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BE DIFFERENT TO GOVERN

Narendra Modiís coming to the top job in India is imbued with expectations. These expectations are all to do with change. Large sections of Indians, especially businessmen and opinion-makers, were weary of the utter lack of decisiveness and initiative that became the hallmark of governance under the second United Progressive Alliance government. Indians wanted to end the curse of somnolence and the abdication of responsibility. Mr Modiís promise is that he will change all this and bring to India a new energy and vibrancy. The response to this promise was overwhelming and the recipient of such support and enthusiasm cannot be blamed if he finds this heady. Mr Modi cannot be oblivious to the dangers inherent in riding such a popular wave. It is akin to riding a tiger. He cannot afford to disappoint since the same tide that brought him in can also take him out.

Mr Modi has already initiated the process of change in the administration. First, he has ensured that there will be no vendetta against those who served the previous regime. Most, if not all, the important officials and bureaucrats have been retained. This is also a measure of Mr Modiís confidence. Second, he has abolished the groups of ministers and the empowered groups of ministers. These were instruments to delay decision-making and Mr Modi has done the right thing by doing away with these bodies, which are a unique Indian creation in the realm of governance. Mr Modi should follow this up by clearly demarcating the role of ministers and the functions of bureaucrats. Ministers should be responsible for formulating policies within the broad guidelines laid down by the cabinet for their respective ministries. The function of the bureaucracy is to implement these policies. Ministers should not immerse themselves in the day-to-day running of ministries; neither should senior bureaucrats involve themselves in every small decision. The bulk of the files should be handled and dealt with at the lower rungs of the bureaucracy. The implication of this is that the bureaucrats are responsible for the administration of the country. The other implication, following from the previous one, is that with the bureaucrats running things, the administration becomes genuinely de-politicized.

The task is not easy since it actually involves disempowering ministers from meddling in the functioning of their ministries. Such a move, if successful, will not only boost the confidence of the bureaucrats, but it will also be a milestone in administrative reform in India. The bureaucracy needs a shot in the arm after its prolonged and imposed inactivity. It needs to be freed from the shackles that the fear of the Right to Information Act has put on its style of functioning. Mr Modi, since he is a complete outsider, stands a better chance of challenging the system and reforming it. Mr Modiís journey and his trial have begun. He wears a crown of thorns.