One of the biggest headaches faced by the first democratic government under DPT in 2008 was a strong senior bureaucracy, some of whose members did not get along well with newly elected ministers.
Even at the time, there was talk of the senior bureaucracy running the show the way they saw fit to the extent that in some ministries the minister was more akin to a figure head.
This was and still is totally unacceptable in a democracy where politicians and ministers are elected by the people to run the government. An unelected and unrepresentative senior bureaucracy, no matter how senior or experienced, cannot substitute an elected government and elected leaders from any government.
Even five years later and with a new government coming to power in 2013, it was increasingly becoming clear that old habits, bad as they may be, die hard. Like the DPT government in 2008, the PDP government in 2013 faced the reality of a strong senior bureaucracy that thought it knew better.
Therefore, the latest move by the government to discontinue the Committee of Secretaries (CoS) and surrender the three government secretaries should be seen in a larger light.
For one it settles an important question on who the bosses are in a democracy. It is not the senior bureaucracy but the people and their representatives elected by them.
This was not the first instance that the CoS had its run in with the new government. In many ways the cabinet was often in the dark on many ad-hoc decisions taken by the CoS.
One such decision would prove to be very painful and embarrassing for the new government. It was the decision taken by the CoS to not come for any presentation to the Parliament without a clearance from the Cabinet Secretary, who is the Chairman of the CoS.
This resulted in the National Council not getting a presentation of the Right to Information Bill, and hence NC without adequate knowledge on the RTI Bill could not pass it.
Like under the previous government, there was also a lot of talk of how some secretaries under this government were not listening to ministers and doing mainly what they pleased.
The senior government bureaucracy became this way due to a unique development that occurred after the advent of democracy. Democracy and party rule meant that senior bureaucrats were no longer directly accountable to His Majesty the King, while at the same time Bhutan’s unique democratic system also granted the senior bureaucracy a lot of grey area powers making them virtually unaccountable to politicians. This way they became virtual independent power centers of their own.
It is telling that a minister of this government in an official press conference has termed the recent actions of the CoS akin to running a ‘Parallel Government.’
The CoS by not informing the Cabinet and the PM of some unilateral decisions taken on the Enertia and BHEL issue has taken on the powers and prerogatives of the cabinet.
What made it worse was the CoS claiming to be the RGoB and writing as such to a foreign government.
However, the worst mistake of all was the CoS a body of essentially bureaucrats not only taking over government policy decisions but also conducting diplomacy on its behalf.
Though all of Enertia’s various claims may not be substantiated it had made some very strong and credible points on a private company getting a 1.5% commission of Nu 240 mn of what is essentially a government to government deal.
The CoS’s letter must also be seen in the light of a possible attempt to pre-empt any investigation on the BHEL issue and issue a premature clean chit on the whole process.
The strongly worded letter sent by the CoS to a friendly nation like India, who also happens to be Bhutan’s biggest developmental partner, was not in Bhutan’s national interest.
There were many ways of doing the same things in a much better and more diplomatic manner. Ultimately members of the senior bureaucracy have no one but themselves to blame after the way they have conducted themselves over the years, including even exercising powers not given to them.
“The greatest power of bureaucracies is to make the smart act stupid and the good to act evil.”
Raul Ramos y Sanchez