Bureaucracy and democracy


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‘The motto of enlightenment is therefore: "Dare to Know!" Have courage to use your own understanding.’

Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?, 1784

BUREAUCRATS in fiction are usually characterized as schizophrenic, with a manifest fawning nature and piteous soullessness. In contrast, history records the growing prestige of the bureaucrat or ‘general staff’ in modern times. Even as the efficiency of bureaucracies in terms of sheer span and outreach has been eulogized, their dysfunctions have been attributed to the self-serving nature of bureaucrats, with corruption identified as the main affliction. Surprisingly, the totalitarian streak in all bureaucracies – of parties, state, church, multi-nationals – is often overlooked.

Is the preoccupation with the efficiency of a bureaucracy misplaced? Should we be looking instead at bureaucracy more intently from the point of view of the liberty of the individual citizen and other social values and institutions like equality, fraternity, property and security which are basic democratic concerns? Does this make a difference to how we think about corruption – as a derivative of ‘the will to a system’ which Nietzche regarded as ‘the lack of integrity’ – to the details and human feelings about particular predicaments, rather than as a result of the innate self-serving nature of man? Should we dismantle the mammoth apparatus of the state bureaucracy that we have in India and relate to laws and governance in an atomistic and interactive fashion, much like personal computers have taken over from supercomputers?

The origins of bureaucracy, which lie not in the organization of either state or church as one might imagine but in the private commercial organizations called ‘bureaus’ was noted by the well-known nineteenth century Prussian sociologist, Max Weber. For him, bureaucracy denoted a particular type of structure of authority distinct from traditional or charismatic authority. It consisted of a hierarchically ordered set of offices impersonally held by persons recruited on merit who acted according to explicitly stated rules. Contrary to popular belief about bureaucracy today, Weber regarded it as the most efficient form of large organizations. This type of authority was applied increasingly in organizations like armies, the church, government and political parties and represented a historical movement away from traditional to rational-legal authority.


Reflecting on such an ‘ideal type’ in the light of social history helps us recognize bureaucracy, not just as an organization but as a social institution as well. The story of Rabourdin in ‘The Bureaucrats’ (Les Employes) by Balzac, is an incisive analysis of the distinctive ‘modern’ institution of a state bureaucracy in France and the manner in which it shaped social class and mentality. Aided by his unscrupulous wife, Rabourdin attempts to halve the size of the government while doubling its revenue and suffers the wrath of a frightened and desperate body of low-ranking functionaries led by his utterly incompetent rival who leaks his plans to them. Balzac’s bureaucrats are not faceless or impersonal like Weber would have us believe, but suffer from all-too-human traits like ambition, avarice and pettiness. Rabourdin’s rival is, in fact, conspiratorial and a powerful flesh and blood person with real connections and the burning ambition to rise to the level of the next vacancy.

Balzac’s observation about the social mentality created by bureaucracy has spawned much thought, especially in the seminal work of Michel Foucault on ‘govern-mentality’ regarded by him as a social phenomenon rather than simply the craft of bureaucrats. Social mentality is not immutable but the mould is difficult to change. Usually, it is the imperceptible changes in everyday practices that lead up to a spectacular structural change, but active ideological propaganda or engagement with new technology can also trigger public opinion to change societies in a flash.

The soft parade of ideologically oriented ‘committed’ bureaucracies in the early 20th century, such as the Bolshevik or Nazi party-state organizations, shook the world, but did not shock it out of its enthusiasm for creating even more powerful organizations. Till even thirty years ago, techno-economic bureaucracies were the master spirits of the age. The socialists were enthralled with the idea of centralized planning, whether of a Stalinist or Keynesian version. As the totalitarian slant of such bureaucracies manifested themselves, the socialist argument became somewhat apologetic: bureaucracy was essential for a transitional historical phase to the utopia of complete equality and freedom of citizens.


There were notable voices who did not share this widespread delusion. Tagore’s lectures (1913) at Columbia University on the alternative of building a world of personality instead of an obsession for organization which was haunting a divided Europe on the brink of war, fell on deaf ears though they were not lost on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Again, Kurusawa’s powerful depiction in ‘Doomed’ (1952), of how much the individual will of a head clerk of a local municipality could achieve to spread public parks of happiness if he were spiritually moved to do so, remains a hauntingly spirited rejection of the enthusiasm for bureaucracy in his times.

