New Delhi: The Supreme Court’s removal of the Central Bureau of Investigation’s director, Ranjit Sinha, from 2G investigations points to the distortions that creep in when officers are insulated and shielded from general political oversight. The problem has taken another dimension with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to advise his ministers against public dealings and leaving critical policy-making to officials. By some accounts, bureaucratic corruption amounts to almost two-thirds of all government corruption; the prime minister’s over-dependence on them bodes ill for his government. With ministers and ruling Bharatiya Janata Party politicians also desisting from public engagement following the prime minister’s advisory, he and his administration are perilously cut-off from public opinion and ground-level thinking. Prime Minister Modi must rethink his governance strategy entirely.

As often stated in this space, Narendra Modi’s slogan, “Na khaoonga, na khaane doonga,” has resonated with the public and struck terror among politicians in general and those of the ruling party particularly. The general chorus is that the pace of change may be slow but its imminent arrival is not in doubt; above all, everybody accepts that Prime Minister Modi is well-intentioned. That is a huge change from some of his predecessors. For example, the State Bank of India’s $1 billion credit line to Adani Mining may raise eyebrows; but it is not a case of crony capitalism as alleged by the Indian National Congress. Narendra Modi has no history of misusing public funds. Indeed, he is hawk-eyed about the smallest government spending. He is putting his reputation on line to secure energy for the country.

But the bad publicity attending the loan is itself an outcome of Modi’s closed government where officials call the shots and elected ministers are reduced to serving as postmen. Narendra Modi may have run Gujarat successfully on those terms but India is far too big to trust decision-making to officials. Besides, it militates against the fundamentals of democracy. Who has first accountability in a democratic government? The elected ministers headed by the prime minister. The Union cabinet, in turn, is accountable to an elected Parliament. Officials assist in designing policies and to translate it into action. But the real ownership of policies, good and bad, lies with elected politicians. People have voted for politicians to govern them which itself is a great ceding of individual rights; it is sacrilege for officials to lord over them.

The net effect of Prime Minister Modi’s excessive reliance on officials is that decision-making has come to a halt. Several people connected with politics and government have told this writer that file movements have ceased. In some Central government departments, including Human Resources Development, mountains of cash were made by officials through file management and manipulation. With Modi’s coming, that has stopped; but files are also not moving. Since ministers are by and large powerless, they cannot or choose not to intervene. They shrug their shoulders and pass the buck to the prime minister’s office, a veritable black hole for files.

When Prime Minister Modi snipped the wings of ministers and empowered bureaucrats, his aim was honourable; he wanted to cut at the roots of political corruption. But officials are no less corrupt; cumulatively, they are even more. The press said that this Diwali, public sector banks were barred from offering expensive gifts to ministry officials. What happens when an official’s daughter weds? Big shot bankers walk in with cash presents that cannot be traced. If the official happens to be from a public sector oil company, petrol pump owners are obligated to contribute to the dowry. The simple point is that corruption is all-pervasive; officials are as corrupt as politicians. The Narendra Modi government must target all and privilege none. In any event, elected politicians must not be sidelined because they are, for all their faults, the “eyes and ears” of the public.

Prime Minister Modi’s position may be that people voted for him more than the Bharatiya Janata Party and its candidates; he might, therefore, feel compelled to micro-manage with a set of powerful bureaucrats and exclude politicians from governance. This will be a mistake; it would go against the spirit of democracy. While keeping full control, the prime minister must empower his ministers and encourage public interactions. In the fitness of things, the prime minister should have a “Janata durbar” at his own residence on a regular basis where he hears grievances first hand; he did this quite successfully in Gujarat. He should also travel more often within the country; for no good reason, prime ministers have stopped doing this. The day the prime minister becomes content to stay in a bubble, he is finished. It happened to the previous occupants of 3 and 5 Race Course Road.