. The prime minister, as
everyone knows, hates confrontation. But now he has to decide:
to don a pair of boxing gloves or wave the white flag. In the
past three months, he has consciously avoided tinkering with the
top echelons of the bureaucracy and has made only six secretary-
level changes. None of the key secretaries in departments like
finance, home, revenue, defence and petroleum have been moved.
Unlike his predecessors, Vajpayee feels that a committed
bureaucracy is alien to a parliamentary form of democracy. The
Indian civil service, he avers, serves the Constitution and not
the party in power.

After over a 100 days in office, Vajpayee is gradually realising
that nothing drives the current crop of civil servants more than
politics. Like politicians, most senior officials have mastered
the art of survival. But what has amazed the inexperienced BJP
ministers is the total lack of transparency in various
departments. None of them get to know about pending
administrative and legislative matters till the last minute. For
example, the file regarding the appointment of the new chief for
Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited was not moved three months before
the retirement of the current incumbent, which is the normal
practice. As a result, the Government had to make only an ad hoc
arrangement. There are over 50 director-level vacancies in
various public sector undertakings for which none of the
ministries concerned have taken even initial steps.

But Vajpayee is most upset over the bureaucracy's attempts to
either hide or play down the decisions taken by the new
Government. For instance, during the Congress regime, the
decisions of the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) were
widely publicised by the ministries concerned through specially
convened press briefings. But during the past three months, no
such attempt has been made to share the decisions of the FIPB
with the press. In the past, a letter of appreciation written by
the prime minister to a schoolteacher in a remote village or a
grant from the Prime Minister's Relief Fund would rind its way
into both electronic and print media. But now, even Vajpayee's
communication to heads of government abroad or chief ministers in
the states are either kept a secret or are dismissed as of no
consequence. During earlier regimes, senior bureaucrats went out
of their way to project the achievements of the government as if
they were a part of it. Now, most of them not only disown the BJP
Government, but they also seem to despise it.

Vajpayee is partially responsible for this growing chasm between
the political leadership and the civil service. He is not quite
on the same wavelength' with the bureaucracy. Unlike his
predecessors, Vajpayee has not taken any initiative to open a
dialogue with the mandarins in South and North blocks. Both P.V
Narasimha Rao and H.D. Deve Gowda were in direct touch with most
of the secretaries. In the beginning, he did meet a few of them
in groups. The practice, however, was soon stopped. Vajpayee is
not willing to play the conventional prime ministerial role of a
guide, leader and friend: he would prefer to be the master of the
bureaucracy. But with a daily-wage government, can he afford to
open yet another front without trying to change them?

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