So finally Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has cracked the whip on his “errant” cabinet colleagues asking them to take heed of the Khadse episode and fall in line. In doing so he laid down certain “Do’s” and “Don’t’s” which they should follow while discharging their official duties, taking decisions and clearing official files. In doing so he has laid down the golden ground rule that the minister should not side-step or over-rule an opinion, especially a negative remark by a bureaucrat or a lower ranking administrative officer on a file. While it is good to say that one needs to be cautious while taking decisions, it need not mean that the ministers should be either extra cautious or wholly dependent on the bureaucracy to guide you to the right decision.
After all the Congress felt that the extra cautious approach of its former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan in clearing official files and taking bold decisions led to its eventual exit from power that it had held on to for the last 15 years in the state. Chavan could not have been faulted for being extra cautious as the government had been caught in a swirl of allegations of corruption charges. So much so that he could not articulate the “Prithvi Bandhara” (cement bundings to stop rainwater), the precursor to the “Jalayukta Shivar” scheme of rainwater harvesting of the present Fadnavis government.
In sharp contrast to it was Chavan’s predecessor Sushilkumar Shinde who prior to the 2004 assembly elections usurped the free power sop to farmers if voted to power by Shiv Sena chief late Balasaheb Thackeray realising the potential it had to swing the public opinion in favour of the government. Once voted back to power Shinde and the Congress simply dumped it, terming it as impractical. What did former Revenue minister Eknath Khadse in, was his over-confidence, under estimating Fadnavis and surrounding himself with shady characters that ultimately ensured that he sank along with them.
But does that call for being too over cautious? It is a matter of debate. Fadnavis’s own senior party leader Nitin Gadkari who in his stint as the Public Works Department minister during the previous Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of 1995-99 often did not hesitate using the “cuss” word in private conversations with the bureaucrats to get his message across and getting the work done. So does that mean that Fadnavis too needs to be more pragmatic than Chavan and more like his political mentor Gadkari? After all for reasons political Khadse has endeared himself to the opposition, which feels Khadse was bold enough to take decisions. The most prime example of it was making arrangements of supplying drinking water to parched Latur that too within 15 days, a work that could have taken at least months to complete.
Often you as an administrator are required to take pragmatic and bold decisions to win the day for you. Governance has often been described as a case of the political executive subjugating and ridding the tiger that is the administration. Or end up inside the belly of that same tiger as its meal. The danger with Fadnavis’s gag order is that often if you as an administrator are not capable of stamping your authority on the administration, you may end up being taken for a ride by the same administration. Fadnavis himself in the recent past bemoaned the fact that the lower rung of the bureaucracy and administration does not pay heed to his directives. Now to ask his cabinet colleagues to trust that very same administrative machinery to do their bidding is like allowing the administration to take you down the garden path for a walk.
During his stint as the Chief Minister during the Emergency era of 1975, Shankarrao Chavan had laid down strict rules of duties for the administration who he ordered could not loiter around during office hours. So the equally clever administrative staff came up with a novel solution of moving about with an official file tucked in their armpits.
Renaming the official seat of administrative power of the government from “Sachivalaya” (secretariat) to “Mantralaya” (ministers abode) has not held much either. To blame the bureaucracy for not toeing your line is like admitting your self defeat.
The basic difference between the previous stint of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was that they were able to get their work done in their own way and often ensured that “their men” were in the right place to tap them to get work done even if they were not in power. They knew how to work around with the administration in getting the desired results. The prolonged years of administrative inexperience is telling on the Fadnavis government and it is only providing ammunition to a rejuvenating opposition.