So, all’s well between feuding politicians Prithviraj Chavan and Ajit Pawar who have smoked the peace pipe to mutual benefit. The roadblock on information on irrigation projects imposed by a belligerent NCP will be lifted and Chavan will be spared the ignominy of having to go back on his promise of a status report on irrigation. As a result of this newfound bonhomie, the winter session will, in all likelihood, see a whitewashed paper on irrigation, accountability be damned. We will never really know how much money was spirited away in these projects.
The price for political wars is always paid by the people. I am reminded of a story I was once told that demonstrates how wheels work within wheels to tip the scales against the ruled. When Chhagan Bhujbal was first sworn in as deputy CM in 1999, Sharad Pawar was peeved the NCP didn’t bag the chief minister’s post. He decided to pit Bhujbal as the NCP counter to the Congress CM. The idea was to make all NCP ministers report to Bhujbal just as Congress ministers reported to the CM. That way, all decisions in NCP ministries would go through Bhujbal.
An upbeat Bhujbal waited patiently for the directive from the CM instructing NCP ministers to report to him, but it never arrived. It later emerged that NCP ministers, particularly stalwarts like Ajit Pawar, Jayant Patil and RR Patil, were mighty offended at the idea of reporting to Bhujbal. After an agonising wait for them to fall in line, Pawar beat a rare tactical retreat.
The incident underscores the wilfulness of coalition politics when role definitions are blurred. When allies pull in different directions, the biggest casualty is governance. In the era of single party rule, the party high command was the undisputed king. There may have been murmurs of dissent but there was no survival outside the party. As a result, the fundamental rules of the game were not tinkered with.
A single-party system also helped preserve bureaucratic freedom to some extent. Till not too long ago, an officer could defy his minister on paper. He was, more often than not, protected by his boss, the chief secretary, who usually was an officer of impeccable credentials and carried weight with the political class. The chief secretary would back the officer and, if necessary, take up the matter of the recalcitrant minister with the CM who would, in turn, rein in his subordinate minister. Whatever the net bargain, the officer would stay unscathed. The flow of authority was definite, precise and incontrovertible. Today, whoever flexes his muscles more rules.
Officers can no longer take on their political bosses without a death wish because the CM has no control over ministers from other parties. The chief secretary, barring a few in the last decade, is increasingly a stooge who cannot stand up for himself, let alone his staff.
If committed bureaucracy — a concept introduced by Indira Gandhi to keep officers subservient to politicians — was the first onslaught on free and fair governance, the compulsions of new age politics with its inherent strains of insecurity and oneupmanship have dealt another lethal blow.