Over the recent years, the rise of a new stratum within the government machinery has led to public concern over its purpose, accountability and cost. While members democratically elected enjoy the legitimacy of running the show, this new specie has established itself as a shadow wielding greater power, yet shielded from scrutiny.
At the session of the National Assembly of 21st July 2020, the Private Notice Question from the leader of opposition pertained once again to scandal of emergency procurement of medical supplies, with supplementary questions on involvement of a Senior Advisor to the government. During the slot of Prime Minister’s Question Time ( MQT) further questions pertaining to Advisors of the government were scheduled. The babysitting speaker and dodgy manoeuvres of the Prime Minister to wriggle himself out of definite embarrassment, trigger greater concern over the opacity that shrouds advisors’ roles, status, ethical standards and accountability.
It has been a tradition since the post-colonial era for loyalty of vassals or cronies to be the sole recruitment criteria of Special / Senior Advisors. The mating of dilettante politicians with dumb advisors can only incubate in perfect chaos. Making it even worse when civil servants would cling on to advisors who enjoy throwing their weight around, as if they were demigods. Sharing his experience, a freshly retired senior civil servant narrated his disbelief on the dumbness of some advisors “Each time I came across a stupid minister, I couldn’t help imagining some meaningless Menhir ( Standing stone) right in the middle of green pastures. The advisors were like donkeys coming to rub their itchy bum. Their only job is to praise the government “ A crude statement which prompts a logical question “ What is the role of an advisor?”
The Invisible 6th estate
As early as 1887, stepping out of Johns Hopkins University, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, who later served as the 28th President of the United States of America expressed his fear on the emergence of professional bureaucrats who he believed would leverage on stupid politicians to develop into a class of their own. In 1958, one of the greatest theorists and father of modern bureaucracy, Max Weber echoed his skepticism of the political-bureaucratic nexus. Little did these two brilliant minds know, in few years time, out of nothing a new stratum ( Spads – Special advisors) would sprout to outsmart both bureaucrats and politicians.
In his book “ People who live in the dark” British author and scholar Andrew Blick enlightens us on the rise of this new phenomenon in British politics. Initially these unelected professionals recruited to advise on specific issues were recognized for their acumen and have contributed through their historical as well as analytical perspective. Stalwarts like John Maynard Keynes, Lord Cherwell, William Beveridge Bernard Donoughue and many others have marked their term as special advisers with a legacy which goes far beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. A run which crashed beyond repair during the days of Tony Blair’s shadow cabinet.
The concern grew to such an extent that in 2010 the Select Committee on the Constitution by the House of Lords, scrutinizing “ The Cabinet Office and the Centre of Government” debated extensively on the role of Advisors. Here are some of the stunning submissions which would enhance our understanding :
Former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Turnbull, suggested that the “balanced triangle of the minister, the special advisers and the civil servants” had been disrupted to the extent that “the authority and closeness of civil servants has diminished”
Dr Heffernan argued that the role of advisors and the nature of their relationship with civil servants should be regulated in statute. He also thought there should be more “technocratic”
special advisers as opposed to those who “simply leak and brief on behalf of their principal”.
For Lord Morris of Aberavon, The two and a half governing tribes, the permanent civil servants, the ministers, or transients, the half being the tribe of special advisers, live in this very scratchy and unsatisfactory relationship. And so the processes of government of which the Cabinet office is meant to be the guarantor and the standard setter are very, very diminished.
Lord Lyell of Markyate believes the Cabinet Office has become grossly overloaded by the attempts to drag everything into the centre, bully the departments and think that it can all be done by special advisers.
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank pleaded that ministers should consider recruiting more technocratic special advisers, people who come in to advise on the expertise they have—not to leak or brief or to bag carry as is often the case now.
Far more critical Lord Morris of Aberavon stated “But what the large increase in the number of special advisers has done, I think, has been to increase this culture of interference and second-guessing, because they are sent out as groups to try to hasten the improvements that ministers are looking for. They have become the advance guard of a frustrated politician: “Can’t you sort this out and get something done? Can’t you shake these people up? Why aren’t they making any progress in this area?”. Those things in general do not lead to good decision making, and actually I think detract from the sort of machinery that necessarily has to be in place “
India has since recently turned into the natural yardstick for the Mauritian government, when benchmarking policies and practices. An absolute absurdity, given the incomparable, size, history, figures, demographics, ground realities, structural differences between both countries. Nonetheless playing the game as per their rules, let’s dig into a couple of comparisons which the government would never dare to engage. Diplomacy has been pivotal to the past economic success our island state. The slump in our diplomacy is largely due to the appointment of political cronies as diplomatic representatives abroad. The posting of Mahen Jugroo in USA would be a perfect example. Unless it was designed to taunt Donald Trump. Indian diplomacy relies on a backbone of seasoned professionals emerging through the ranks of the highly competitive Indian Foreign Service ( IFS) . Their dogged loyalty to their nation stands above any other consideration. Their versatility and knowledge stands beyond any possible comparison when pitted against Mauritian counterparts.
