The Centre’s lateral hiring at the joint secretary level may be a much-needed reform of the bureaucracy. But it comes very late, when the NDA-BJP government is into its final year and months remain for the next Lok Sabha polls. The government advertised widely for this lateral placement in around 10 ministries, inviting private sector candidates to apply too, provided they have experience and expertise. There should be no bar on getting the best talent to run the government as the current system is marked by a pedantic approach that would make the civil servants in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister pale in comparison. The inflexibility of babudom has gained notoriety over the years, so sweeping reform may seem the hardest thing to achieve and should have been attempted years ago when the rulers changed in New Delhi.
It may be just a matter of perception, but it seems the Opposition parties, that have uniformly criticised the Centre’s bureaucracy reform plans, may be justified in their fear of the ruling side seeking to extend its influence by making political rather than professional appointments. While expertise with lateral thinking should be welcomed — such as when Dr Manmohan Singh was drafted into government service as an adviser in the early 1970s — such posts should be offered only to eminent candidates. Deep expertise is required in new fields like IT and modern technology, which the IAS system graduates may not be equipped to handle. The bureaucracy can certainly do with fresh thinking to cope with a fast-changing world. The real challenge is to do this without politicising matters.