Of bureaucracy, the public and ‘vishwas’ politics


IN 2021, the bureaucracy or more specifically the Indian Administrative Service, made its way into the headlines in unexpected and unsavory ways. In February, while defending the governments’ disinvestment policy in Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a sharp attack against the bureaucracy. ‘Babu’s will do everything? What is this great power we have created?’ he asked, ‘What are we going to achieve by handing over the reins of the nation to babus?’

Prime Minister Modi is not alone in expressing deep-seated frustration with the bureaucracy and in particular the elite IAS. Nearly all his predecessors from Nehru to Manmohan Singh (the irony notwithstanding) routinely pointed fingers at the babu for all that was wrong with India’s ‘governance’ – red tape, inefficiency, corruption. ‘The government at every level… is not adequately equipped… to meet the aspirations of people’, said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his first address to the nation as Prime Minister back in 2004. But what differentiates February’s attack from frustrations of the past is the fact that it was made in Parliament in full public view and in defence of the private sector.

Almost as though it was responding to the prime ministers’ chidings, months later in those dark days of April and May 2021, the bureaucracy showcased the best and worst of itself. Amidst the ravages of the Covid 19 second wave, as hapless citizens’ searched for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and medicines, we heard tales of innovation and leadership, of oxygen war rooms and command centres, of scores of frontline workers who put themselves at grave personal risk to respond to the crisis. But these tales of heroism were routinely interspersed with unsavory, vulgar displays of power. Entrusted with maintaining public health measures, Covid 19 legitimized draconian intrusions by bureaucrats into our everyday lives.



The bureaucracy embraced these new powers with unabashed enthusiasm. District magistrates were routinely caught on camera slapping and beating citizens’, smashing their phones, abusing and even spraying them with sanitizer in the guise of securing public cooperation to comply with Covid 19 rules. In the months that followed, even as Covid 19 retreated, instances of routine violence, both through soft coercion and the occasional active use of force repeatedly made their way into the headlines. There was the unsavoury video of the young sub-district magistrate who achieved notoriety by getting caught on camera commandeering the local police to ‘break their (farmer protestors) heads’, the possible complicity of the district administration in the killing of a young man protesting an eviction drive, amongst others.

Taken together these somewhat disparate headlines reveal the deepening fault lines in the relationship between bureaucrats and politics on the one hand and bureaucrats and the public on the other. The two are not disconnected. Political culture significantly shapes bureaucratic behaviour and how it responds to citizens. After all, alignment with political power is a crucial source of legitimacy for the bureaucracy and its organizations. Further, coercion and the occasional wilful use of violence is not unique to Covid 19 nor is it a new phenomenon. In fact, it is an endemic feature of our administrative culture.


Yet, as I will argue in this essay, the intersection of the current political moment (a centralized, technocratic, personality driven politics) with the prevalent bureaucratic culture is leading to a subtle and systemic shift in the dynamics of the relationship between bureaucracy, politics and the public. Understanding the transitions underway in our democracy requires grappling with these unfolding dynamics and coming to terms, fully and frontally with their implications on citizen-state relations.1

In an insightful essay political scientist and my colleague at CPR, Neelanjan Sircar describes the contemporary political moment in Indian politics as characterized by a new type of political mobilization based on what he calls the ‘politics of vishwas’.2 Vishwas politics is a deeply personalized form of politics in which voters expressly prefer centralizing political power within a ‘strong’ political leader, investing complete faith and trust in the leader.

Two strategic tools in the practice of politics sustain vishwas. First, political centralization, which is at the heart of the Hindu nationalist ideological project of the current dispensation and second, the ability to control money, media and the party machinery and deploy this complex toward building a direct relationship between the voter and the leader. Vishwas politics requires the careful crafting of the image of the leader in ways that can, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s describes, ‘colonize our imaginations, our hopes, our fears.’3 This is the politics of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Modi.



