In an article titled ‘Battling the Babu Raj’ the Economist had described the downright failure of the IAS to provide managerial efficiency to India. ‘The service,’ it said, ‘is perceived with reverence and contempt’.
Refuting these perceptions is becoming increasingly difficult. The service has become famous for all the wrong reasons. Secretaries to the Government of India, Chief Secretaries and Principal Secretaries have ‘visited’ jail or are out on bail for corruption. Crores have been recovered from the homes of some IAS officers. High achievers flaunt flamboyant lifestyles intoxicated with adulation. Several officers continue to put self-interest before public interest. Probity in public life has been replaced by subservience to political expediency.
But how and why did this happen? In the first few decades after the service was constituted, IAS officers were hugely respected. They crafted policies that fostered development. The zeal with which they implemented programmes became legendary. They brought unity and cohesion into Centre-State relations. Fair play was integral to their dealings with political heavyweights and the ordinary public, alike. Such was their honesty, calibre and performance that no one – and that included politicians, the courts and the media – ever pointed fingers at them. The toughest Chief Minister thought twice before overruling an IAS officer. For good cadre management, the All India Service Act 1951 and the IAS cadre rules 1954 were instituted. Promotions, transfers and postings were decided through the principle of rotation backed by competence.
But as the years passed, a new breed of politicians came to power in search of a committed bureaucracy. The need for method, character and standards – the hallmarks of a superior civil service – were replaced by trust, kinship and servitude. Ironically this was how the nobility in Britain treated their trusted servants before the Industrial Revolution gave birth to a professional bureaucracy. A recent book by Douglas Allen ‘The Institutional Revolution’ describes how Britain was rooted in patronage, privilege and personal connections (far worse than ours). The result was a very clannish form of administration. And that is exactly what we witness today in this country.
Once muscle and money power ushered in a new breed of public representatives, they needed to quickly squeeze political mileage and public funds to retain power. Vote banks had to be nurtured for which it was necessary to manipulate public funds. Either the IAS had to become an ally or it had to be eliminated.
But a constitutionally established service could not be wished away so easily. Making it an ally was far easier but for that it was necessary to break old systems that had held the service together.Two things became necessary: to change the benchmarks by which performance was judged; and to reward and punish using the age-old power game of divide and rule. Trust and loyalty became the new catchphrases. Competence and merit were replaced by considerations of caste, community, kinship and personal trust.
Soon political fiat began to override the principles of cadre management once considered sacrosanct. Movement from State to Centre and back was a part of tenure policy so that an IAS officer brought diverse experience to the Centre and the States. All officers were bound by the rules of tenure policy, rotation and retirement. That was changed to allow for extensions to the Cabinet Secretary, the Home Secretary and others on the ground that they needed a two-year tenure to perform – a complete negation of the principle of merit-cum seniority. Officers on the verge of retirement were given extended tenures even as officers who had failed to make the grade were appointed as Union Secretaries. IAS officers who openly flouted conduct rules and hobnobbed with interested politicians and businessmen were in fact rewarded, never reprimanded.
Against this dismal background the news that the Government is firming up the Civil Service (Performance and Accountability) Bill 2012 brings hope that career progression and performance of senior officers will be scrutinised objectively. Despite cynicism that such a body will be filled with the favourites of the Government in power, examples of other constitutional and statutory bodies belie that beliefaaa. The only worry is that this too might be just another advisory body which will ultimately fail to insulate officers from political patronage and interference. That is why when the Bill is introduced, every right thinking person must join hands to ensure that it has final authority and does not become another advisory body like the Central Vigilance Commission.
The news that the Government is firming up the Civil Service (Performance and Accountability) Bill 2012 brings hope that career progression and performance of senior officers will be scrutinised objectively.
The larger question remains whether the votaries of the Bill will have the sagacity to understand the need for such body; also whether similar authorities will be established in the States where the majority of officers serve. For the wretchedness of the Indian people to end, the civil service has to perform.
France and Britain had to go through civil revolutions to bring about equality amongst their people. Only then was a professional bureaucracy established to overcome patronage and favouritism. India’s freedom struggle is not comparable to those revolutions, as ours was a revolution against foreign domination – not against internal domination by the favoured few. If we are to prevent a people’s revolution against corruption and partisan governance, the civil service has to stand up for what is right. It cannot wait for periodic elections in the name of democracy, as the voter has little choice but to vote for whoever is in the fray – criminal or saint. All the superior civil services have immediate options at hand but they must choose to exercise them. For starters, refuse to play courtier to anyone, howsoever big; refuse to issue illegal and irregular orders; refuse to rob public funds from Peter to pay Paul; refuse to seek and grant favours; and most important of all, reduce all verbal orders into written ones.
At the end of the day what is the worst that can happen? Coveted bungalows may not be allotted. Important postings may be denied and post-retirement sinecures may dry up. Foreign trips may be slashed. The family may face disruption and ridicule. Does it really matter all that much to a member of a service established under the Constitution? If push comes to shove, hiring a house for the family is not impossible. The game of musical chairs guarantees that periods of ex-communication will never last more than a couple of years. The bogey of adverse entries is more a perception than a reality although superior officers may deny a superlative grading. But if truth be told, is confidential assessment important enough to gulp down self-worth? The day the civil service shuns the hollow trappings of status and prestige, the tide will turn. That is the revolution this country is waiting for. g