NK Singh has spent the last six decades deeply engaged with Indian policymakers, in the varied roles of civil servant, member of Parliament, and senior statesman. In his just-released memoirs, ‘Portraits of Power: Half a Century of Being at Ringside’, he has chronicled these experiences. He spoke to Sidhartha about the evolution of the bureaucracy and the economy over this period:
The political class seems to have an upper hand now compared to 56 years ago, when you joined the IAS. Is it tougher to be a civil servant today?
At the time of Independence, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) was described as the steel frame and it was supposed to be a protection against turbulence. The ICS emerged from the Imperial Civil Service and was created under the Government of India Act in 1858. It was headed by the Secretary of State for India, who was a member of the British cabinet. Therefore, the accountability was to the colonial masters. They did jealously preserve the neutrality of the ICS but it was aligned with the governance rubric prevalent at that time.
The transition, therefore, in post-Independence India remained somewhat uneasy because the governance pattern had changed. The decision-making needed to respond not to the needs of colonial masters, but to the aspirations of the people of India reflected through the electoral process. There is thus an inherent dichotomy. I may even say there was a compulsion of balancing contradictions between the expectations of the electorate expressed through the elected political executive and civil servants seeking to adhere to rules, regulations and procedures which they are duty bound to do. Sometimes, this can be an uneasy equilibrium.
In today’s context, the civil servant needs to seek the room for manoeuvre and flexibility in implementing policies which may be influenced depending on his ability, but not determined by him. The implementation can be as efficient as possible. It is not the responsibility of the civil servant to finally decide on policies.
You have talked about the evolution of the PMO and the importance of the cabinet secretary coming down and a new model emerging which shows a shift from the Westminster model. Is this the right structure?
Lord Wavell’s letter to Frederick Pethick-Lawrence talks about the then secretary of the cabinet office also working as the principal private secretary to the PM. In that letter, he says, “Private Secretariat will be integrated with the Cabinet Secretariat and I think it will be easier for Nehru and also limit the occasions on which he goes off at a tangent.” This continued till Lal Bahadur Shastri appointed LK Jha as the first secretary to the PM. Subsequently, PN Haksar took over and a lot of change took place, with the appointment processes and procedures no longer only between the cabinet secretary and PM, but with the secretary to PM also functioning in an interlocutory role. We must also appreciate that the principal role of the cabinet secretary was and remains the function of the secretary to the council of ministers.
After LK Jha was appointed, the rules of business were changed to include the PMO to assist the PM in the discharge of functions. As it always happens, depending on the nature, temperament and attitude of the PM, the equilibrium between the PMO and the cabinet office is in a constant state of dynamic flux.
When I had once gone to meet Manmohan Singh, he had mentioned to me that I had worked in a very powerful PMO under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and compared to that, his was a somewhat modest PMO. I exclaimed to myself that the PM’s Office can only bask in the reflected glory of the PM. The entire issue of PM Modi being more authoritarian is a non-issue thoroughly misplaced and exaggerated. In the final analysis, these matter far less compared to meeting the expectations of the people expressed through the social contract and the governance structure in which they have reposed faith.
Is the current PMO more powerful than Indira Gandhi’s PMO and is there greater centralisation of power?
All PMs and their style and apparatus of governance must reflect the contemporary challenges that they encounter. Modi’s challenges cannot be compared with those of a closed economy, of an insular country and in a far less interdependent world. Modi, in a far more interdependent global economy, represents a new ethos. Incidentally, Modi has a record as an implementer par excellence, almost to the point of micromanaging, which is indeed one of his fortes.
You worked in Vajpayee’s PMO and you have mentioned issues related to telecom, power reforms and certainty of policy for foreign investors. They are still not settled. After 1991, have the reforms been less deep rooted?
The broader issue is about combining sensible economics with sensible politics. The main issue in the power sector, for instance, is regulatory independence, fixing tariffs which would be appropriate and billing and collections of dues. States compete in guaranteeing free power and water before every election. In telecom, it is also about regulatory systems. These have invariably lagged behind. Technological changes and technology are no respecters of regulations. In many areas, the technological changes have been swifter and more dramatic than reflected in the enabling regulatory regime.
Some of the things that were done in the 1990s seem to be getting reversed, such as import tariff cuts. Are we becoming more protectionist?
For countries that want to grow at 8-10%, you must have exports to be a vibrant part of the economy and for that, imported inputs must be available at costs that are internationally competitive. At the same time, we need to recognise that you can’t live in a mercantilist, transactional world because the philosophy of value-added chain recognises geopolitics in a particular way, the fundamentals of which are looking to be restructured. Globalisation in the sense that Washington consensus had defined it, needs restructuring.
India does not have to relearn the lessons of trade as an engine of growth. PM has said, Atmanirbhar Bharat is not a protectionist Bharat. It means enhancing domestic capacity, domestic jobs. The present trend is transient. As an illustration, the active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) come from one country, which is unnatural because countries would like to ensure that critical inputs in a sector like health must be domestically available. Or, for instance, isn’t it unnatural that given the vast reserve of wood and forests particularly in the northeast, we should continue to be large importers of wood even for the incense offered in our prayers and meditation?
Your book talks about Pranab Mukherjee sending a wrong message via retrospective amendments in the Vodafone tax case. Does it make sense to challenge the tribunal order now?
When the step was taken, serious doubts were cast both about the morality and its legal tenability. Currently, the issue is not merely about retrospective taxation for Vodafone, but the broader principle about the inherent right of the sovereign to change tax laws. Issues of morality, rights, predictability and contractual adherence on the basis of which firms can make investment decisions will need to be carefully balanced. These are factors which I’m sure the government will weigh carefully before taking a final decision.