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Critical Issues in Governance from an Insider

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Review of Challenges of Governance: An Insider’s View by BK Chaturvedi (Rupa: 2019)

By BK JOSHI

The book under review distils the author’s engagement with governance issues as an administrator and policy maker at the highest levels spanning a period of over four decades. An Indian Administrative Service officer of the UP cadre, he became the Cabinet Secretary in June 2004, a position for which he was personally selected by then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. Upon his retirement in 2007, he was appointed Member of the Planning Commission and continued in that position for seven years. Thus, for a full decade he was at the very centre of policy- and decision-making in the government of India, which gives the book an aura of authenticity. The author is quite candid in expressing his views and unlike a copy book bureaucrat does not hold his punches. A few examples drawn from the book illustrate this point. One relates to the procedure for appointing the Cabinet Secretary and the role and functions of the office. The selection of the Cabinet Secretary in India is done by the Prime Minister. He argues instead for an institutionalised arrangement to ensure that the selection is not subject to political maneuvering, and suggests that the PM should take the advice of the last two incumbents before taking a decision. Regarding the role and functions of the office he says that the cabinet secretariat was created primarily for secretarial functions, including organising Cabinet meetings and maintaining records. Later, many more functions were added so that the office became a coordinator among departments in case of differences and originator of policy initiatives. He suggests an additional role for the office. Seeking a model code of conduct for civil servants and politicians, he suggests that the Cabinet Secretary should be entrusted with ensuring that the members of the council of ministers adhere to the code of conduct prescribed for them. This, according to him will improve probity in public servants, too. A second issue concerns the institution of National Security Adviser (NSA), a position created in 1998. The NSA replaced the Cabinet Secretariat as the nodal agency for coordinating intelligence from various sources. During the first NDA government, the PM’s principal secretary was also appointed the NSA. Consequently, the delicate balance in the role and functions of the PMO and the Cabinet Secretary tilted decidedly towards the PMO. While conceding that the office of the NSA is here to stay, Chaturvedi argues for a relook at the institution, especially the expectation that internal and external security issues can be handled by just one person, which he calls “a bit optimistic”. His solution to the problem is to have a deputy working under the NSA to cover areas of expertise that the NSA may not have. His views on Civil Service reforms and the proliferation of ministries and minister level positions in the government are equally candid, even though politically sensitive. Reform of the Civil Service, in his view, must be a continuing process but with strong political support. Drawing on his experience of selecting senior level officers for key positions he says: “Over the years I have seen a strong desire in political executives to select officers they think will do their bidding. This focus on personnel rather than programmes does not improve governance.” He also argues that a large number of offices of state ministers are not required as many don’t have enough work. Hence, many ministries need to be merged to improve performance and have better coordination. In a section titled “The Cabinet and the Super Cabinet” Chaturvedi provides rare insights into the functioning and process of decision-making in the Cabinet. One development during the period of UPA I was the frequent resort to Group of Ministers to settle contentious issues. Earlier a Committee of Secretaries performed this role, with a GoM being constituted only if the matter had political implications. Due to pressure from coalition partners, GoM became the preferred mechanism, with a proliferation in their number. At one stage, Pranab Mukerjee, the senior most minister, headed 50 GoMs! He is critical of the large- scale resort to the device. As he puts it: “The GoM, though an excellent institutional device, was used much too often. This delayed decision-making and reduced its effectiveness as an instrument of governance.” Chaturvedi has also commented on the issue of cobbling majorities in hung state assemblies by unethical means like monetary inducements and promises of political office. The context of his concern was the situation in Bihar after the election of 2005 when no political party or pre-election coalition was able to get a majority. The Governor in his report expressed serious concern at the attempts to cobble a majority using questionable means and recommended invoking Article 356. The Cabinet’s decision to place the state under President’s rule was challenged in the Supreme Court which severely criticised the decision on the ground that the Governor has no power to substitute his subjective assessment of how a majority was cobbled for the fact that a group of parties is able to demonstrate majority support in the legislature. Chaturvedi raises several important questions relevant to the importance of ethical values in governance: How can it be ensured that post- election realignment in any Assembly is not because of money or other inducements given to legislators? Should the governor be blind to the manner of cobbling a majority in the legislature? How can it be ensured that post-election realignment does not take place due to monetary or other inducement? Similarly, on the scourge of defections he argues for strengthening the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution and a complete ban on defection. In case an entire party changes its coalition partner and becomes part of the government, he suggests that its members should be barred from being part of the ministry for two years. These are all very important, though complex questions and continue to be relevant today. Sadly, they have no easy answers as the author concedes. As Cabinet Secretary, Chaturvedi was involved in resolving a number of complex issues. One such matter related to sorting out the Dabhol power project tangle. The book provides a detailed exposition of the nature of the problem and how it was sorted out silently and efficiently under his leadership by a dedicated team of officials without inviting the glare of undue publicity or political interference. In the Planning Commission, the author chaired a number of committees and groups on diverse subjects. I have chosen two for special mention. These were the Study Group for Preparation of a Roadmap for Rapid Economic Development of Uttar Pradesh (October 2008), and Committee on Restructuring of Centrally Sponsored Schemes (September 2011). On the former, he comments on the total disinterest of the state government in the report because the Lok Sabha elections were due a few months later in April-May 2009 and the ruling political party didn’t want the Centre to take credit for any initiative on development in UP. Rather, it hoped to use it later for political gains. On the issue of Centrally Sponsored Schemes, the Committee recommended reduction in their number from over 170 to about 60. The recommendation, though welcomed by the states, could not be implemented as the UPA lost the election that followed soon after, and made way for the NDA government which abolished the Planning Commission. With the creation of the NITI Aayog and in view of the recommendation of the Fourteenth Finance Commission increasing substantially the share of central taxes devolved to states, another exercise was undertaken which broadly accepted the approach of the Committee chaired by him. Chaturvedi has commented in rather strong terms on the NITI Aayog and the role of the CAG in the 2G and coalmine allotment cases. He believes that the decision to abolish the Planning Commission was not well thought out. While conceding that the Planning Commission needed to be reformed with induction of more professional expertise, he is of the firm view that the country did need a body to develop a national vision and indicate broad direction and policies needed for economic growth, to evaluate performance of schemes in states and suggest corrective measures, and to reduce disparities among states. The NITI Aayog being primarily a think tank, which he says is a very unwise idea, is unable to fill the gap as it has limited financial resources. On the ‘CAG’s Overreach’ the author expresses serious reservation on the approach adopted by the CAG on 2G spectrum and coal block allocation cases as it practically appropriated the right to frame government policies. This in his view “led to the start of a judicial process where ordinary administrative decisions, if falling foul of prescribed guidelines, have been treated as criminal acts” thereby promoting inaction on the part of civil servants. He argues that in these cases “the CAG assumed the role of the government’s economic policy maker and computed losses. This was a dangerous approach and against all norms of governance.” He cautions: “Unless institutions work within their boundaries, we will see friction, a weakening of democracy and eventual chaos in the system.” To sum up, the book is a timely and important contribution to the discourse on public policy, decision-making and governance in India. It deserves to be widely read by policy makers, academics and students of public policy and political economy.