While money, media and the party machinery, as Sircar argues, are key, there is a strong case to be made for unpacking the role of the bureaucracy, specifically the elite IAS, in producing ‘vishwas’. It is my argument that bureaucracy is central to vishwas politics. On the one hand, the pathologies of the bureaucracy are critical to keeping alive in the public imagination, the image of Modi as a hardworking, decisive, efficient and strong leader, pushing for execution. It is in this leadership that the voter entrusts her ‘vishwas’. At the same time, the politics of centralization necessitates the co-option of the bureaucracy, with all its inherent pathologies, to sustain centralization. The result is a fusing of political and bureaucratic characteristics of the state which risks deepening the political stranglehold over bureaucracy and in the long run, undermining the somewhat utopian goal of bureaucratic autonomy on the one hand and democratic accountability of the state on the other.

Readers will be familiar with the now infamous maximum governance, minimum government slogan of the 2014 election campaign. Throughout the campaign, every effort was made to craft candidate Modi as a strong leader capable of repairing India’s broken governance and apathetic bureaucracy.

Within days of being elected prime minister, Modi got to work, showcasing this strong leadership toward meeting this goal. Ordinances, allowing officers of choice to be appointed in the prime minister’s office (PMO) were passed, biometric attendance to ensure errant bureaucrats clock in to work, PRAGATI (a monitoring platform where the prime minister, Government of India secretaries and state chief secretaries meet to periodically report on performance) meetings were institutionalized, officers penalized (between May 2014 and May 2019, sanction for prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, was granted against 23 IAS and four IPS officers) and long debated reform ideas like lateral entry, 360 degree feedback, changes in training were experimented with.



These examples of action were complemented with periodic leaks in the media of the bureaucracy being worked literally through sleepless nights under the watchful eye of the Modi PMO. In his second term, the prime minister’s attacks on the bureaucracy have become sharper culminating in his remarks in Parliament that we began this essay with. ‘You have ruined my first five years. I will not let you ruin the next five’, he reportedly told the IAS in a meeting with them in late 2019. ‘The image that has been created about civil services is of power, of aristocracy… you have to pull the civil services out of this image. The public should never feel that you live behind doors’, said the prime minister in a speech in 2019 reflecting a deep understanding of the dynamics of the bureaucracy and its relationship with the public. Since his reflection, new experiments have been rolled out. The most significant of these is the establishment of a Capacity Building Council for Strengthening Training, to implement a new programme called Mission Karmayogi, a training based reform designed to improve the ‘functional and behavioural competence of civil service officers’ and ‘enhance the citzen-government interface.’



Together, these frontal attacks against the errant, distanced, inefficient corrupt bureaucracy combined with the well-publicized decisive ‘reform’ actions, essential to sustaining the prime ministers’ image of strong leadership, have become a critical ingredient in the Modi regime’s political theatre.

However, the attacks and reform initiatives have not been designed to achieve deep structural reform of the bureaucracy. This is because, despite the role that this relationship of adversity plays in the political theatre, bureaucratic support and participation is essential to Modi’s political project. After all, the practice of political centralization requires the co-option of bureaucrats in order to bypass local political bosses and reach voters directly. A close look at the administrative style of the Modi government, through its seven years in power attests to this. The centralization of executive authority within the prime ministers’ office, is today a widely acknowledged characteristic of Modi’s governance style. Ministers (and even chief ministers) are largely invisible to the public when it comes to policy decisions. And the primary instrument through which they have been made invisible is through empowering the bureaucrats.

Policy under Prime Minister Modi is an entirely technocratic affair shorn of consultation and deliberation. Ideas are generated through the PMO and communicated to the public either directly by the prime minister himself or through routine technocratic policy processes. The infamous decision to demonetize high value currency in 2016 and the 2020 agriculture laws, are classic illustrations of this particular modus operandi. Institutional sites for deliberation and consultation, the Parliament and even the Cabinet, have largely been dispensed with; as have informal sites through intra-party structures. The bureaucracy , with all its pathologies, today is far more powerful and more distanced from the public than in the pre-Modi era.



