Indian PM gives former officials ministerial jobs as focus on delivery grows

By on 24/10/2019
Indian PM Narendra Modi with S Jaishankar (with hand to face): previously the civil service chief of the foreign office, he’s now its lead minister. (Image courtesy: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/flickr).

Former civil servants and diplomats are increasingly being given Cabinet ranking or ministerial jobs in Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s second term – bringing more delivery experience into the top of government and empowering top officials, but raising concerns over a blurring of the dividing line between civil servants and politicians.

Three serving officials have been given Cabinet rank, putting them on the same level as ministers. The national security adviser’s role – currently held by Ajit Doval – has been given Cabinet rank in the past, but Modi has extended the rank to the roles of principal secretary and additional principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. The move gives the roles – held by Nripendra Misra and Pramod Kumar Mishra respectively – greater weight across government, helping to strengthen Modi’s office. 

Meanwhile, former senior civil servants are winning ministerial jobs – often via appointment to the Rajya Sabha, the Indian Parliament’s upper house. RK Singh, the former civil service chief – or secretary – of the Ministry of Home Affairs, was elected to the Lok Sabha, the lower house, and now holds ministerial jobs overseeing power and skills. Meanwhile former diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri, a member of the ruling BJP since 2014, was appointed to the Rajya Sabha in 2018 and is now a minister in charge of civil aviation and housing.

India’s minister of foreign affairs, S Jaishankar, is another former diplomat – given his ministerial job after serving as foreign secretary during Modi’s first term. Initially appointed without a parliamentary role, he has since joined the Rajya Sabha.

Jayadeva Ranade, a former senior official in India’s federal spy agency the Research and Analysis Wing, points out that Jaishankar’s experience as ambassador to both China and the USA equip him well for the job. But Tuktuk Ghosh, a former civil servant and political commentator, told Global Government Form that his appointment will have an impact on the incentives facing senior diplomats and officials. “The message is: if they show ideological commitment, and work according to their masters, they can be picked up from nowhere like Jaishankar for prestigious appointments,” she said.

 “The fantastic deal offered to Jaishankar will spark ambition among other officers,” she added.

Modi has long had a reputation for leaning heavily on supportive officials. Dilip Cherian, a columnist writing on bureaucracy for a national Indian daily, told GGF that Modi has imported his style of governance from his days as the chief minister of Gujarat, a state in western India. “It was a new style of governance and, some say, a more corporatized way of functioning,” he said.

Using the colloquial term ‘babu’ to refer to officials, Cherian added that Modi “made it amply clear to babus that he was interested in the quality and efficiency of governance rather than in the number of files or in the hoary passing-the-buck syndrome. Reliance on babus has become the hallmark of his administrative style.”

As Modi increases his focus on economic growth, Cherian said, the delivery experience of former officials becomes more important relative to the rhetorical and positioning skills of politicians – whose style is most crucial at election time. “The 2019 election was about nationalism, but by 2022 it will be the state of the economy on which Modi… will be judged,” he said. “And babus will be critical to ensuring that the government’s policies are implemented effectively.”

According to Cherian, bureaucrats are becoming even more powerful than ministers in Modi’s second term. This raises the prospect of tensions between the two groups, commented Ghosh – though Modi has enough heft to mediate any clashes. “Conflicts may happen. But the all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office should be able to ride over differences,” she told Global Government Forum

About Abhimanyu Kumar

Abhimanyu Kumar is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. He writes on issues related to politics and governance for Indian and foreign media. He was previously with The Hindu and The Sunday Guardian.

One Comment

  1. Seeker

    25/10/2019 at

    And you’d think these bureaucracts are excellent? Most Indian diplomats are useless and Amb just waste time cutting ribbons or attending parties.

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