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Modi shakes up India’s bureaucrats

Just one day after United States President Barack Obama ended a headline-grabbing visit to India on Jan 27, the usually staid Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi encountered a storm: Prime Minister Narendra Modi sacked India’s highest-ranking diplomat Sujatha Singh six months before the end of her tenure.

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Just one day after United States President Barack Obama ended a headline-grabbing visit to India on Jan 27, the usually staid Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi encountered a storm: Prime Minister Narendra Modi sacked India’s highest-ranking diplomat Sujatha Singh six months before the end of her tenure.

This rare development opened a window into the foreign-policy reforms Mr Modi plans to undertake and raised questions about the appropriate role of the bureaucracy in shaping India’s international outlook.

By most observers’ reckoning, Ms Singh was ordered to remit office on grounds of underperformance and failure to keep up with the foreign-policy changes under a hyperactive Mr Modi, who is a hands-on manager and hawk-eyed boss of bureaucrats.

Scuttlebutt that Ms Singh was unceremoniously shown the door from her post as Foreign Secretary because of her family’s personal closeness to the opposition Congress party is baseless, since Mr Modi could have easily ejected her the moment he assumed the reins of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in May last year.

If the motive was to punish alleged loyalists of the Congress party, Mr Modi need not have waited eight months in power before showing Ms Singh the door. It is a standard practice in India for every incoming government to shuffle out bureaucrats considered to be unwanted baggage from the preceding government.

The clue to Ms Singh’s ouster lies less in India’s competitive party politics and more in the mind of Mr Modi, who is a hard taskmaster and demanding political boss to bureaucrats. The Economic Times said Mr Modi had instituted an appraisal system for all bureaucrats, where points are scored on three professional parameters: Quick delivery of assigned targets and projects, neutrality or political non-allegiance, and dedication to work.

Given his extraordinary electoral mandate and promise of improving the governance system, Mr Modi expects nothing less than absolute obedience and speedy implementation of his vision on the part of civil servants. Hangovers of past “business-as-usual” attitudes in the bureaucracy are subject to observation over a reasonable amount of time and, if proven to be recalcitrant, lead to removal.

Apart from Ms Singh, other elite bureaucrats from the Finance, Urban Development and Housing ministries have also been shunted out by Mr Modi in the past few months for not meeting his policy and efficiency yardsticks.

A Reuters story on Mr Modi’s innovative biometric attendance system for electronic monitoring of Indian bureaucrats’ work practices labelled him a Big Brother and a control freak from whom the bureaucracy is running scared.


It is in this context of a no-nonsense CEO-style Prime Minister who wants to streamline the bureaucracy and usher in policy shifts that one can surmise the reasons behind Ms Singh’s dismissal, which is only the fourth such instance in Indian history after Jagat Mehta (forced out by then Prime Minister Charan Singh in 1979), A P Venkateswaran (fired by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987) and S K Singh (axed by Prime Minister V P Singh in 1990).

Though Ms Singh has refuted speculation that Mr Modi was unhappy with her leadership of the MEA, word has spread that she could not satisfy his desire to maximise India’s strategic partnerships with Japan and Israel and was found wanting in revving up India’s economic diplomacy.

Until Mr Modi’s advent to the PMO, India’s career diplomats were hardly subjected to performance-based scrutiny or criticism on specific policy stances, either by the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs or by the head of government.

The only debates on India’s international positions and strategies occur in the news media, evoking contemptuous yawns in the MEA, whose career diplomats pooh-pooh commentary by outsiders for their supposed ignorance about what really happens behind the scenes in the conduct of foreign policy.

For a result-oriented Prime Minister such as Mr Modi, unaccountable, uninspiring and Teflon-coated bureaucrats in India’s foreign-policy establishment are liabilities. Their heads have to roll for the country’s global standing to rise as per the blueprint he has scripted.

At the same time, like an experienced corporate human resource manager, Mr Modi wants to reward and promote meritorious and skilled diplomats who are achieving notable successes, such as Ms Singh’s replacement, Dr S Jaishankar, who served with distinction as India’s Ambassador to China and the US, and who is credited with ensuring that Mr Obama returned to India for a historic second time.

The Indian Foreign Service has both outstanding individual officers as well as mediocre ones who are unable to adjust their lenses and adapt to fast-morphing geopolitical and geo-economic developments. Mr Modi is separating the wheat from the chaff.

Ms Singh’s parting shot insinuated that the Prime Minister is running an individualistic show and undermining the institutional strengths of the MEA. Criticism of Mr Modi for operating a personalised form of rule is not new. Mr Modi comes across as a dictator to bureaucrats, who are used to a far more lax supervisory regimen.

But many Prime Ministers before him have arrogated to themselves the ultimate foreign-policymaking levers at the expense of the MEA. The office of the PMO, particularly the National Security Adviser, has been a nerve centre of India’s foreign-policy framing since 1998 and will remain so under a strong-willed Prime Minister like Mr Modi. This functional straddling has left some MEA mandarins crying out against “usurpation” of their turf, producing an ambience of internal institutional tussles. Such internecine clashes are natural and they occur even in the US, which has a far longer history of evolved diplomatic processes than India.

Yet, it would be uncharitable to interpret the handover of the baton from Ms Singh to Dr Jaishankar as a morale-killing blow to an already emasculated MEA. Rather, the move is an affirmation of the Modi mantra to his top bureaucrats: Perform or perish.


Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.

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