Steel frame faces threat of irreparable damage

Indira Gandhi wanted a ‘committed civil service’. She justified it as commitment to development. The bureaucracy read it as a call for loyalty and fell in line. the rot continues.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi | PTI
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi | PTI

The civil service of the country, often referred to as the steel frame, has endured several political upheavals and uncertainties in the past seven decades. Although the All India Services and Central Services may not have always performed at their peak capacity given the challenges they faced during the course of our variegated political history, they have managed tolerably well. Our bureaucracy is permanent insofar as every succeeding government does not induct its set of people to run the official machinery. That implicitly means that government servants at all levels owe their allegiance to the Constitution of India. They carry out the orders and decisions of the elected governments regardless of the politics and policies of the party in power.

As long as those in power appreciate the independence of the bureaucracy and use it for legitimate development and enforcement, this arrangement is perfect. However, human frailty is bound to disturb such theoretically perfect arrangements. This was first evident during Indira Gandhi’s term as prime minister when she extolled the virtues of a ‘committed civil service’. She perhaps tried to rationalise commitment as dedication to development and people’s causes. But the bureaucracy read the exhortation for a ‘committed civil service’ as the demand for loyalty to the party and leader in power.

Commitment in the bureaucracy has preceded Indira Gandhi in the form of the service organisations that segregated employees on political lines in several states and in major organisations at the Centre. Superimposed on such partisan loyalties, the committed civil service concept created cleavages in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy by creating ‘trusted and loyal officers’ and the ‘not with us’ types. Once the trusted officers are seen to be receiving the rewards of loyalty such as plum postings, lucrative perks and elevations to constitutional positions, and the ‘not with us’ and independent officers are getting ignored, harassed and penalised, the message becomes clear and unambiguous.

All governments do a little bit of tweaking. However, governments with a huge majority and ideological underpinnings are more prone to this kind of loyalty-ensuring behaviour. Quick to realise that minority governments or governments with thin margins and ad hoc coalitions are bound to be short-lived, the bureaucracy does not risk being identified with such transient power formations. They wait for a government led by a strong party with a massive mandate, powerful leader and the likelihood of winning another election. Ideology then becomes a convenient fig leaf to cover the shame of their greed for preferential privileges.

All of a sudden, the preferred vocabulary and ideas—however fanciful they might be—are internalised by such converts. They begin to wear loyalty on their sleeves. It will be rewarding for them in the short term, but the long-term damage they cause to the independence, fairness and objectivity of the bureaucracy and the massive erosion of its credibility are fundamental in nature.

The beauty and power of a parliamentary democracy is its capability for self renewal through periodic elections. No political grouping can be in power for more than five years. Of course they can hope to get re-elected, though this cannot be taken for granted. It is a matter of national concern that in the past decade, freedom and fairness of several organisations have been heavily eroded. Officers who have tried to resist have been sidelined and often harassed. Wrongly implicated persons have been repeatedly let free by courts as the grounds for prosecution are weak and unsubstantiated. The self-correcting mechanism of these agencies has been meticulously disabled by pliant functionaries.

As a result, many once-trusted agencies have become tools to harass, intimidate, humiliate and silence political opponents and free-minded officers. When systems of check and balance are ignored and institutions are used with narrow political motives, the free judgement of organisations and the accountability of officers become casualties. Once such institutions are enfeebled and discredited, the resultant loss of faith strikes at the very root of administrative fairness. This eagerness to comply and conform becomes infectious. Officers take the cue and vie with each other to be ‘more loyal than thee’ and compete for anticipatory compliance.

Such an ecosystem does not acknowledge, much less openly discuss, the shortcomings of administration. Statistics that the government does not relish are questioned or hushed and those who are responsible for independent and objective findings are pushed out. Even those who audit the public expenditure in line with the mandate of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India are not spared. It is a clear message that loyalty has been installed in the prime space left by demonetised truth.

Governments will come and go in a democracy. But once the permanent bureaucracy and institutions are sapped of their vigour of fair judgement, it will be almost impossible to repair these and the administration will forfeit people’s trust. Succeeding governments will be tempted to abuse the already tamed, willing-to-crawl bureaucracy for short-term benefits. The vicious cycle will repeat itself. Until a visionary leader arrives to stem the rot. That could be a long wait. Meanwhile, officers should recall that the oath they have taken is on the Constitution of India. Once that is forgotten, the steel frame may lose its tensile strength forever.

K Jayakumar

Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University

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