More loyal than the king

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The distinction between elected representatives and civil servants is fast disappearing. One section of the bureaucracy works for the other openly and no power on Earth can stop it. Those who break the civil service conduct rules the most also seem to climb the ladder of success the fastest

The careers of some IAS officers are watched with avid interest. While the reputation of an officer is thoroughly well-known within the bureaucracy, public perception is generally based on superficial talk and media exposure. At one level stands a group of self-referential officers who habitually climb public platforms to hammer the government-of-the-day. Insiders are all aware of their inadequate performance in fulfilling their responsibilities; their inability to work in a team; and a penchant for personal publicity. These glory-seekers who rent a cause and berate the system are, however, relatively harmless because their sole purpose is to project themselves — until they secure a political platform. It is the directly politicised officers that pose the real challenge.

Most IAS and IPS officers are exposed to the political class starting with barely four years of service. Some get opportunities linked to school or college camaraderie, but close encounters with the political class can prove useful as even student leaders have their day. Politically savvy officers learn the ropes very quickly, realising the importance of cultivating potential bigwigs early in life. They also befriend the family and establish links with household factotums who can be counted upon to open the front door for them when the need arises.

Some officers even invest in getting close to the political class knowing full well that not all investments are likely to yield immediate returns. But even goodwill can open windows. Simply by functioning as an informal adviser, helping with manifestoes, carrying news of which way the wind is blowing and providing scam-worthy intelligence that can be exploited, loyalties can be established. Although this is dangerous ground, forbidden by civil service rules, it is considered piffle in today’s milieu. There are also those who facilitate the recruitment of thousands of people from a specific community to fill the rank-and-file of the water and electricity utilities and the police, among the key areas. Far from raising eyebrows it is merely viewed as a quaint aberration. Something to titter about, that’s all.

Within the system every officer is known for what he is through and through. Behind closed doors colleagues and cadre mates talk and an invisible listener would be surprised to learn about the integrity ratings and the colour of the political glue attached to certain names. Within the cadre exactly who makes deals, which officers have a colourful nightlife and just whose ‘ghar ka banda’ someone happens to be are all known. Home visits from real estate agents, liquor dealers and license-seekers are notorious but they get talked about in tight little circles almost in jest, with no sense of shock or despair. Far from being ostracised these characters are held in admiration because of their proven ability to swing influential assignments for themselves.

Incredible as it sounds the game is relatively easy to play, as competition is thin. Gratuitous as it may sound the vast majority of officers accept postings and transfers as they come. They are not interested in getting close to the powers that be or garnering coveted assignments. If given the opportunity they can be irritatingly honest or brutally frank. They neither pose a threat nor do they aspire to scale the peaks their ambitious colleagues strive for. They are satisfied with routine career advancement and most retire into oblivion that characterised their earlier uneventful career. That leaves the field free for those who crave the thrill of wielding authority.

For those at the helm of affairs, bestowing assignments carrying patronage and influence, power and pelf, is critical, as the capacity to manoeuvre and manipulate needs to have been tried and tested over time. The dependability quotient has to be resilient enough that when high stakes are involved, the incumbent will perform. But the political class is ignorant about the intricacies and ramifications of seniority, experience or the value of credentials. That is when kingmakers step in to guide decision- makers but their own proclivity and distaste for some men and women are well-known. That makes the choice for top jobs predictable (giving scope for whispering dot.coms to flourish as they do).

The division between elected representatives and civil servants is fast disappearing. One section of the bureaucracy works for the other openly and no power on the Earth can stop it. The civil service conduct rules sound like anachronisms as those who break them the most, also seem to climb the ladder of success the fastest. In countries like the US, top state appointments are politicised openly. It is high time that we consider introducing a system akin to what prevails there, where top state positions in all fields, including judicial, require the specific consent of the US Senate.

Without abandoning the Westminster model with an apolitical civil service, it must be recognised that a scrutiny of sensitive assignments is imminently necessary. Establishing bipartisan or multi-party house committees of Parliament and the Vidhan Sabhas might be one way of conducting selection to important and sensitive positions. We need to stop ourselves from falling between two stools and losing public confidence in the bargain.

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