Ministers or babus: Who will have the last laugh?

  The BJP government has realised, in a year of governance, that the bureaucracy can make or destroy its fate. And when it learned that babus aren’t those hapless corporate employees who fall in line quickly because of disciplinary action, the Devendra Fadnavis government decided to take the gloves off. But babus don’t like losing to politicians, who are equally adamant on having their way. The relations between political executives and bureaucrats are in for a dramatic turn.

What started as a minor tussle between ministers and babus may soon become a raging war, thanks to the food and civil supplies and consumer protection minister Girish Bapat and his department secretary Deepak Kapoor, a senior IAS officer.

Under fire from consumers, its ruling partner Shiv Sena and opposition parties for failing to control the spiralling prices of essential commodities like tur daal (pulses), Bapat has squarely blamed Kapoor for the botch-up. In a rare case, Bapat has issued Kapoor a memo, seeking an explanation as to why he was not informed about the Centre’s periodic directives on stocking essential commodities and projection of the futures markets.

Bapat says in his memo — copies of which have been sent to the CM and chief secretary — that Kapoor did not bring to his notice any of the Centre’s circulars that were issued to the state between June and October this year. Bapat says he wasn’t even told about what his department had planned to check hoarding of pulses. Calling it a serious matter, Bapat has asked Kapoor to submit to him an action plan within seven days.

Last week’s development is expected to rattle the all-powerful state bureaucracy to the core. There will be voices of discontent, a lot of bickering and complaints because the IAS lobby holds Bapat equally responsible for creating the mess. Many officers have alleged that Bapat has been attempting to frame their colleague to mask his own failures and inefficiency.

On May 18 this year, this column had mentioned that Maharashtra would face policy paralysis and pro-people decisions would not be implemented effectively if the two crucial entities of the government did not collaborate and trust each other.
The issue is expected to intensify further because the ministers will try even harder to go full throttle with the backing of the CM, who declared recently that a majority of babus were unresponsive and caused inordinate delays in taking welfare schemes to the masses. The CM has himself got bad publicity due to a directive for booking offenders for sedition. He said that the babus faltered in translating the directive from English to Marathi properly, and did not bring it to the notice of their political bosses before making it public. Subsequently, the directive was withdrawn. In similar fashion, the energy minister blamed bureaucrats for allowing a financial waiver for a power generation company. In many instances the government has backtracked. Last week, it scrapped a draft proposal on the national education policy.

The CM’s admission came with a warning to bureaucrats that they would face the music if they did not respond positively. Bapat seems to have gotten inspired by the CM’s hard stance and many other ministers may soon get into that fiery mode. It would be interesting to see if the daal issue ends amicably or the guilty — either minister or bureaucrat — gets the rap. Kapoor has maintained a stoic silence so far.

Following the CM’s displeasure, Chief Secretary Swadheen Kshatriya has asked all secretaries to spend at least two days in districts across Maharashtra to ensure good governance.

Meanwhile, the biggest concern for the government is the legal hassle over selecting the mayor’s bungalow for housing the late Bal Thackeray’s memorial. The Shivaji Park residence is a grade-2 heritage structure, which, according to Supreme Court guidelines, cannot be turned into a politician’s memorial. The CM and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray had announced the decision amid much fanfare. Imagine the politicians’ rage in case they are forced to change this decision as well. Incidentally, Kshatriya has headed a committee for selecting a hassle-free memorial site.

The writer is Political Editor of mid-day

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