Thursday, March 23, 2023
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The other Covid crisis — India caught between a charismatic PM and servile bureaucrats

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, it has been clear that the bureaucratic structure Modi built is not delivering. And sometimes, it’s becoming part of the problem.

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The tragedy of the Indian leadership during the coronavirus pandemic is that we are caught between a ruler who rules through charisma and oratory and officials who excel in unaccountable obfuscation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma continues to dominate during the Covid-19 crisis. But will he be able to negotiate the new challenges with his persona or transition into a rational-legal leader?

Sociologist Max Weber had said there are three types of authority — traditional, charismatic and legal (rational and dependent on modern law, state and bureaucracy).

The problem with the coronavirus is that charismatic leaders are not proving quite successful in controlling or dealing with it. Or at least they are no better than other leaders, in this regard. It seems that this pandemic is creating immense chaos and disruptions, and dealing with it requires corresponding robustness in organisational and bureaucratic structures.

A charismatic leader like Modi is no exception. The bureaucracy he has enlisted to manage the Covid-19 crisis lacks the rational-legal authority. No one knows how Modi selects officers for the PMO. They draw power and authority from the charisma of Modi and by being loyal to him. This may work fine in ordinary times. But in extraordinary times like a pandemic, the lack of rational-legal authority of the bureaucracy may lead to chaotic situations and disruptions.

A pandemic of this scale can’t be handled by servile paper-pushing bureaucrats with no stakes on the ground and who can’t talk back to Modi.

Also read: 4,000 rules in 4 months: Are civil servants creating chaos in India’s Covid-19 management?

A better feedback system

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, it has been clear that the bureaucratic structure Modi built over the years is not delivering or delivering only half-baked solutions. Sometimes, the bureaucracy is becoming part of the problem. Both the Centre and the states have so far given 4,147 orders on Covid-19 and the lockdown. Many of these orders are so confusing that the ministries have had to issue clarifications. Sometimes these clarifications have to be clarified again. The situation is so Kafka-esque that it is as if the entire population is going through The Trial and ending up like a dog, running for food, walking miles and miles, ending up being beaten and chased by police, hounded by fellow citizens.

This is more evident in the case of migrant labourers. The government did not even expect that millions of labourers will head home on foot or cycles after the lockdown. Perhaps, the Modi government assumed everyone would obey the lockdown orders as if it was another round of taalis and thaalis.

What would the scenario have been if Modi had also consulted the political class, instead of only bureaucrats, before taking such monumental decisions? Would it be a wise decision for Modi to form an all-party advisory group to deliberate on the Covid-19 crisis? We do not know for sure, but we may assume that politicians, by virtue of their profession, are connected to ground realities more than bureaucrats and would have provided the government better insight.

They might have advised that because India does not have enough Covid-19 testing kits, it will be an exercise in futility to go for a whole hog lockdown. Only containment and no testing is not going to help much. At least the political class and members of the opposition would have provided Modi contrarian views. Such exchange of ideas can also be achieved by having a bureaucracy that draws their legitimacy from rationality and the legal framework of the state. For such decision making, strong and robust mechanism of institutions is required. In that scenario, different institutions like the judiciary, Parliament, mass media, CAG, investigating agencies, different commissions and regulators and even civil society organisations would function in an autonomous and synchronised way. That would have created a Habermasian public sphere, where discussions related to public welfare can take place in a democratic manner.

Also read: 4,057 orders in 4 months: Covid crisis shows how much Indian officials love making rules

Modi’s charisma

What does this mean for India? We are actually talking about and wishing for a charismatic leader with a rational-legal organisation.

Charismatic leaders are not known to have rational arrangements. Not because they cannot have such organisation and bureaucracy, not because they don’t want to, but because it will erode their charisma and he/she will not be an all-powerful omnipresent entity. That will be the end of the charismatic leader. Such metamorphosis will make him/her a rational-legal leader in the Weber sense.

In the past, Modi did not have any reason or purpose to shed his charismatic leadership. He has fought many battles and emerged victorious many times. He has not seen any great reversals in the last 20 years. Such a grand success rate has ossified Modi’s working style and his persona. Why he should go for catharsis when his charisma and working style keep on delivering desired results for him?

Will COVID-19 be such a big challenge that he will be forced to press the refresh button on his persona?

The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.

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  1. Death, hunger, walking for thousands of kilometres and other miseries of daily wage earners, including migrants, reported from many staes is just an example of how government babus work.
    When corona is going to remain here for 6 months, why locking the economy and forcing more hunger deaths of unemployed.
    Is 6 yrs not sufficient for creating a national database of all daily wage earners to enable contact them in emergency for person to person relief.

  2. Satchin, dont you think you are a moron yourself?
    The article is apt and you will see who the moron is once the cases surge.

  3. Avatar Dr. Urvashi Sahni ( Educationist, Social Entrepreneur, Womens Rights Activist - Asoka Fellow) Lucknow, India

    Completely agree !!! Modi needs to be more consultative. and to listen more – especially to contrarian voices. All hands on deck is the only way we are going to beat this crisis! This top down – I know best attitude is disastrous! It’s a novel situation and NO one person or few persons knows best. But together we can all figure it out and find a way that works!

    The way the Migrant labour situation was bungled is just baffling! What were the few at the top thinking? Or not thinking? How very thoughtless and callous was their complete apathy to the plight of millions of their people? It could have been averted, been better planned, but for this it required listening to voices from the ground, and a cautious, collective approach!

  4. Yes I agree that Modi is a charismatic leader. But his chrismatic decisions are not transgressed into realty by the executives as beaureucrats. In my opinion he wants to solve any problem or issue once for all and to finish the problem . But our bearucracy is tuned to doing it slowly so as to help the politicians keep their followings intact .