Ludwig von Mises, the economist, remained a feeble critical voice in America during the entire discourse on the Marshall Plan and state-led post-War reconstruction of Europe. His book, Bureaucracy appeared the same year (1944) as the setting up of the Bretton Woods institutions with their ideological inclination towards bureaucracy. He argued that increasing faith in bureaucracy was but a symptom of the erosion in the importance of the institutions of liberty and private property. Any confusion between instrumentalities of private and social ownership, or compromises like a ‘mixed economy’, was bound to inhibit growth and development. Without freedom of thought and conscience along with a profit motive, people could not be innovative or industrious which alone could provide the institutional basis for sustained growth and development.1 


Today, however, bureaucracy is regarded as the greatest obstacle to a borderless world.2 Have the tables been turned on the tyranny of bureaucracy by the world of profit, or would it be closer to the truth to say that any particular bureaucracy is regarded by all other bureaucracies as the obstacle? It is probably a bit of both.

Bretton Woods or UN bureaucracies regard national bureaucracies as a problem; multinational companies or non-profits frown similarly on state bureaucracies; the army derides the machinery of civilian government; the state bureaucracies look at corporations with suspicion and invariably all these sentiments are reciprocated. A settlement of these turf battles and mutual lack of professional respect on the one hand and the common cause of living off the fat of the land is best found in the buzzword – private-public partnerships (PPP).

Just about everything, from building infrastructure to achieving the millennium development goals – with the reform of universities hovering somewhere in between – is declared to be achievable if, and only if, the mantra ‘PPP’ is chanted. Does PPP represent a weaning away of state bureaucracies from rent-seeking proclivities towards greater involvement in raising the productivity of delivery mechanisms, or does this merely shift rent-seeking behaviour to professionals (as evident in health care) and companies who muscle in to capture contracts with state bureaucracies (power and petroleum sectors), or, even worse, the horrors of a power elite acting in concert in the name of ‘national interest’ that worried a Galbraith or C. Wright Mills?


Margaret Thatcher managed to dispel some of these fears. With her hard-nosed look at the specific technological configuration of each industry, and recognizing the tendency towards natural monopoly only in some parts of it, she decided to unbundle the public utilities and retain only these portions, privatizing everything else where the risks could be better controlled by private companies. There is no gainsaying the fact that these measures based on clarity about private and social property, and her support for entrepreneurialism, rejuvenated a tired British economy. It also dealt a telling blow to the wry sense of humour of the 1970s, a la Yes Minister, which tried to shrug off the evident stalemate between its elected representatives and the bureaucracy. The iron lady showed them who was boss!

PPPs devised by international and state bureaucracies or even NGOs for developing countries suffer from a failure to clearly distinguish in full detail the activities that are best organized on the basis of private property from those based on social ownership. They suffer from the bureaucratic term-serving craft of reconciling mutually irreconciliable interests and not looking at the long term.

An interesting example of such PPPs is provided by an important part of the land reforms launched in 1978 in West Bengal called Operation Barga. The Nandigram episode is a dramatic example of the shortsightedness of leaving title deeds to land with absentee landlords while registering rights to sharecropping of bargadars under a ‘socialistic’ dispensation. The flaw in the arrangement came to the fore when the government tried to carve out a Special Economic Zone and sell land to private industry, whereby, in the main, only absentee title holders of the land would have gained!


While Thatcher was defiant in her postures towards the Soviet system known as USSR, India had to wait for its total collapse before mild-mannered economic reforms could be declared in 1991 for market re-entry. In contrast with the UK, the economic reforms in India may not have been as thoroughgoing, with halting progress in privatization of trade and industry, but coinciding with the revolution in information technology sweeping the world, they certainly managed to unleash productive energies of equal if not greater intensity. The end of licence-raj coincided with the global integration of stock markets by computers and the internet which combined to unleash entrepreneurial urges. The wage differentials and prospects in an emergent market attracted foreign capital.

The political fallout of the economic reforms have been dramatic. The pre-eminence of the state and the socialist rhetoric of an extremely corrupt bureaucracy were rudely shaken for the first time since national independence. Within the dominant classes, capitalists have displaced the political position of rich farmers and the middle classes have gained moral sway over the bureaucratic-managerial class. With increasing competition between bureaucracies of state governments the relative autonomy of government bureaucracy on the whole has weakened.3 Even as some bureaucrats in India hastily slipped into the capitalist wings the large mass of them waited and are now gorging on the largesse of the sixth pay commission award. Clearly they better appreciated the incestuous relationship of bureaucracy with business that the economic reforms have involved. The global financial crisis that hit home in October 2008, with its impact on employment in private companies, has lent a further twist to the whole tale of privatization. The security enjoyed by government servants is being celebrated with renewed aplomb.


