It was a power dinner where the high and the mighty, the moneyed and the rich, the power brokers and the deal makers, the favoured and the coddled got to shake hands with the President of the most powerful country in the world. It is anybody’s guess whether Barack Obama would remember any of their names or faces (my guess is that neither their names nor their faces would have registered on his mind even fleetingly) but that’s besides the point.
The chosen few who were invited to grace the occasion were not there to appreciate the culinary skills of Rashtrapati Bhavan bawarchis. They were there to be seen as the new power set of Lutyens’ Delhi, men and women with the right connections in the new establishment. Furthering India-America relations or celebrating what is frequently described as “shared values” was farthest from their minds.
It is not often that such a glittering banquet is hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee. Nor is it often that those who were on the guest list get an opportunity to declare, through proxy, their proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis may have to wait long before a similar opportunity arises.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Fadnavis should be hugely angry that despite his name being on the invitation list he could not make it to the banquet. It was not a crisis at Mantralaya that kept him away or the fog at Delhi that can disrupt landings and takeoffs this time of the year. It was some silly babu who did what babus do best that kept him from Camelot on Republic Day eve.
The babu in charge of despatching the gilt-edged invitation cards sent it to Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi, more than a week before the event. And considered his or her job done. The babu in charge of sorting and forwarding dak at Maharashtra Sadan sent it to Mantralaya in Mumbai by Speed Post (anything else would have fetched the auditor’s ire and possibly resulted in a CBI inquiry).
I have no doubt the card reached the sorting office at Mantralaya where it must have sat pretty over the extended Republic Day weekend. Or, and this is entirely possible, it remained buried under a pile of unopened letters (petitions, gazette notifications, orders, memos, wedding invitations) in the Chief Minister’s office.
An incandescent Fadnavis has now ordered an inquiry (in keeping with the laid down process of responsibility-fixing that is of a piece with the laid down, audit-approved process of forwarding dak), and sought an explanation from Mahara-shtra’s Resident Commissioner in Delhi. At this very moment, scapegoats are being looked for to sacrifice on the altar of bogus accountability.
What the story of Fadnavis’s missed dinner tells us is the amazing way in which babudom works. It also tells us the for all the bunk about Digital India, our babus and netas remain trapped in a time zone that most of us escaped in the previous century. Here is why.
In this age of smart phones all that Rashtrapati Bhavan babus needed to have done is e-mailed the invitation to Fadnavis. A hard copy could have been sent to the Resident Commissioner who, in turn, could have handed it over to the Chief Minister upon his arrival in Delhi.
But no, that can’t and won’t be done. Ever. And here is why.
Transmitting the invitation directly to Fadnavis’ handset would have meant rendering several people jobless: the despatch clerk, the babu who makes an entry in the despatch register, the peon who then carries it to the office that deals with riders, the babu who assigns dak to specific riders, the rider who carried the invitation card to Maharashtra Sadan, the clerk who received it, the babu who made an entry of it, the peon who then carried it to the despatch section, the clerk who despatched it, the babu who made an entry in the despatch register, the peon who then carried it to the post office, the clerk who stamped it... Rinse and repeat at Mantralaya. It is laughable when we talk of making Government smarter through e-governance. If an invitation cannot be dealt with electronically, then nothing can be done to change the way our slothful, tax-fattened system functions. Instead of wasting his time on inquiries, Fadnavis could try and shakeup things by setting an example. Let him, for starters, set January 1, 2016 as the deadline for making Mantralaya a paperless office. Will he dare tread that path?
The writer is a senior journalist based in NCR. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org