Neta-babu feud can lead to policy paralysis

Dharmendra Jore  These days, the Mantralaya precinct is abuzz with talk of how a senior bureaucrat refused to cave in when a minister demanded that some engineers of his choice be appointed in Vidarbha. The angry IAS officer reportedly asked the energetic minister to stay away from him, and instead talk to his boss (the minister in-charge) first. The infuriated minister reportedly made this face-off a matter of prestige and complained to CM Devendra Fadnavis that the IAS officer threw the (recommendation) papers in his face before leaving the meeting.

This isn’t a one-off case of the state’s senior bureaucrats and ministers being at loggerheads. Other ministers, too, have reported to the CM that IAS officers do not cooperate with them. One such officer, Mahesh Zagade, was transferred from the transport office late last week. While an additional chief secretary has gone on a one-month leave, others are trying different methods to cope with the uneasy situation.

The Devendra Fadnavis government has come to power with a certain agenda that the people who voted for them want to be implemented as early as possible. After six months in office, the current Cabinet is under scrutiny and the people of Maharashtra have already started asking questions. So, it is not surprising that the tussle has intensified recently as the ministers, most of whom do not have any experience of working in the government, are trying to get full control of their respective departments.

The ministers have their own ideas and schemes to implement and promises made to the voters to fulfil as the government completes six months in office. Most of them had been asking for the officers of their choice since the beginning. A common refrain among the ministers is that the IAS officers (mostly department secretaries) do not take a pro-active approach in the matters of public interest. The ministers say that many senior bureaucrats don’t respect the ministerial positions and try to fool them on the pretext that the ministers are still novices in matters of governance.

On the other hand, the bureaucrats complain that the ways the ministers have been suggesting for getting things done as quickly as possible aren’t always legally perfect. The babus say that the politicians expect them to twist the existing rules and regulations to fast-track matters. They say that they are not willing to breach any rule, because history shows that only bureaucrats get punished for any such offence whereas politicians escape penal action.

According to some bureaucrats, the ministers don’t trust them thinking that they were the favourites of the previous Congress-NCP regime, which was in power for 15 years between 1999 and 2014. The babus say this very parameter was applied when powerful bureaucrats in the previous governments were sidelined in the very beginning by the present government.

The feuds between at least 12 senior bureaucrats and their respective bosses have a common thread. But this isn’t happening only with the Fadnavis Cabinet. The earlier governments, too, had witnessed similar skirmishes, but the basic difference between the incumbent government and the previous governments is that the Congress-NCP had people in their ranks who would handle bureaucrats using their long experience. The Congress-NCP governments also had some ministers who were notorious for ill-treating IAS officers.

It is understandable that the BJP government is under immense pressure to deliver, more so because it’s a coalition government consisting of parties which are generally not on the same page when it comes to crucial issues. The Congress and NCP would fight each other hard, but they would reach a compromise while safeguarding their respective interests.

We learn that the issue is set to escalate further. The Association of IAS Officers is planning to meet the CM to express concern despite the fact that Fadnavis had told the two sides to respect each other and work in unison to fast-track policymaking and effective implementation. It would be interesting to see how the CM, who still trusts the IAS officers, manages the resentment in the two important pillars of his government. He has to do a balancing act of keeping both groups in good humour. If that does not happen, Maharashtra can find itself in the grip of policy paralysis, which it cannot afford at this point in time.

The writer is Political Editor of mid-day

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