Bureaucratic Siberia

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When a midlevel civil servant is trapped between the whims of a minister and the ego of a secretary, a Gulag beckons

PERHAPS the biggest challenge that middle-level officers in Central Ministries face is managing Ministers and Secretaries who are at loggerheads – though, fortunately, it happens but occasionally.

A veteran was being inducted for the umpteenth time as a Union Minister. A telephone call conveyed that he would arrive at 10 am and would expect to be received in the foyer. In stout Humphrey Appleby mould, the Secretary refused to budge from his office. An entourage of Joint Secretaries, including myself, awaited the ministerial cavalcade. Alighting in a white silk kurta and flowing dhoti, the Minister was escorted upstairs – all of us smiling and gushing, he in stony silence. His first question was, “Where is the Secretary?” Learning that the Secretary was “in his chamber”, his next question was, “When is he due to retire?” The Secretary had his own hotline to the PMO, possibly a pre-arranged strategy to pull the Minister’s coat-tails should he fly too high. Predictably, a tug of war ensued, leaving the entire Ministry observing the see-saw cranking away every day.

In such an atmosphere, the officers had to perform trapeze acts to survive. Bleating about the Minister’s manoeuvrings to the Secretary was fraught with unpredictable consequences. He might report the whole thing in writing to the Cabinet Secretary or, worse, the PMO – the surest way of getting marked a blabbermouth. Besides, unless the Minister approved proposals originating from a Joint Secretary, the progress of programmes would remain in limbo. And the Joint Secretary would be held responsible for non-performance, Minister or no Minister.

I realized that, instead of playing Joan of Arc, it was better to find ways of securing the Secretary’s and Minister’s approvals with a show of quiet efficiency. One day, as I was leaving his room, the Minister said, “You are head and shoulders above everyone in the Ministry. You have the makings of someone who will one day become Cabinet Secretary.” I was taken aback but could not help preening as I pictured myself ensconced in the hallowed portals of Rashtrapati Bhavan from where the Cabinet Secretary ruled a sprawling bureaucracy. I wondered how I would look, playing God at Secretaries’ meetings.

“You have the qualities of two wonderful officers (X and Y) who worked under me,” the Minister continued, sensing that he had hooked me. “These two officers always found answers to the knottiest problems. You too have their intelligence but you are not using it properly. Find a way.” His gold rimmed spectacles glinted under the 40 incandescent bulbs above. I devoured the story but wondered how I was to solve the “knotty problems” he referred to – what he sought was not just irregular but downright illegal. Telling this to the Secretary would definitely invite a dressing down for hobnobbing with the Minister; worse, he would report the whole thing to different watchdog organizations – in writing. Their investigation would never establish the involvement of the Minister for lack of evidence. His denial would end the matter.

But I would emerge a squealer – not to be trusted with “sensitive” work. One evening, returning to my room at 8 pm after one of the interminable briefings that Ministries are famous for, I found three strangers waiting. Before I could speak, one said, “We thought we would just wait to see this extraordinary officer who does no work.” He tilted his chair and stretched his khadi-clad arms behind the backs of his two companions and bared Pan Bahaar-marked teeth at me. “We have heard so much about your tremendous ability not to do any work that we wanted to set eyes on this great woman who has brought the work of the Ministry to a standstill,” said his rumpled companion.

I kept my cool and asked, “May I know who you are and what I can do for you?” “Oh, there is a lot you can do for us,” was the reply, accompanied by raucous laughter. They did not divulge their identity but continued to be insulting and sarcastic.

As before, I had no options. Complaining to the Secretary would have required me to reduce everything into a laborious typewritten note, which would have leaked out even before an inquiry started. Knowing the system, nothing would happen to the bounders but I would certainly be faulted for ineptitude, for not even knowing how they gained entry to my room, and God knows what else.

The next morning, I was called to the Minister’s office to discuss a file. It never occurred to me that my visitors had come at his behest and I foolishly blurted out the whole story to him. This time, far from telling me that I was Cabinet Secretary material, he said curtly, “But isn’t it true that you have not done many things you have been asked to?” “No, sir. I have done every bit of work assigned to me and you too have kindly praised my work, sir,” I replied. “My dear,” said the Minister, “whatever else you do is of no consequence to me. All that matters is whether you have done what I have asked you to do. Recall what I had asked you to do. Not once but several times.”

“But, sir, I told you many weeks ago that those things simply cannot be done. If I did anything of the kind, it would get exposed by the media and the matter would also go to court – even Parliament. You, sir, would get involved in the whole controversy,” said I, hoping that at least that would cut ice with him. Unfazed by my forebodings, the Minister said softly, “Find a way. And this time if you do not do it, Shailaja, I will have no option but to take away your work. Don’t say I have not warned you.” I was aware that as long as the Minister was politically relevant, he would never be taken to task. My complaint if I sent one would be my word against his. And in the process I would get branded as unfit for handling “higher responsibilities” (read Ministers) – reason enough to be marginalized when promotion lists were pruned.

NOTHING happened immediately. Some months later, the Secretary retired. Just before the new one joined, the work distribution in the Ministry was revamped. I found myself shorn of not only the most important desk in the Ministry but also of all the programmes I had nurtured for the past three years. I was left with not even half-an-hour’s work and ample humiliation in the bargain. The smallest things hurt the most.

The bureaucracy is a complex organization. For all the checks and balances that exist on paper, every officer has to keep both Secretary and Minister on the right side because a reputation for ‘getting along’ within ‘the system’ is vital.

Colleagues changed the subject when I entered the lunch room. My private secretary sought a change. The drivers and waiters had the cheek to snigger, “Abhi bhi aap ko koi kaam nahi diya?” I had been reduced to complete irrelevance – the worst ignominy that can be heaped on a civil servant. I later came to know that the Minister got his way on his knotty problems. I wondered what my successor had done to appease him and yet remain safe and dry. Of course, no one told me. Then, one fine evening, 10 months later, retribution came in the nature of a phone call. The private secretary to the chota Minister was on the line, chortling. “Madam, there is good news for you!” he announced. “The bada mantri has been asked to put in his resignation. Your problems are now over. Congratulations!”

And so it was that nearly a year after I was shorn of all work, a new Minister took over, redistribution of work was ordered and I found myself at last with something worthwhile to do.

THE bureaucracy is a complex organization. For all the checks and balances that exist on paper, every officer has to keep both Secretary and Minister on the right side because a reputation for “getting along” within “the system” is vital. In that pursuit, it is foolish to blab, leave alone make a written complaint. The system is simply not geared to act on complaints because there are political trade-offs which ensure that Ministers get protected as long as they are considered necessary politically. Officers are dispensable and waving a flag of uprightness is considered a sign of naivete, whatever may be spouted about being free and frank, bold and brave.

Yet, however powerful, Ministers are completely dependent on the bureaucracy to get their work done. At the end of the day, financial sanctions have to issue and orders have to be signed in the name of the government – something only officers can do or get done. So Ministers will use every ploy possible to influence officers and zero in on the medicine that works.

In the state governments, the Queen of Hearts will simply order “off with his head” if an officer protests too much. In the Central government, the King of Spades has to manage with the officers he gets. And he will use whatever levers are available to get his work done: bully, browbeat, cajole and flatter – and, ultimately, humiliate. If nothing works, he will find a replacement to do his bidding. Fortunately, not all Ministers are like that.

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