In theory in India, it is politicians who wield power while bureaucrats merely carry out their commands. Given that politicians are elected and are responsible to the people of India, this is more than a reasonable arrangement for a democracy. However, in practice, this system seems to be under strain in the Modi government with the stunning rise of Ajit Doval.

Doval, a retired Indian Police Service officer, is currently the National Security Advisor to the prime minister. On October 9, he was also made the head of the Strategic Policy Group which would mean the Cabinet Secretary, the chiefs of the military staffs and the Reserve Bank of India governor will have to report to Doval.

To add to this, Doval is also seems to be laying out politics and policy on behalf of the Union government. On Thursday, he delivered the annual Sardar Patel Memorial Lecture organised by All India Radio presenting opinions on coalition governments, defence policy, populism, oil prices, taxation and other issues.

Not only is the centralisation of power under an unelected bureaucrat problematic, the fact that Doval seems to be encroaching into politics is doubly so.

Defending Modi

During his nearly hour-long lecture, Doval seemed to defend the policy decisions of the Union government. The current government has ensured that all defence hardware is a 100% transfer of technology, noted Doval, going on to argue that that India should imitate the state-led capitalism of China, which has allowed the emergence of successful companies such as e-commerce giant Alibaba. Expressing support for the Goods and Services Tax regime introduced by the Modi government, Doval said that India “can’t have a fractured tax” architecture.

Most critically, Doval went on to criticise coalition governments as well as populist politics. “India cannot go for unstable coalitions,” he said. “Till 2030, India needs a decisive government and decisive leadership”. Doval also drew a distinction between “stable” and “unstable” governments:

“India will have to have governments which are stable, which are decisive, which are empowered by the total mandate… Because weak governments are unable to take hard decisions. And for taking India ahead, it will be necessary to take hard decisions. Hard decisions, which are good for the people but are not necessarily populist. Unstable regimes are more vulnerable to fragility, corruption, and local and sectoral political interests taking precedence.”  

Bureaucratic centralisation

There is, of course, little data to back up the contention that coalition government are somehow bad for India. Economic growth under the first term of prime minister Manmohan Singh – who headed a coalition government – was significantly higher than it has been under Prime Minister Modi, whose party enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha. In 2017, former Reserve Bank of India governor Yaga Venugopal Reddy had pointed out that coalition governments in India have produced better economic growth rates in the last three decades than strong majority governments.

Apart from being factually incorrect, it is even more troubling that an unelected bureaucrat was laying out policy and arguing about what sort of government India should have – decisions that can only be taken by the people of India and their elected representatives.

The incredible rise of Doval points to a troubling trend in the Modi government: the centralisation of power. In India’s Westminster system of government, the council of ministers makes up the government with the prime minster being only the “first among equals”. In the Modinster system, however, almost all power seems concentrated in the prime minister, who then depends not on popularly elected ministers but bureaucrats directly responsible to him to share the work of governance.

Weakening the cabinet

Modi has, in fact, packed Central departments with officials from his home state of Gujarat in order to carry out this bureaucratic centralisation. Indian Police Service Officer Rakesh Asthana, seen to be close to Modi, was made special director in the Central Bureau of Investigation last year and accrued so much power that it caused a crisis in the agency earlier this week. When Modi decided to implement the shock demonetisation of high currency notes in 2016, his cabinet was kept in the dark but ironically, a bureaucrat was kept in the loop: Gujarat-cadre officer Hasmukh Adhia. Adhia also led the 2017 roll-out of the Goods and Services Tax.

Several reports have emerged detailing that key internal security decisions are not taken by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh – as would be standard – but by bureaucrat Ajit Doval. Doval also plays a key role in handling two of India’s most crucial foreign policy engagements: Pakistan and China. Unsurprisingly, a 2016 Bloomberg report called Doval “the most powerful person in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.

Also troubling is the politicisation of the bureaucracy. Elected politicians are supposed to make policy while bureaucrats are to only implement them. There is very little public role for a babu in a democracy. Yet, Doval enjoys near-rockstar status in this Union government, with the media being pushed to carry highly laudatory stories about the National Security Advisor. Social media is also used: there are several professionally-run fan accounts of Doval on Facebook and YouTube. And now Doval is talking publicly about what sort of Union government India should have.

Both trends Doval represents – bureaucrats laying out policy and being more powerful than cabinet ministers – are bad portents for Indian democracy.