India’s first Union cabinet under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru embraced the idea of lateral talent. Among the 15 members of the cabinet in 1947 was John Mathai, an economist who served as Railways Minister and then Finance Minister before leaving the government in 1950.
Over the years, inducting such lateral professional talent into the Union cabinet from outside party politics has grown rarer.
In welcome contrast, none of the nine professionals recently selected under the aegis of the UPSC to serve the government as joint secretaries, belong to a political party. All have specialised domain knowledge.
Amber Dubey, for example, was head of aerospace and defence at KPMG. He has been selected to join the civil aviation ministry where his experience of over 26 years in the aviation and defence domain will be useful as India reforms its aviation, space and defence technology sectors.
The selection of Dubey, an IIT Bombay and IIM Ahmedabad alumni, who has spent his entire career in the private sector, reflects the winds of change blowing over a critical area of Indian governance: technocratic talent.
The country is run at four levels. One, the Prime Minister-led Union cabinet and the Chief Minister-led state cabinets where specialised domain talent is slender. Two, the central and state bureaucracies which are largely filled with generalists, not specialists.
Three, local civic municipalities where again political affiliations often carry more weight than competence. Four, village panchayats and local bodies where caste and religion cast a long shadow.
In the United States, the cabinet is small (16 members) and mostly technocratic, drawn from the private sector, the professions and academia. The Narendra Modi cabinet is large (over 70 ministers and ministers of state) and apart from some honourable exceptions, does not exactly overflow with talent.
That is why the lateral selection of nine professionals as joint secretaries is a welcome development.
Consider the core competencies of some of the new lateral recruits: Dinesh Jagdale, CEO of Panama Renewable Energy Group, will join the renewable energy ministry. Kakoli Ghosh, who has deep knowledge of the multilateral farm sector, will join the agriculture ministry. Most of the others have been placed in ministries where their professional experience and knowledge will be put to good use.
These infusions are just the beginning. Indian bureaucracies, central and state, must absorb UPSC-selected lateral appointments of technocrats with ever-greater urgency.
In a technology-enabled world, specialisation is mandatory. IAS officers, however competent and dedicated, have two handicaps, First, they are generalists with little specialised domain expertise. Second, they are transferred so often across the country – for example, from animal husbandry to defence acquisitions – that focus is lost.
The certainty of tenure among civil servants also engenders a sense of complacency. Over the years, the ministries of finance and defence, in particular, have developed a reputation for cronyism and corruption.
Leaks to the media in the Rafale fighter jet case and examples of department officers surreptitiously encouraging arms dealers (though they were explicitly banned in 2014) have damaged the national interest.
The introduction of fresh professional blood should act as a deterrent when the minister in charge of a particular portfolio has not been able to impose his or her will with sufficient authority on department officers.
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi does win a second term, it’s possible the BJP’s majority in Parliament will be significantly reduced. That is not a bad thing. Modi was used to running a compact state like Gujarat with a group of loyal and competent bureaucrats who dared not defy his authority or miss deadlines on projects.
The same modus operandi has not worked in the Byzantine culture of Delhi. Days after he took office as prime minister, Modi called more than 70 senior bureaucrats to meet him. As they stood in a line before him, he told them to work without fear or favour. They could come to him with any problems they had, he said.
The senior IAS officers, still standing in a parabolic line, nodded silently. But every one of them must have thought cynically to himself or herself that fear and favour were the time-honoured way bureaucracy worked. How would Modi break that habit? He hasn’t.
The series of legal setbacks in the 2G, Rafale and other cases has exposed the government’s poor selection of its law officers.
Equally lacklustre has been its communications strategy. Instead of being proactive over a range of contentious issues – from Rafale to electoral bonds – the government has been slow and reactive when perception damage has already been done.
In a 24x7 news cycle, every major government holds briefings in near real-time. The Chinese and American administrations respond to any issue concerning their government promptly and clearly.
Even Pakistan’s information ministry reacts rapidly to events though in its case it is to add a positive spin to negative stories about, for example, Islamabad’s likely blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for terror financing and money laundering.
The under-utilisation by the Indian government of an articulate and credible Information & Broadcasting (I&B) minister Rajyavardhan Rathore, an Olympian and a former soldier, in delivering daily media briefings underscores how unprofessionally the government has communicated its agenda to voters. They will now deliver their verdict.