Unsurprisingly, the bureaucracy has responded to the demands of vishwas politics with aplomb. At one level this has meant adopting (and adapting) the culture of centralization in day to day administration. Following the prime minister’s style of centralized administration, bureaucrats too have routinely bypassed administrative and political layers to deal directly with district administrators, tracking performance related to goals and targets of Union government schemes. This is a significant structural shift in the fundamental design principles and accountability mechanisms within the bureaucracy. To explain, the IAS is designed as a system with dual control in which officers have a direct line of accountability to state and central governments but by convention the relationship between the Centre and districts was mediated through state governments. This direct accountability, under the current political culture, to the Centre is unprecedented.

The consequence of breaking accepted accountability systems run deeper than merely blurring boundaries of politics and bureaucracy. They serve to deepen the culture of distance and mistrust which shapes the relationship of the bureaucracy and the public. The egregious acts of coercion and violence that motivated this essay, referenced in the introduction, are but an extreme illustration of the consequences of this centralization. A brief digression to illustrate this is important here.

Studies on the Indian bureaucracy have repeatedly highlighted the extent to which the social location of the bureaucracy, specifically its role as an instrument of social mobility and access to state power, and its internal hierarchies and structures, have shaped the bureaucracies relationship with the public. Mistrust and arbitrary use of state power are legitimate means through which the bureaucracy engages with citizens.



Political scientist Akshay Mangla offers a useful analytical framework through which to understand these relationships.4 Mangla advances the category of ‘legalistic model’ of bureaucratic governance which is based on norms that promote a culture of struct adherence to rules, hierarchies and procedures, often at the cost of being responsive to citizen needs. The ‘public’ in legalistic bureaucracies are passive recipients of an administrative process that functions on the logic of internal hierarchies, documents and laborious bureaucratic processes designed to ensure ‘rule following’. Legalistic norms privilege a social distance between the bureaucracy and the public. In such settings hierarchy is deployed to exercise state power and trust is replaced with a desire to discipline through state coercion.

Legalistic norms thrive on centralization, after all there is no expectation of public deliberation or responsiveness. Throughout the response to Covid 19, a centralized, command and control model was privileged. In the first phase (until the deadly second wave) it was the central government through empowered committees that imposed lockdowns and monitored public health measures. This command and control approach suited, indeed was guided by legalistic norms. States took greater responsibility in the second wave, but here too the approach was largely top down, demanding little by way of decentralized coordination between the frontline and the rest of the bureaucracy, thus establishing a distance from citizens. It was this perfect cocktail of centralization and legalism that resulted in the coercive approach to Covid 19 that caught bureaucrats slapping, lathi charging and abusing citizens in the name of public health, with no demand for accountability.



This culture of coercion was visible in the findings of a 2020, survey by the Centre for Policy Research’s (CPR) State Capacity Initiative, to capture perceptions of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on public administration in the first few months of the pandemic.5

 The survey was conducted between August and September 2020. Responses were received from 526 officers, across 18 different cadres, including 44 former officers.

The survey responses revealed a substantial dependence on public fear of law and coercion by the IAS when it came to managing the pandemic. When asked about imposing lockdown rules and interacting with the public, 45% of respondents stated that it was through the ‘fear of law’, rather than public willingness and cooperation, that compliance to lockdown rules was ensured. This, despite widespread acknowledgment of the importance of public communication. Discipline through coercion was still valued over possibilities of cooperation.



The survey also highlights the very low levels of trust between the IAS and the public. When asked about challenges to public health outcomes related to the pandemic such as the capacity to expand testing – the tensions between the bureaucracy and the public were even sharper. Social norms, values, and practices were expressed as the real barriers to expanded testing. And while officers acknowledged the limitations of state capacity and communication failure, much of the responsibility and, significantly, blame was placed on the public. Coercion, policing, and extreme acts of violence are legitimate forms of administration against this backdrop.

But what makes the acceptance of coercion and policing in the midst of Covid 19 distinctive and troubling is that they have been expressed within a political culture that has been complicit in its silence of, if not actively encouraging, violence. This is perhaps the most important and troubling ingredient of the politics of vishwas and the role of the bureaucracy within it. The direct connect that the leader seeks to establish with the voter, requires the bureaucracy to be active agents in generating this ‘vishwas’ creating a culture in which active political propaganda is legitimized as a critical administrative task.

