Towards an impartial and responsive service

ALOK SINHA

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A state based on laws (any kind of laws, democratic or autocratic) needs a bureaucracy to give it a framework. It might be a steel frame, or it might be motheaten and hollow one, but there has to be a frame.

India inherited a colonial steel frame in 1947, one which tried to mould itself to suit the 1950 democratic Constitution that we gave unto ourselves. In this valiant attempt, the Indian bureaucracy remained the handmaiden, or servant, of a polity that soon shed its Nehruvian liberalism to reveal its other attributes – of communalism, casteism and corruption (though occasionally buttressed by doses of honestly and constitutionalism).

Both conceptually, practically and historically, our bureaucracy has always carried a pejorative connotation, not the least because it has been variously held to be both slow and insensitive. In general, what sets the bureaucracy apart from other organizations, according to Max Weber is that, entry to its hallowed ranks is by open and public competition; it is permanent in tenure (unlike the American ‘loaves of office for political cronies’) to ensure its fearless impartiality; and it is governed by uniform rules and procedure to ensure its neutrality in organizational behaviour and operational applicability.

Let us now juxtapose the larger, ‘beyond bureaucracy’ picture to the parameters set out above. Post-independence, following the Mundra/LIC scandal of the 1950s, the Das Commission of Enquiry which forced Pratap Singh Kairon, the first and perhaps only chief minister to resign on grounds of corruption, and ever since a famous prime minister justified corruption as a universal phenomenon, there is a shared feeling of growing corruption at many levels, both within the administrative system as well as outside. It is widely suspected that the economy is heavily influenced by ‘black’ money as over a third of the currency in circulation is unaccounted for. In addition to black money, there is the increasing phenomenon of fake currency, whose reach and scope is not known even to the black market!

On top of all this is a self indulgent and ever-increasing consumerism of the rich and idle which, not surprisingly, is worshipped by the media. Witness the India Today cover story in celebration of Harshad Mehta – his luxurious lifestyle just before he was exposed as a big time swindler and conman (incidentally, not one ‘investigative’ reporter bothered to look into the source of his enormous wealth till he was already exposed).

It is this second, larger picture that is governing the first parameter, and hence, the bureaucracy is becoming more corrupt like everyone else. It is instructive that even the tainting of some elements of the judiciary fails to shock us. Casteism and regionalism are being further confounded by cronyism. Sam Manekshaw’s wonderfully witty epithet in the 1950s of the ‘Kaulboys’ (to describe the cronies of Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul who was a creature of Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon, who in turn was a creature of Prime Minister Nehru) illustrates how cronyism in our administrative system acquired roots soon after a democratic constitution was adopted in 1950.

 

What then of its future in India? To go back to the basics, the permanent bureaucracy is said to be the servant, or the operational tool, of its political master. There is nothing offensive in being the servant of a democratic and popularly accountable political master. But what happens when it is at the mercy of a corrupt and ideology-less polity, and then increasingly joins the fun-and-games of private pleasure overtaking public interest, adversely affecting professional performance.

A comparison of the civilian administration with that of the armed forces provides a telling illustration. For a variety of reasons, our corrupt polity with its short-term vision still does not interfere in the functioning of the armed forces (except in some rare instances like that of a defence minister who kept the army’s crucial Eastern Command headless for many months just so that his caste brethren could ultimately become eligible to be considered!). And nor do the armed forces tolerate or invite outside interference (except in very rare cases). Consequently, the armed forces remain highly professional, and have their own internal systems of self-correction (like quick punishment of the deviant) that is invariably absent in the civilian world. No wonder they are publicly respected.

 

On the other hand, the civilian administration not only faces continuous interference (frequent transfers at all levels and inexplicable super-sessions at the higher level) but worse, its members (especially at the higher levels) actually invite interference about which few complain. Riddled with ever-increasing factors of casteism, regionalism and cronyism, the large number of meritorious postings and so-far-neutral promotions are overshadowed by instances of bad personnel decisions. This may explain the growing public awareness of declining civilian performance as also why the armed forces have a visible professional pride, while most civilian administrators lack it – limiting themselves to individual self-praise.

Is there then no hope of an improvement in the Indian bureaucracy? The key point is that its behaviour and performance, for good or bad, will ultimately be decided by its political masters.

The Left Front government in West Bengal, despite inheriting a badly tainted bureaucracy which is alleged to have killed 20,000 Naxalites in fake encounters and actively rigged the assembly elections of 1972, skillfully guided and used the same bureaucracy to implement Operation Barga in 1977 (which gave occupancy rights to lakhs of vulnerable sharecroppers, thus contributing to stability in the peasantry as also a dramatic upsurge in agricultural output).

Similarly, managing food security through the PDS is widely acknowledged as somewhat of a success in Tripura, West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra and the four southern states, even as it is derided for regular misuse in the five BIMARU states. Note that both kinds performance are attributed to the same bureaucracy though driven by a different kind of polity!