Meanwhile, since 1991, a whole new services sector has emerged in India. Electoral mobilization has found new ways and means more amenable to manipulation by capitalists. The onslaught of the electronic media – CDs, TV, SMS and the internet – has not only rekindled a yen for discourse and democracy but, equally, has garnered large audiences to establish itself as both judge and jury.

By contrast, the half-hearted constitutional amendments in 1992/93 for reviving local bodies, which followed close on the heels of economic reforms, have not triggered much change in the political landscape. This is no surprise. A panchayat was defined in the amendments as ‘a body for local self-government, with a development orientation. This phraseology compromised more powers than it actually offered to the local bodies. To divine its meaning, we have to turn to the schedules that list the subjects local bodies are to deal with. Police and land, the very subjects that provide pelf and power to the state bureaucracy, are not included in these schedules. Therefore, the revival of local self-government proved to be a hugely successful electoral slogan for decentralization when it was announced, but a completely ineffectual move for democratizing governance.


By retaining the reigns of power (land and police) with state government bureaucracies while formalizing the status of local bodies as conduits of finance for development programmes, the exchange of money drawn from development grants to local bodies for bureaucratic favours/sanctions has been further facilitated. Add to this the fact that corresponding changes in accountability structures (overhaul of British enactments on local funds audit under state governments to give auditors of local bodies independent constitutional teeth and status) have been conveniently glossed over, and we have a recipe for intense corruption. Panchayat and state elections are financed by these slush funds ostensibly meant for development. When we contrast this state of affairs with the rapid progress of decentralization in France and UK post 1982, the accountability deficit in India is appalling.

The historicity of the concerted campaigns for the right to information is located in this conjuncture of the post-reforms democratic enthusiasm, communicative action and the accountability deficit in local bodies. The right of direct access of individual citizens to information (unmediated by the legislature, judiciary, press or CAG) was agitated by human rights activists, Narmada Bachao Andolan and several such agitations prior to the concerted campaign which began in 1996. It gathered momentum with the movement led by MKSS for social audit of public works implemented by local bodies. The fact that even when the Freedom of Information Act was first enacted in 2003, it could not come into force for two years because it was not notified by state bureaucracy – a telling comment on the stranglehold it still holds on the democratic process.

After enactment and notification of the Right to Information Act, 2005, several stratagems of the bureaucracy to throttle the power it has given people and the excited media have had to be countered by the campaign. On its part, civil society has seized the right to agitate all other rights that affect the marginalized citizens and sections of society in India. John Locke’s ideas about the right to self-preservation and preservation of the world in his celebrated Two Treatises on Government appear to be germinating at last on Indian soil as well. Some comfort to citizens is also provided by the fact that the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) in June 2006 has hailed the right to information as ‘the master key to good governance.’


The approach paper placed on the website by the ARC is, however, quite confusing. Immediately after declaring that India has an impressive administrative infrastructure, the paper bemoans ‘increasing lawlessness in pockets of the country and armed groups resorting to violence for sectarian and ideological reasons!’ The ‘malignant factors afflicting Indian society’, of unemployment and discrimination, appear at the end of the paper, almost as an afterthought. One would have thought that the disaffection is due to unemployment and discrimination.


The paper then goes on candidly to admit that ‘the state apparatus is generally perceived to be largely inefficient, with most functionaries serving no useful purpose. The bureaucracy is generally seen to be tardy, inefficient and unresponsive. Corruption is all-pervasive…’ The seven voluminous reports of the ARC are a narrative about soul searching within the bureaucracy. An important one, on ethics in governance, argues that the protection from arbitrariness and any hint of stigma attaching to bureaucrats, given by Article 311 of the Constitution, should be removed and conduct rules re-written. To these and other recommendations of ARC, perhaps another could be added, that the legal presumption in the Evidence Act of 1872 whereby a government servant is presumed to have performed his duties in the normal course, unless proof to the contrary is brought, be deleted.