  5. If the PM cannot choose the officers for his PMO, who will? This appears to be a fallacious argument. And as far as the managing the infection is concerned, Modi has definitely earned the admiration and praise from India and across the world. The results speak for themselves, lowest death rates, one of the lowest infection rates and keeping in mind a population of 1.30 billion. Mr.Mandal appears to be a well read person. Getting an education is one thing which can be acquired by diligence, but the application of knowledge is a different kettle of fish, which he is lacking. It is absurd to expect the civil servants to work against the government for carrying out legitimate orders.

    • Your assessment will change once you see the massive surge in cases. Govt did not have a plan nor are they following prudent protocol of relaxing the lockdown. Examples of leaders who are decisive and can enforce the plan with a government machinery is seen in Singapore, Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, Thailand etc. Let’s not bask in glory yet.

  6. My objection: Modi is not an orator, he is just a good communicator. An orator should express original thoughts and have a good language and expression. A speaker who can only coin acronyms, and cheap one liners (“hard work better than Harvard “) is not an orator, however good been rabble rousing.

  7. I have been observing since the demonetization days that Government of India’s orders, circulars etc. , are undergoing repeated changes and corrections within days of their first date of issue. As one who served the government in various capacities for over 35 years, I have rarely seen such thing happening in the past. The only reason, to my mind, is that the senior officers are not able to open their mind to the politial bosses and, in the case of the most senior offcers, to the Prime Minister. The PM’s style of functioning – we can call it the top to down approach – could be the reason. In this system the boss decides on the course of action and then merely wants his advisers – political or bureaucratic – to endorse it. Since there is no scope for anyone to tender any advice, they can only say, “Yes, Prime Minister”. Quite understandably in such kind of approach there can be chances of many aspects being overlooked or glossed over. The Government of India did not – at least till less than a decade ago – function in that manner. It seems, however, that under this regime even the higher bureaucracy has reneged on its duty to render advice to the ministers, assuming the safer role of merely carrying out instructions of their political bosses. It is perhaps for this reason that the increased frequency of ‘modifying’ or ‘amending’ Government orders and notifications now than ever before. If a member of a Committee constituted by the Prime Minister to advise him feels that he/she has nothing to tell the PM since he already knows everything on the subject, then what’s the point of that officer being on the panel? If instead of singing paeans to the power that be the higher echelons of the bureaucracy would only advise the decision-makers to plan in advance for the workers who would lose their jobs due to the lockdown, perhaps the little Chhatisgarh girl would still be alive, and the way we treat our less fortunate compatriots would not weigh as much on our national conscience.

    • OR it can be interpreted as they being more flexible now in bettering the order, against an ossified, rigid and arrogant civil servants earlier? Look at the policy paralysis of UPA governments, and earlier to that the licence-permit raj, lorded over by the very same people. 35 years of disservice!

  8. Given the enormity of the situation, Modi is doing a fantastic job. If superpowers like US, China and Russia are struggling to get a hold, India by it’s early action has managed to stagger the spread, which is extremely important in a pandemic of this sort. Loss of lives as a ratio of population is sure to be less than that of any developed country. Cheers to Modi

    • Well said. The author is biased. His contention that Modi should consult Political class instead of Buerocrats is ridiculous. He has to understood that Modi has consulted all the political parties president’s. Modi also consulted former PMs and President’s. He also consulted many former senior politicians who served in politics earlier. He consulted all CMs 4 times.No one expects this kind of crisis. As far as arrangements are concerned, we were having only one lab in Pune. With in few weeks their number is increased to more than 400. Similarly availability of various medical equipments were also improved to a great extent. The author is saying that Modi is depending on Charisma and his speeches. Saying like this is foolish on the part of the author.
      As far as Migrant labourers, Modi took a correct decision by making them to stay at their places only. He has provided financial assistance to states to take care of the migrant labourers. As the Lockdowns are getting extended, he has taken decision to shift them to their native places. In the process he is ensuring coordination between states. When lakhs are moved from one place to another place, then naturally some time takes. Then the author is supposed to advise the migrant labourers to wait patiently. Instead he is trying to provoke them. This is highly irresponsible. The author has grossly misused his FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION.

  9. Despite the many many words employed in this so-called article , it would be difficult if anyone actually understood what this author is trying to get at through vague and circumlocutous dissembling.

    Narendra Modi has won political power – he is under no obligation or complusion to provide a platform for people who have been rejected electorally and resuscitate their careers.

    The farcical claim of India’s “failed bureaucracy” in handling Covid-19 is borne put through data – not the empty blather of arm chair doctors or policy specialists – India’s testing capacity, PPE capacity, Mask availability, public participation, ventilator manufactur and procurement, vaccine development, the unmatched repatriation of Indians globally and domestically and even international aid all show the exemplary work done by thousands of bureaucrats day-in and day-out.

    Pointing to one issue and deriding all the successes and all that was achieved is just perverse posturing by the navel gazing Modi haters whose antipathy is even innoculated from the tragedy of a global pandemic!

    To wit: Kya Bakwas hai yeh…!

  10. Dilip Mondal if you pull your face out of your arse you will realise that India has done better then the advanced economies in the World
    The readers are not morons like you

  11. Covid 19 is of course an exceptional event and crisis, that puts the entire governance system through a stress test. However, consider the economy, on which everyone’s material well being rests, the caliber of the economic team over the last six years. Foreign policy, where an entire diplomatic corps with its specialised knowledge and institutional memory is available. Colonel Ajai Shukla is now questioning the caliber of the military leadership. UPA would not have had such an easy time of it in comparable circumstances.

  12. India is doomed. Modi knows that he does not need to perform in order to remain in power. When the public does not demand performance from its government … that country is doomed.

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