 

The real point of discussion thus is how to make the Indian bureaucracy a more effective tool of better governance. Equally, to understand what has made it increasingly spineless and, thus, a less than effective tool to facilitate better development of Indian society. Hence, the attempt to focus on the main causes of its inability to deliver better, in particular its retrogressive personnel management.

1. Although entry into the Indian public service is competitive and neutral, placements thereafter (at all levels) are becoming discretionary, a process which often tends to be irrational, if not downright mischievous.

2. Such discretionary placements could be motivated by considerations of caste, community, kinship links, or plain corruption. A junior officer could well be given responsibility (and hence greater powers of patronage) than his seniors, almost as if bureaucratic placement is the private prerogative of the public leader. (In the armed forces, this has not yet happened.)

3. Supersessions, especially at the higher levels, are often done, and equally often rationalized, by professions of ‘commitment’ (obviously commitment to party/personality, and never to public interest).

4. There are also well-known instances of ‘fund-collecting’ officers (those who facilitate money collection for private good in the name of ‘party funds’) who invariably manage to get important postings in various regimes – a telling commentary not only of their lack of integrity but also to a growing corruption cutting across different political lines.

5. In a frequently changing ‘ruling party’ scene, fuelled by increasing defections and cross-alliances, each new ruling formation conducts a witch-hunt of the previous one. Since all orders are perforce signed and implemented by the bureaucracy, its members attempt to avoid being subsequently caught-up in such crossfire through the classic manoeuvre of indecision by pushing an implementable proposal to higher levels and thus ensuring their own personal security against a future enquiry. But this also makes decision-making a tortuously slow process.

 

A fluid and unstable polity makes a corrupt officialdom even more dysfunctional by playing havoc with the bureaucracy’s classically neutral foundations. Little surprise that bureaucrats constantly jockey to be noticed by powerful political masters. Posts dealing with commerce and industry are much sought after, while the more important social sector posts dealing with education, health and social welfare have become less popular with both politicians and bureaucrats.

The outcome is that the few idealistic bureaucrats who still want to help the poor through the social sector lose out in importance to those who can cosy up to the money-bags.

Page three intellectuals and industry associations do make a stylish combination with the bureaucracy. But who will serve the poor three quarters of our fellow citizens living on just about one dollar per day? To begin with, how should the bureaucracy organize itself to gear up for this huge but unavoidable task? Presuming that middle class, academically bright young people enter the hallowed portals of the bureaucracy because they are starry-eyed and ‘want to do good’, who will enable or make them ‘do good’. Will their masters want them to ‘do good’? What if the masters are more interested in ‘private’ and not ‘public’ good?

 

More than three decades in the service has reinforced my belief that the political masters know what the poor want: roti, kapda, makaan. And the bureaucrat knows how it is to be done. But both master and servant have so tinkered with the institutions that neither knows how to recover. More often than not, the political master plays the quick-fix game of handing out patronage to gain quick votes. And the servant tolerates it, at times even invites it. And some members of both the political class and bureaucracy jointly line their pockets. Are we surprised that the bureaucracy in India is losing both professional elan as well as public credibility?

In the civilian bureaucracy, all else being equal, selection for posts is not only highly centralized, it is at times personalized, with the real decision-making located outside the constitutionally sanctioned government. It could be in the ruling party. It could be in the ruling coterie. All of which makes for a fluid situation wherein ineligible officers are up for the picking. ‘Jockeying’ oneself and then lobbying for posts thus assumes the shape of a race. And then deal-makers take over followed by damaging media speculation.

The point is not whether in this fluid situation merit does or does not play an important role. What definitely does are factors of caste, kinship and corruption. Once money power gets involved, any thing is possible.

What makes it worse is that with the ideological fading away of the garibi hatao days, the social sector and its poor clients have become increasingly irrelevant to middle class concerns. Consumerism has made the middle class obsessed with the moneyed worlds of petroleum/power/commerce sectors. This has affected the bureaucracy as well as the media. And disjointed, unsystematic selection for posts, supplemented by corruption and community/kinship links, has made middle class aspirations wipe out any thought of the poor. Thus, even though performance in, for example, the power sector continues to go from bad to worse, postings in this sector continues to gain both glamour and media importance.

 

But the future can still be corrected. Entry at the bureaucratic level is still open and competitive and continues to be above board. But posting by selection thereafter remains erratic. One way out would be to constitute selection boards for all important posts, as for the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, Chief Information Commissioner and so on, situations wherein the government has to involve the opposition. A further step would be to involve distinguished industrialists and social workers in a commission to recommend how to overhaul the bureaucracy.

Since the entry point is still well organized and above board, and hence continues to attracts the best young minds, we owe it to both them as well as to the country to have a civilian administration that commands respect.

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