Similarly, no sound mind would reasonably pitch the current scoop of Advisors serving the government against the likes of P.K Mishra or Ajit Kumar Doval, both advisors of Narendra Modi. P.K Mishra hails from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) batch of 1972. Holder of a degree in Economics and a doctorate from Sussex University, his book on disaster management published in 2005 addresses the common concern of building disaster resilient country, reducing human, social, economic and environmental losses has been acclaimed in countries as far as Japan, Ajit Kumar Doval got through the Indian police Service (IPS) current National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of India has previously served as the Director of the Intelligence Bureau after spending a decade as the head of its operation wing. Its far more ridiculous when comparing the salary and perks benefitted by the advisors of the Mauritian government. All the advisors serving the Modi government are people with sworn loyalty to their establishment and would refrain from meddling into the web of party politics. The absurdity would be abysmal should we get into the game of right wing Hindu activists who tend to compare the BJP – MSM and Modi – Jugnauth. Just imagine, an advisor earning more than Modi and whose function is to teach the so called local Hindu leader to mumble a few words in Hindi. Incredible Mauritius!
New Zealand would be another interesting example. It’s taken only a couple of years for Jacinda Ardern to earn world recognition through her actions and organic image building. Ardern’s success is also due to effectiveness of her backroom staff currently led by Raj Nahna, who previously served the Obama dream team. Far from handling only media relations, Raj Nahna runs Ardern’s political bureau and offers advice on almost every issue relating to the country. Jacinda Ardern’s example is a clear case of how effective PR depends on substance and not bluffs By making accountability the corner stone of her program she has heeded to the plea of her people and her sustained actions have yielded recognition far beyond the borders of New Zealand.
PR – Pimping Relentlessly
The submissions of the distinguished members of the House of lords do offer strange resemblances with what we have been witnessing in our very own country. The more the dumbness of politicians, the greater the reliance on advisors. The current government of Pravind Jugnauth has more advisers than ministers and taking into account those camouflaged in parastatal bodies, it would be fair to say the number of advisors is far beyond the MP count itself. Interestingly , they all serve a unique purpose – Manage the PR of the Prime Minister.
One of the richest man in the world and founder of Microsoft, Bill gates believes, if he only had two dollars left, he would spend one dollar on PR. A bold statement which underlines the importance of image, perception & reputation management in a world, where churning public opinion is more than ever, of utmost value. But let’s keep in mind, Bill Gates would have been spent the remaining dollar on substance. At its roots Public Relations ( PR) was meant to build and foster ties with significant publics based on substance. Cloning initiatives of foreign leaders or advertising internationally to reach out to local audience are cheap and clumsy moves which at their best would backfire. The initiatives by advisors over the Chagos archipelagos, Covid Free campaign , Nas daily and the recent advertising in Economist are examples where PR stunts can lead to expensive jaw breaking somersaults.
For a debt ridden country where many are lacking basic amenities, to spend millions on advisors who in turn spend even more to promote the image of their leader constitutes a ridiculous crime. Advisors turning into institutionalized feature of the government machinery has led to politicization of public service even undermining the sacrosanct democratic process. The obscure appointment procedures, disturbing salary scales, perks and absence of accountability are only part of the reasons for public distrust. As observed, their misconduct, strong links with private sector and outrageous influence on public policy are the primary causes of the public uproar.
By condoning the despicable errant ways of some advisors the politicians have to assume their own share of guilt. When prioritizing their personal gain by running businesses of selling dogs, cars, routing contracts, to lobbying for radio licenses and privatization of public institution, these advisors have turned into liabilities. Furthermore countering the legitimate distrust of people by trolling on social media and harassing countrymen all while perpetuating the feel of an electoral campaign, will only result in having the population breathing down the neck of their masters. Creaming off the efforts of others and constantly portraying the prime minister as Vassili Zaïtsev, the mysterious hero of Stalingrad, can never be sustained for long. While leadership is made up of character, discipline, intelligence, courage and selflessness, a true leader can only be informed. Not advised, let alone pimped.