Steel for the occasion

A reinvented bureaucracy can provide a framework of stability and continuity in a troubled political time.

Written by Arun Prakash | Published: August 20, 2013 12:19 am

A reinvented bureaucracy can provide a framework of stability and continuity in a troubled political time.

The spectacle of a young woman sub-divisional magistrate taking on the might of Uttar Pradesh’s powerful politician-business-criminal nexus has aroused widespread sympathy and interest. In a neighbouring state,another bureaucrat has publicly locked horns with the political establishment. In a country that rarely sees individuals taking principled stands,such defiance of political pressure is seen as extraordinary,especially since the bureaucracy is perceived to be in cahoots with the political class. As India witnesses a huge up-welling of revulsion against politicians’ modus operandi,it may be appropriate to examine the role of bureaucracy in our democracy.

Political parties have decided that the primary reason for their existence is to win elections,come (or return) to power,and then sta-rt working for the next election. Since they have reduced the democratic process to a ritual involving the procurement of votes as well as legislators,the prerequisite for assumption of power is the massive accumulation of funds. Some examples of the fund-raising methodology have been revealed in the recent serial exposes relating to scams. This has had two fallouts. First,since political survival and money-gathering are his first priority,governance,planning or policy-implementation receive short-shrift from the politician. Second,the bureaucrat,by virtue of his ability to interpret rules and procedures has,willy-nilly,become facilitator and accomplice in the politician’s misdeeds.

The combination of a dysfunctional Parliament,comatose government and endemic corruption has resulted in stalled socio-economic progress and nationwide despondency. The question that haunts people is: will the 2014 elections bring about any change in India’s sick body-politic,or would their massive street protests have been in vain? At this juncture,we need to consider seriously whether the bureaucracy can pull the nation out of the morass.

A successor to the iconic Indian Civil Service (ICS),dubbed British India’s “steel frame”,the IAS,after a promising start,has faltered badly. The hallmark of the ICS officer was his integrity,commitment and moral courage to render objective advice. One looks in vain for similar qualities from our civil servants,or,indeed,for accessibility,courtesy and efficiency.

The misdeeds of netas occupy so much of our mental space that we generally overlook the role of over a hundred secretary-rank bureaucrats (up from 18 at Independence) who run the 51 ministries and departments in New Delhi that constitute the government of India. Secretaries are not only the principle advisors to ministers and draft policies for them,but are also responsible for their implementation as administrative heads of ministries. Given the politician’s preoccupations,a secretary’s contribution or otherwise to governance is often underrated.

Similarly,the bureaucracy plays a major role in local government and our daily lives. Bodies such as municipal corporations,nagar nigams and nagar palikas,run by elected representatives,have bureaucrats as their permanent executive core. The rural development administration,too,is in the hands of the bureaucracy. Therefore,many problems related to our dysfunctional public services,slum rehabilitation,potholed roads,urban decay and mounting garbage,as well as rural poverty and underdevelopment are amenable to resolution if taken in hand by a committed and determined bureaucracy.

When an IAS officer blames “political interference” for systemic shortcomings and his own constraints,he is right. However,the unstated flipside is described by historian Ramachandra Guha: “too many babus spend years in service lobbying for post-retirement sinecures,cultivating their political bosses in the hope that this will assure them five more years…” Clearly,the IAS officer hates to retire; and when he seeks successive berths on commissions,committees and tribunals,he becomes increasingly beholden to the politician. This is where doyens of the IAS need to become exemplars and mentors for new entrants.

Another telltale weakness of our bureaucracy is a steady incursion into realms that lie beyond their competence. This is at the cost of rendering good administration where needed. The IAS needs to demonstrate rational self-restraint,and one wonders when a cabinet secretary will have the courage and vision to tell his political masters (for example) that: “Bureaucrats have inflicted enough damage on Air India. Let us now hire professionals for this job.”

An efficient,upright and fearless bureaucracy can provide a framework of stability and continuity that will contain the transgressions of the political class. The question is,can the bureaucracy reinvent itself as a morally strong and highly motivated set of civil servants,committed to meeting people’s expectations? If yes,the IAS would have redeemed itself in the nation’s hour of need.

The writer is a retired chief of naval staff

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