No country can exist without a state consisting of the armed forces, civilian bureaucracy, police and judicial personnel, other executive departments and legislative bodies. No state can exist and function without an elite. The quality and character of the state elite determine the future of the nation. Apart from the legislative bodies, the state is staffed by a permanent service. This forms the state elite. It has to administer and protect the state as well as contend with the political and economic elite that dominate society.
The British began the process of creating a British-Indian officer corps. Cadets were identified at the age of 11 and brought into the military or elite boarding schools. Clothed in uniform, they were disciplined with respect to time management, behaviour, personal care, study and play. Personal responsibilities and duties were inculcated. Punishment—corporal or otherwise—was common.
By 16, cadets entered the military academies after a rigorous entrance exam based on physical and mental qualifications. The academies provided general education with specific training for the armed forces. Team spirit, ethics, morality and patriotism were encouraged. The primary goal was loyalty to the service and devotion to those who serve in it.
After induction into the specific service, cadets began their careers and at regular intervals, returned to the academies for upgradation of their training and further education before promotion. They worked in teams, respected their superiors, gained the loyalty of subordinates and maintained their physical fitness and mental alertness. This made sure they performed well in peace and war. After Independence, the armed forces continued this time-tested system while the less rigorous civilian version underwent a radical change.
Compare this with the current system of recruitment to the national and state administrative services, the police, judiciary, customs, income tax and other departments devoted to development and social welfare. All these are responsible for the regulation and conduct of the affairs of state. Preservation of law and order, administration of civil and criminal justice, collection of taxes and control of expenditure are critical to the legitimacy, integrity and viability of the state.
The civilian elite are recruited when they are between 21 and 37 years old. By this time they would have gone through their childhood and adolescence and entered adulthood—many are married and have children too. They are socialised and have the preferences and prejudices of their social environment. They are selected based on predetermined caste quotas and individual performance based on examination within the quotas. Their capacity for physical endurance, their psychological attitudes and sociological traditions are largely not taken into account.
On selection, they are assured lifelong employment unlike the military elite which has to contend with possible exit from service based on physical assessment. The civilian officials rely largely on subordinate staff; very little application of mind is visible. They have to cope with hardened politicians. Their own cadre is rife with petty politics based on caste, religion and language. They cannot expect support from their superiors. Loyalty to the cadre is non-existent, while unhealthy competition for “good” posts breeds mistrust.
Ordinary citizens are now aware that the civilian elite is infected with inefficiency, corruption, nepotism, surrender to political elements, disloyalty and even criminalisation.
The writ of the government is largely ineffective in many parts of the country. Law officers are in disrepute as civil and criminal justice cease to be available or, if available, are beset with long delays and
high costs. The police forces are unable to maintain law and order.
Control within the civil services, which should descend vertically, is now exercised horizontally by political, caste and business interests. Cadre control is non-existent. Loyalty to caste, sub-caste, religion, sect and political parties has destroyed the system’s integrity. The civil service is now seen as just a way of providing very comfortable, safe and assured livelihoods for about 2 per cent of the population. The legitimacy and integrity of the state is in question. We have a ‘soft’ state which may well become a ‘failed’ state.
What is to be done? We must initiate a radical change in the methods of selection, education and training of the civilian elite. This should start very early in their lives to produce a dedicated officer class of high character—equal to each other and to the task ahead.
An elite composed of trained minds is needed. Our present education system is incapable of doing this. The examination system is a test for rote learning. Analysis, grammatical writing, deep knowledge of history, sociology, economics as well as an understanding and appreciation of the language, culture and religions of the people is sorely lacking. This can only be rectified by rigorous and holistic education over a decade or more starting in the early formative years.
It would be best to increase the intake into the existing military schools and academies, without affecting standards, and allowing a common cohort stream into the military and the civilian sectors. The future of a nation-state is determined largely by the quality of its elite and we need one with good character, assured competence, honesty and a trained mind. The present system fails in all these respects. As Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Unless the system is radically restructured and stabilised, we will end in disaster and chaos.
Former Dean of Research and Consultancy, Administrative Staff College of India