Let’s go tango

A former cabinet secretary goes down memory lane to diagnose the state of governance

subramanian

TSR Subramanian | March 9, 2013



Akhilesh Yadav, the chief minister of UP, was recently reported as stating that the bureaucrat has “no allegiance to anyone” (kisi ka nahin hota hai). This statement was made while addressing the party workers. It is not clear whether the statement was adulatory, referring to the neutrality and impartiality of the civil servant; or was it a lament that the senior bureaucrat has no “commitment” to the work assigned to him; or even pejoratively worse, that the civil servant does not show “loyalty” to the political dispensation in charge of the state administration. In all likelihood, it was a wistful comment that the senior bureaucrats do not instantly obey the wishes and commands of the political leadership, whether they be legitimate or otherwise.

The bureaucrat and the politician are two sides of the governance coin. The bureaucrat has had a longer life in the Indian administrative scenario than the politician. Between them there is a strange symbiosis that is, at times, antagonistic as well as mutually beneficial. Both the bureaucrat and the politician seem to be locked in a tango-cum-wrestling match where one or the other is loved, hated, relied upon and discarded as and when the winds of opportunity blow.

The decline in administrative standards in India started seriously from about the mid-70s – it is not a coincidence that commencement of sharp deterioration in governance standards relates to this period. The 1980s was the era of the rise of the politician. A new breed of entry into politics came into vogue.

Criminals, goondas, and riff-raff from the society used dubious means to acquire legitimate political authority. Politics became a business – a lucrative one at that time. The breed of politicians entering politics exclusively to make wealth became the norm. By the 1990s, the political-criminal nexus had already been well established – the subjugation of the civil service was total and complete. Chief ministers ruled their respective “kingdom” much like a tyrant or despot; the public servant had now to become a “private servant” if he had indeed to survive, not to speak of thriving in the system. Many aspects of the Mughal system of government resurfaced. Those civil servants who read the signs “well”, and were willing to adjust their attitudes and behaviour found it rewarding professionally, and for some lucrative personally – others, more able and conscientious, were condemned to sit it out on the fringes of administration. It was already sad to hear civil servants describe their ministers as their “masters”.

It is an open secret in every state, indeed increasingly at the centre, as to how much money is to be given to which politician for anything to be done – a clearance, an approval however legitimate; even a tweaking of the policy designed to give windfall gains – all these are possible at a price. Politics has now become the most lucrative business in India, with no checks and balances, with the players (politicians) fixing their own goal posts, and umpiring their own games. Political power is obtained with large cost which needs to be recouped, with massive gains, in a short period. In this process, the civil servant’s cooperation is indispensable to the politician, in his quest for “getting things done” – aka making huge personal profits. Those civil servants who are willing to tango with the politician thrive and succeed; others however capable, fall by the wayside; all these at the cost of the citizen, whose interest is nobody’s concern. This is the anatomy of the abysmal fall in governance standards.

The institution which has held the country together in the first sixty years after Independence, and contributed most to its progress and development till now, is undoubtedly ‘the higher civil services’. One should not forget that in general the brightest graduates in India make an attempt to join the IAS, and the competition is fierce. Some of the brightest minds in India have manned the higher civil services from independence to the present era. Most of them, when they join the service, enthusiastically are keen to serve the public. However, 15 or 20 years later many are transformed – the political system subjugates them – many have lost their intellectual integrity; sadly in some instances even their personal financial integrity. From eager, bold, enthusiastic public servants, some of them, alas a sharply increasing number in recent years, get transformed into “private servants”, to service their political ‘masters’.

The shrewd politician, with unerring eye, picks up the “weakest” (in a moral sense) among those in his purview, and tempts or suborns him to join the bandwagon as a partner – sadly many succumb. They “succeed” spectacularly, leaving behind much abler and more devoted colleagues to lower positions; in due course, Gresham’s law prevails. It requires great moral courage and character for a civil servant to maintain high integrity, and not fall prey to the large temptations that are dangled before him – one must say with pride and satisfaction that a very large number of higher civil servants, indeed most, meet these tests, and are able to hold their own.

There is no question but that the esprit de corps of the services has vanished; its élan is a thing of the past now. Indeed the higher civil services are now seen, especially in urban areas, with a sense of ridicule and even pity. To some extent this is well-deserved, and has been wrought on themselves by the members of the services. However, even today, if one travels to districts and other rural areas, the IAS collector or district magistrate, is looked up to by most citizens as a bright, effective, and respected representative of the government. While the public may talk loosely about corruption at the level of the clerks in the collectorate or in the tehsil office, in general the district magistrate is even today highly regarded, spoken of with a sense of awe and is a role model for the youth of the district. He may not be the ‘king of all he surveyed’ of yore, but still plays the key role in holding the district administration together.

