Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Prime Minister needs one more reshuffle

The reshuffle of the Union Council of Ministers is unlikely to alter the perception that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second government is simply not working. The key dysfunctionalities in the Cabinet remain unaddressed, as do the larger issues between 10 Janpath and 7 Race Course. There have been some important ministerial changes, but accountability, that key to performance, has been minimally enforced in Wednesday’s anodyne exercise.
Dr Singh will have to do more, much more to get his government back on track.  Perhaps there is need for a bureaucratic reshuffle as well. That many of his ministers let him down is no secret, but surely what should be more galling to him is the failure of his chosen top bureaucratic team comprising Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrashekhar and his Principal Secretary T.K.A. Nair. These are the people he chose and nurtured with the expectation that they would ensure that his government works smoothly, his agenda moves forward and his flanks are protected from the activities of wayward ministers. They have managed to do none of these things.
 Mr Nair as a retired civil servant serves at the will of the PM, but Chandrashekhar has received two unprecedented extensions in service after he retired. Within the system he is known as a decent, even cerebral man. But in hindsight, perhaps, it can be said that he has lacked the “can do” personality that a CabSec must have.
The CabSec is no ordinary bureaucrat. As the head of the civil service and the chair of the informal Committee of Secretaries, he effectively runs the day-to-day affairs of the government, supervises the country’s nuclear weapons programme and clears logjams across the governmental system. He is also the “coordinating secretary” in a number of areas— the civil servant charged with looking after a particular subject. The two important areas he looked after in the last couple of years are the Commonwealth Games and prices, both of which have formed the vortex that threatens to pull the government down.

 The failure with prices has been more serious and was brought out most illustratively by an extraordinary document issued from the prime minister’s office. Though issued by his media adviser, it seemed to be a haphazardly thrown together list of things the entire government planned to counter the price rise.  The document, simultaneously a mea culpa and a cri de coeur is also an effort to pass the buck. In a peculiar way, it sums up all that has gone wrong with Dr Singh’s second government.
That it was a bureaucratic grab bag is apparent from the collection of proposals that went into the 3-page document. First, the blame — on late rains for the onions and, on the rising incomes and, curiously, “inclusiveness” programmes, for the increased prices of milk, fish, meat and eggs. Then were the usual empty threats against hoarders and the pathetic calls for awareness campaigns involving Resident Welfare Associations, as though all of India is some kind of a South Delhi suburb.
Along with the homilies on the need to enhance productivity and diversification of agriculture are two sound proposals on the need to review the Agricultural Produce Market Committee Acts, and the somewhat shaded hint of the need for FDI in organised retail chains. 
There was a touch of the farcical, too, in the declaration that NAFED and National Cooperative Consumers Federation (NCCF) would sell onions at Rs 35 a kilo at their retail outlets. To see what had been done I trawled the net and checked the websites of both organisations. And here’s the gem: A PTI report of Saturday 15th, two days after the PMO press note declared that “20 tempos loaded with a cumulative quantity of about 8000 kg of onions [had been sent out to] different localities in the national capital to sell the vegetable at Rs 35 a kg to the common people.” Since 2 kilos per family was the norm, a grand total of 4,000 Delhi households had presumably benefited. There is nothing in the website to suggest that such sales took place outside Delhi. It is not known how many kilos the NCCF sold, but its website lists a grand total of 14 retail outlets, all in New Delhi.
Just as “security” really means the safety of Lutyens Delhi, where the babus and netas reside, price control, too, seems to have meant taking measures in Delhi. Maybe the foxy babus had another goal in mind—to ensure that the masses in Delhi remain quiescent and do not do a Tunisia here. Uprisings elsewhere can easily be suppressed, but food riots in Delhi are quite another thing. 
But this is to digress.
Tucked away at the end of the document were the two issues that are germane to our critique. The government, it said, had decided to set up an inter-ministerial group under the Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu to review and monitor the situation.
For the past forty years or so, it is the Cabinet Secretary who has chaired a committee of concerned secretaries who monitor the food prices. The committee met monthly, but when the price pressure was high, it would meet more frequently. Its job was to take quick decisions—ban export, increase import, order raids, get the railways to move commodities fast and tweak  rules in ways that only the babus can to ease the pressure. Clearly, the committee had not done its work in recent times. Having failed on the job, the Cabinet Secretary and his colleagues, have retreated to the margins and pushed the Chief Economic Adviser to the centre stage knowing that he has great prestige, but little executive authority. This new inter-ministerial body is a needless layer in the mechanisms to fight rising prices. All it does is to lengthen the time taken for an effective executive response to a crisis and, perhaps more important, help spread the blame for
any failure wider. 
The shoddy document only serves to illustrate how ill served the PM has been by his bureaucratic team. Lacking dependable ministers, he invested a great deal of power and authority on them. But, as any fair accounting will reveal, he has got little in return.
Mail Today January 20,2011

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