Wait and watch

Elections in five states, followed by general elections, means hibernation time for bureaucrats

CK Mathew | November 21, 2018


#assembly elections   #Rajasthan   #Chhattisgarh   #Madhya Pradesh   #Telangana   #Mizoram  
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

The dates for the polls in five states have been announced: Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Mizoram will have new governments by the end of the year. A few short months thereafter, the parliamentary elections will throw the country once again into the throes of the polls. As has been the practice in this vast and wondrous country of ours, governance will take a back seat now as politicians of all hues and colours and political parties from across the wide spectrum of ideology, left to centre to right, start to roam the countryside importuning their countrymen for their precious votes. 
 
India turns itself into a cloud and cuckoo land as impossible promises are made, insults hurled, dirty tricks played and crores of rupees spent. The stakes couldn’t be higher: the country is up for grabs.
 
It is an odd time to be an officer of the government in this melee. IAS officers in the districts or at state capitals as also at the centre must keep patience and wait and watch. No new announcements can be made, law and order must be maintained at all costs and they all know that the slightest indiscretion can be misinterpreted. Those who have been close to the powers that be and have called the shots at the centre or the states bite their nails and hope that their patrons are voted back to power. If they are, it means a world of a difference: if not, they are, as the new government takes charge, likely to be shunted off to the boondocks to pasture. 
 
So they all wait and watch. However, a more rational and balanced view may be more charitable to the much maligned IAS officer. The five years of any government is a significant period of time in his or her career. There are some lucky ones who last the entire period in a single assignment. At the other end are those who may be tossed around here and there like a loose shuttle. But typically, and on an average, an officer can hold two-three posts during this period. If he or she is at the secretariat (at the centre or state), the officer invests time and energy in building a reasonable equation with the minister and pushing for improvements and reforms, of course, limited to one’s own capacity and the mood of the government to accept these changes. Often grandiose schemes have to be shelved: most probably, and if at all, incremental changes alone can be implemented. At worst a dull status quo is set in place. Very often, the dynamic innovations of officers who study their departments and propose radical new changes have to be given the go-by with the simple admonishment that it is not yet time for these reforms; or, it is not politically feasible at this stage; or finances do not permit it etc., etc. 
 
In such cases, there are still some who do not lose hope, but seek to establish order and objectivity within the existing framework so as to maximise results and outputs. But when elections are announced, even to maintain the status quo one has to work hard: Lewis Carroll put it this way: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” And the best officers are those, who within this space of time, work hard, improve systemic shortcomings, keep things in order and ensure that the problems of the common man are attended to as best as possible. It is a time to set things shipshape and consolidate.  
 
If the officer is a young deputy commissioner or district collector, one quickly learns who really matter in the political hierarchy, which officer can be relied upon to deliver, who are likely to let you down. The DC learns not to keep the political figures in the district unhappy, even though their unstinted support may not be forthcoming. Some of the officers learn the fine art of balance and remain scrupulously neutral, earning both the consternation of the contesting political representatives, and sometimes their grudging respect. The outstanding ones open up their offices to the people at large, working tirelessly to resolve their problems, hearing out their grievances and easing their miseries. They are often remembered long after they have been transferred out. But after the elections have been announced, while they too may have to go into a slow hibernation, they never close down their office, but keep the pot on the fire in a slow simmer, neither burning down nor spilling over. In all things they try to see that the normalcy is maintained and there are no hardships caused to the people. 
 
It is these twilight moments, after the announcements of the elections and before the swearing in of the new government, that sometimes bring out the best in an officer. At the field level for example, there will be political and other interests that seek to press him or her to issue orders: orders for seemingly innocuous things that in reality may impinge on the electoral prospects. Some of them may press for the release of funds in developmental works, which they will argue, are routine and essential: though the intention may be to benefit some contractor or the other. Some may want their favourite clerks or minions of the government placed at certain desks or in certain positions in the office so as to leverage some perceived advantage. The wise officer smiles and says, “Let me see, I’ll think about it.” 
 
At the state government level, the stakes may be higher: but there are strict guidelines and instructions of the election commission as to what can or cannot be done. When interested political figures appear before them, seeking some favour or the other, many experienced secretaries resort to the art of stonewalling by smiling and nodding and doing nothing. Others divert attention by talking of the prospects of different personages in the elections, who is winning or losing, and who can become the next chief minister of the state. It is only a fool who will concede a dubious request made to them during this interval period of the elections.
 
So there it is: in the five states now, and later for the whole country, it is the time for the babu to take up the fine art of waiting and watching. There are those who do things they have always wanted to do: read books, learn a new language, write a doctoral thesis (as I did!), watch old movies, listen to music or spend quality time with the family. I would say, make the best of it, for soon you will be back at your desk, and running twice as fast to remain at the same place ! 
 
Dr Mathew, former chief secretary of Rajasthan, is senior fellow, Public Affairs Centre.

(The article appears in November 30, 2018 edition)

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