The appointment of Nandan Nilekani as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) with the rank of a cabinet minister is part of the trend of appointing apolitical persons to positions with political authority. This is a trend that has gained some momentum in the last two decades. It augurs well for India.
In any well-run democracy, political authority rests with elected representatives. In India, as in other democracies, the tasks of governance have become increasingly complex. Even relatively simple tasks such as maintaining law and order require complicated mechanisms to be effective. For example, Nilekani’s task is part of the bigger picture on law and order: Unique identity cards are part of the solution to tackle big problems such as terrorism, illegal migration and crime. As a result, the link between political authority and professional ability needs to be updated. Bureaucratic advisers cannot substitute this.
Nilekani’s appointment to UIDAI is only one example. Journalist Arun Shourie was minister for disinvestment in the National Democratic Alliance government. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, too, began his political career as an apolitical appointee to the finance minister’s position.
Some may argue that there’s nothing new here. In the decades after Independence, civil servants such as H.M. Patel and C.D. Deshmukh served as cabinet ministers. What is different is the context. Today, there is a definite shortfall of managerial talent among our elected representatives much more than, say, 30 years ago. It is the deficit that is glaring. India is not alone in this situation: It is only catching up with developments elsewhere. In the last century, German jurist Carl Schmitt in his book
The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy noted that the link between elective institutions and administrative talent had become weak.Such appointments have often been decried as a sign of creeping “depoliticization” in government. That is a misguided way of looking at the situation. If the induction of managerial talent improves governance, it can hardly be called depoliticization. Unless, of course, one wishes to induct persons of proven incompetence as ministers. For India, sadly, that has been the case on more than one occasion.
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