A couple of anecdotes will throw light on the sea change that has taken place over the decades in terms of relationship between bureaucrats and politicians. During the 50’s, when Morarji Desai was the chief minister of undivided Bombay state, he held an in-camera meeting of the MPs and MLAs of Surat district. The Surat city MP complained bitterly to the CM that the local superintendent of police (SP) would not listen to him, and follow his instructions.

Whereupon, the CM told him bluntly that “the SP works for me, and the state government – he does not work for you (the MP); indeed if I (CM) come to know that he takes instructions from you, I will make sure that I will dismiss the SP instantly.” Can such a conversation take place today – can any CM read the code in such direct language to any district party man, leave alone an MLA or MP? Today a transfer, even of the SP or DM, will be ordered by the CM at the drop of a hat, merely on a simple request by a district politician.

Personal loyalty to the CM sadly is an important qualification for getting suitable postings. Thus, whenever there is a change in government, large-scale transfers take place. When Mayawati took over as CM early in the last decade, there were 900 senior-level transfers in the first three months; 12 senior officers were passed over to appoint the new chief secretary. It is standard practice in many states that supernumerary posts of DG of police are created to berth sidelined and superseded officers, merely to accommodate a preferred and favoured candidate to that post, who will be ‘loyal’.

In the government of India, it always used to be the case that secretaries were chosen carefully to ensure that they were not personally close or ‘loyal’ to the minister of the department. Indeed, if the minister and secretary start colluding, the potential for damage to the system is immense. This is precisely what happened in the telecom ministry a few years back – the minister ‘hand-picked’ every official dealing with 2G licensing from under-secretary level upwards to the level of secretary – a monumental scam was the result. It is imperative to ensure the neutrality and impartiality of the civil servant, if good governance is desired.

It will also be interesting to trace the attitude and approach of the members of the higher civil services in the period since independence. For the first two or three decades, both at the district and secretariat levels, they functioned as if they were the ‘government’. The district magistrate was free and independent, could take up causes and programmes on his own shoulders like his predecessors of yore, and generally was responsible for his own actions.

He functioned of course under the benevolent eye of the commissioner. However, he had freedom of action to take up any cause and pursue it. We have seen the onslaught of politics from the mid-’70s onwards, how the entire civil service was infiltrated, suborned, subjugated and finally demolished (at least in spirit) by the political executive – this process took a couple of decades. The new breed of higher civil servants at senior levels in this century will not take up any issue (however convinced of its correctness), will not take any significant initiative and generally will wait for instructions from the political executive before he moves one inch.

The concept of ‘committed bureaucracy’ ushered in by Indira Gandhi was a factor which ultimately changed the situation significantly. To be charitable to the then PM, perhaps she intended the commitment to be to the work assigned or the tasks to be completed. Rapidly the interpretation changed as commitment to the politician concerned, then on to any politician; this became the norm within a few years. Thus, ‘enterprising’ bureaucrats interpreted this call for commitment to come closer to politicians (not necessarily policies) and to ensure that the minister’s will was converted into law. Rapidly ‘commitment’ got translated into reckless, unprincipled alliances to individual politicians or to parties. Even by late ’80s, it was only the odd bureaucrat, well-identified by his community, who joined hands with the politicians, in unholy alliance – by the mid-’90s, such was the ‘success’ of such ‘pioneers’ that bureaucrats in larger numbers made the transition; alas this tribe has sharply multiplied in the next two decades.

Our constitution makers have given us a wonderful working document. However, they failed to recognise the need to in-build checks and balances against the political class, in a largely backward and illiterate country with an uninformed citizenry. In the first few decades, it was the well-meaning and generally honest elements which entered the political field, and controlled the reins of administration, leaving the advisory and implementation role largely with the civil servants. However, in the past three or four decades, the politician has comprehended the unchecked powers conferred on him, and has exploited it, with increasing ferocity and ruthless efficiency, to convert political power to massive personal gains, at the expense of the general public. Where the civil servant helped him in the process, he was rewarded – or else, the civil servant was condemned to the sidelines. The bureaucrat who stood up was targeted with adverse entries, inquiries, to ensure that he played ball. It is a tribute to the quality of our civil services that a large number have stood up to the onslaught; however, most feel redundant, neglected – a huge resource is not being properly utilised in our governance.

The allegiance of the civil servant is to the constitution of India, and to the people of India – it is not to any political person or party, or the government in power for whom the civil servant is working at any time. A public servant is not a private servant. Civil service is an instrument of governance – the quality of governance is dictated by the vision, integrity, and capacity of the political leader – he takes the credit for good governance; he ought to carry the odium of poor governance. After 60 years in the saddle, the politician cannot blame anything or anybody, for the abysmal failure in the quality of governance in the country. 

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