However, removing legal impediments to punishment of the corrupt bureaucrat can only serve as some kind of blood-letting. Reading through the report, it appears that the ARC has been influenced more by a concern for morality rather than for professional ethics. While morality relates to a schema of ultimate rewards and punishment, ethics is premised on a person’s search (not that of an organization) for what he/she perceives as the highest good, for its own sake (not ultimate ends it might further) and considerations of well-being of self and others in this world. Expecting an average bureaucrat to work not for his own highest good and well-being, but to make sacrifices so as to serve the marginalized poor while the rest of society avariciously pursues its own goods, is to only chase a chimera.

The nascent Scottish Parliament’s innovation of re-engineering their civil service to organize it project-wise rather than department-wise might provide a certain job-satisfaction among its civil servants in accomplishing time-bound projects and thereby generate a performance related enthusiasm for ethics among them. Instead of continuing to think within the colonial mould of a permanent bureaucracy, is it not time that we think about contractual appointments at all levels of bureaucracy, stipulating clear project-related terms and conditions?


Should the system of a general staff of the Indian civil services being deployed across all manner of institutions requiring specialization not be dismantled? Hasn’t practically every member of the all-India services sought refuge for survival in the clever game of political accommodation and corruption, which puts paid to the original idea of a liberal educated elite serving a democratic form of government? Serving the poor or any other onerous tasks undertaken with a clear understanding of the freedom allowed to use one’s mind and other terms to achieve time-bound outcomes and moving on to other challenges can be very gratifying, generative of an ethical orientation. To be constantly prodded to do so in the straight-jacketed scenario of a permanent bureaucracy, captured so vividly by Kurusawa, is to be doomed indeed.

The change in governmentality is reconfiguring the problem of corruption in the bureaucracy. Corruption was earlier viewed as due to the venality of the bureaucrat or due to his being paid a pittance or even his majboori in the face of political pressure from on high. It was recognized in India as collusive, a transaction to mutual benefit of citizens concerned in particular transactions and the officials, in the face of inappropriate laws and outdated rules. Even righteous officials and citizens rationalized their own compromises to negotiate their survival in a totalized scenario with sighs of resignation like ‘sara system hi kharab hai.


What is happening today by way of a shift in mentality is that more and more people are investigating the reasons for their own subjugation (not of others like marginalized groups) in whatever sphere they are engaged in. This is refreshingly different from an abstract commitment to ‘others’ like the poor because it generates real knowledge instead of mere propaganda.4 Any expectations from the weak ineffectuality of the hierarchical structures of control over the bureaucracy, spreading out from the Public Accounts Committee of the legislatures and winding its way through ministerial secretariats to the final ‘controlling officers’, are being abandoned by the middle classes who are socially networking to demand accountability directly by officials concerned to the affected people themselves. A world of personality is also resurging as civil society engages with problems of the environment, music, art, literature and a caring society.

Nothing illustrates this better than the civil action covered so thoroughly by the electronic media, during and after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. Only skeptics would wave aside the remarkable civil action following the attacks in Mumbai as elitist. They forget that leadership for the initial phase of the struggle for India’s independence also came from among the elite. Contrasting features of structures of governance in Pakistan and India have been highlighted by the attacks. The weak ineffectuality of the so-called ‘steel frame’ of the Indian civil services in protecting the lives of citizens (a national shame) and the venality of the Pakistan Army in aiding and abetting terrorism as a means of waging a proxy war on India have both been laid bare.


Instead of resigning ourselves to the hegemony of the centralized civil services in India as a lesser evil, it is essential to overhaul the system. We need to focus on subjects like land and police being transferred from the state list in our Constitution to the eleventh and twelfth schedules so that local residents are empowered to have a say in these matters consistent with the idea of local self-government. Local bodies must be empowered to deal with regulatory and not just development functions, for which both coercive force and powers over land are essential. Concomitant changes in terms of taxes that local bodies can impose would naturally be required. Each tier of government must also have exclusive jurisdiction over the recruitment, promotion and termination of the services of all officials serving it. The post-colonial regime of all-India services must be dismantled.

A charge in the wrong direction – towards even greater centralization in the name of better coordinating efficiency between different agencies of coercive force – would in fact end up contributing to the militarization of the Indian polity insidiously intended and repeatedly sought to be precipitated by Pakistani terror attacks. Greater democratization, rather than further bureaucratization, is the need of the hour. It is life, not paper, that should count.



1. Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1944.

2. Kenichi Ohmae, The Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Interlinked Economy, Harper Business, New York, 1990.

3. See Partha Chatterjee, ‘Democracy and Economic Transformation in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 19 April 2008.

4. See Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, 1947, published in English in 1991 in a translation by John Moore, Verso, London.