IAS and bureaucracy: All the Prime Minister’s men

The largest chunk of IAS recruits now come from IITs, IIMs and NITs, through a competitive exam. Utilising them more productively calls for a high level of vision and management 
IAS and bureaucracy: All the Prime Minister’s men

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent criticism of the IAS and the bureaucracy, two distinct entities, must have pleased many. In the central bureaucracy of 33 lakh, the IAS accounts for less than 500 or just 0.015%. Similarly, while state governments cumulatively employ some 2 crore bureaucrats, IAS officers are only around 5,000—just too minuscule a fraction. But they do hold some 70-80% of the secretary-ranking posts in the states and a little more than half the senior posts (secretary and additional secretary) in the Central ministries. Now, let us hear what the PM has to say, because it is Modi who introduced a rather unprecedented style of working directly with secretaries—largely bypassing his own ministers. 

On February 10, in a well-thought-out speech in Parliament, he praised the role of the private sector, the wealth creators as he called them, and simultaneously expressed his dismay at why the IAS should “operate … warehouses and … even fly aeroplanes. What are we going to achieve by handing the reins of the nation to babus?” He has a point and there is no doubt that India’s real economic prowess was released only after 1991, when industry was considerably de-controlled and de-bureaucratised. In fact, I was a director in the ministry of commerce when we moved, practically overnight, from a suffocating ‘permit control raj’ to a more untested ‘liberal’ regime and market economics. The examples given by the PM of telecom and pharmaceutical industries growing exponentially are correct, except that there is now a very perceptible tilt away from a competitive oligopoly to an overwhelming monopoly in the telecom sector. The airlines sector also boasts of success stories, though the path is strewn with carcasses of several failed ventures. 

However, one has not heard of IAS officers, except one, who is engaged in running warehouses or “flying planes”, but the PM’s angst is well taken. Modi is proverbial for his strong likes and even stronger dislikes. Unless the RSS has had its way, there is not one secretary that he has not hand-picked, after strict scrutiny of his career and thinking. A fact that has really hurt all IAS and IPS officers is that everyone from Modi’s Gujarat, irrespective of whether he/she is an insider or an outsider, has been more than rewarded—often bypassing equally or more competent officers. His sense of attachment is quite clannish and during his tenure, officers who were rejected for ‘empanelment’ as secretaries since they were not considered up to the mark were brought in and promoted just because the PM or the RSS so desired. It is he who has encouraged and installed the cult of personality and absolute obedience—at the cost of merit. It is surely upto him now to rid these intrinsic biases and restore the time-tested and fairer but more impersonal methods of screening, selection and administration. 

In a meeting with infrastructure ministries and the private sector on February 16, he berated civil servants (as a family, not the IAS alone) for the slow pace of implementation of projects. Then, on the 24th, he pulled up ‘babus’ for not being courageous enough in disinvesting and selling off public assets. The very same day, he is said to have lashed out at the railways for delays in a critical project, but as everyone knows, there are no senior IAS at the top levels of the railways ministry, which has officers who are as good if not better. The point is that a PM who also enjoys the unqualified support of Parliament can surely amend the existing laws if necessary. Most competent IAS officers know their market value is high and those who quit earlier to join the private sector were dazed at the unbelievably high emoluments they received, often for far lesser responsibilities or challenges. 

True, officers have been averse to changing rules or operating procedures as these ensure their safety. Besides, none above or below them support systems disruption. Take it a tribal trait or genetic fault—a universal ‘Yes Minister’ syndrome. Yes, they have deep-rooted reservations about assisting crony capitalists and do not want to go to jail like a former Coal Secretary. This may explain why most insist on transparency first before selling off public assets. They remember the scandalous sale of the government’s two Centaur Hotels in Mumbai in 2002 when Vajpayee was PM. Besides, the three ‘C’s, CBI, CVC and CAG, have not become ‘liberal’. 

Despite in-built conservatism, bureaucrats look up to political authority to cut the Gordian knot, very much like Narasimha Rao did in 1991, ably assisted by Manmohan Singh. A PM with fire in his belly was expected to usher in revolutionary changes in the manner in which the bureaucracy functioned, not just 10 lateral recruits. This spirit has hardly been evident and extraordinary results cannot come by retaining the old system and simply overheating it. 

Wooing the private sector after six years of economic mismanagement is quite understandable—but not by kicking civil servants repeatedly. The largest chunk of IAS recruits now come from IITs, IIMs and NITs, through a competitive examination that is tougher than Harvard or MIT. Utilising them more productively calls for a high level of vision, management and motivation. 

Jawhar Sircar
Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati
sircar.j@gmail.com. Tweets @jawharsircar

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