Bureaucracy by design aligns itself to political power and this ‘politicization of bureaucracy’ has long been considered a critical reason for bureaucratic failure in India. But what makes this moment different is that centralization has encouraged bureaucrats to emerge as active propogandists (rather than perpetrators of corruption or victims of political agendas, as has been the case in the past) of the Modi government. It is not uncommon for senior IAS officers to find space in op-ed pages of mainstream dailies and on social media, promoting the policy achievements of the government. This is blatantly partisan, after all the fundamental tenet of the bureaucracy is to faithfully implement the will of the political executive, not actively propagate it.



But when the lines between political propaganda and bureaucratic action are blurred, elements of the political culture find their way in to bureaucratic decision making. There have been several instances in the recent past where bureaucrats have come out in public defence of government policy against critiques
by researchers, activists and practitioners. When bureaucrats defend the government against critics they become active participants in promoting a politics that is impatient with the ‘public’ and seeks to curb dissent in pursuit of vishwas. In such an environment, the distance between soft state coercion in pursuit of administrative goals and the active use of force is relatively easy to travel. And the silence, indeed complicity of violence that has penetrated political culture today, encourages this.

The extreme acts of complicity in violence the SDM ordering the local police to break heads of farmer protestors or the district administration in Assam sending out their photographer to document policing of the eviction drive, are instances of just this. Moreover, the political silence on violence alongside its routine deployment of the troll army in demonizing citizens creates the perfect conditions for bureaucratic capitulation and willingness to travel this distance from administrative coercion to active violence. It is for this reason that the sporadic instances of violence that made their way to the headlines in 2021 cannot be dismissed as mere actions of errant bureaucrats drunk on power and a desire to climb the bureaucratic ladder. They need to be understood in the context of the political moment and what the implications of this fusing of the political and bureaucratic arms of the state may have for the citizen-state compact in the long-term.

Arguably, the comfort with which bureaucrats in the CPR survey argued for the fear of law as critical to ensuring compliance with lockdown rules was heightened because of the specific political context within which the lockdown was implemented. It is instructive that a greater number of retired civil service officers (68%) gave greater weightage to ‘public cooperation and willingness’ over ‘fear of the law’ in ensuring compliance.



In conclusion, I offer these reflections on the role of bureaucracy in the perpetuation of a politics of vishwas – a politics of centralization and distance from the public – not to advance a theory on bureaucratic politicization or to denounce the bureaucracy. Rather, these reflections have been written in the spirit of deepening the dialogue on the current political juncture and the urgency to confront its impact on state institutions and democracy. No democracy can survive, in spirit, when state institutions and especially the bureaucracy which is the primary instrument through which ordinary citizens experience the state, actively relies on coercion, creating mistrust and a deep distance from the public it serves. We need to understand and worry about these emerging trends. They pose a serious threat to democracy.



1. The framework for this essay and some of the reflections here are drawn from an essay titled ‘The Bureaucracy’, to be published in a forthcoming edited volume on Indian Democracy edited by Dinsha Mistree, Sumit Ganguly and Larry Diamond.

2. Neelanjan Sircar, ‘The Politics of Vishwas: Political Mobilization in the 2019 National Election’, Contemporary South Asia 28(2), May 2020, pp. 178-94.

3. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘Staggering Dominance’, Indian Express, May 2019, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/narendra-modi-lok-sabha-elections-2019-results-bjp-congress-rahul-gandhi-5745371/

4. A. Mangla, ‘Bureaucratic Norms and State Capacity: Implementing Primary Education in India’s Himalayan Region.’ Working Paper 14-099, retrieved from Harvard Business School, 2014.

5. M. Krishnamurthy, D. Sanan, K.R. Sharma & A. Unnikrishnan, The Pandemic and Public Administration: A Survey of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) Officers. Centre for Policy Research. New Delhi, 2021.