The fault may not lie with the bureaucracy
JK and Daniel Drezner point to Gurcharan Das’ article in the Financial Times about India’s crisis of governance. Das contends that India’s poor infrastructure and ineffective public services are due to a failure of governance, and attributes this to the throttling influence of a pervasive bureaucracy.
But that analysis is incomplete. The failure of governance is more due to a systemic failure of leadership at the political level. Bureaucrats are merely members of the executive whose behaviour is driven by the wishes of their political masters. Over the years, the political masters have done nothing to change the goals and rewards of the bureaucracy or even modernise it. The institution of a permanent bureaucracy itself is neutral – whether it is an effective vehicle to deliver government services or becomes an albatross around the country’s neck is a function of how elected governments use it.
The Indian system allows a healthy tension to exists between a permanent bureaucracy and its changing political bosses. The crisis of governance occured when the changing political bosses had unchanging personal agenda – personal enrichment and self-perpetuation – for which end the bureaucracy was but one of the means. In the 1990s, Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram showed how well the bureaucracy can be put to use when they launched the now famous economic reforms. That endeavour would have floundered if they had either lacked the will or able executors like N K Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia.