The Stepford Babus

The anecdote is important because it illustrates several aspects of the bureaucratic-politician relationship

My late father, who was in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), used to tell me a story about the functioning of the bureaucracy that I think is relevant. In the years just after 1947, Ravi Shankar Shukla was the chief minister of a state called Central Provinces & Berar, that has now ceased to exist and has been subsumed in parts by Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Shukla Saheb enjoyed a stature and respect substantially greater than his two otherwise well known political progenies, V.C. Shukla and S.C. Shukla.

Once, in a meeting of officers, Ravi Shankar Shukla suddenly turned to the chief secretary, K.B.L. Seth, and instructed him to immediately make Hindi the only medium for conducting administrative work. Seth, also of the ICS, was a mild mannered but firm administrator. He said that while steps would be taken in this direction, it would not be possible to implement this directive with immediate affect. R.S. Shukla lost his cool on hearing this answer. In a rare outburst for a person of his caliber, he said: “Why is this not possible? Everything is possible. I can have you removed from service. Even that is possible”. Seth listened politely and then said with composure: “No Sir, you cannot remove me from service.

Yes, you can transfer me, and I am not enamoured of being the chief secretary”. R.S. Shukla did not hold this response against Seth. He apologised for his outburst. Seth continued as chief secretary, and the two made a very efficient team in running the state.

The anecdote is important because it illustrates several aspects of the bureaucratic-politician relationship. Firstly, the politician is the boss, but within the limits of the law. Secondly, the bureaucrat may be subordinate but he is not without protection from whimsical or vengeful action by his political masters. Thirdly, if a bureaucrat provides advice without fear or favour, s/he is not reflexively punished. On the contrary, politicians had the good grace to see in that very act of lack of servility the ingredients of a good officer who could give free, fair and fearless advice.

What I have recounted is directly contextual in the light of a new development. Earlier this month, the department of personnel and training (DoPT) issued an order stating that officials who have either completed 30 years in service or reached 50 years of age could, if found lacking in performance reviews, be compulsorily retired. The circular issued by the Cabinet Secretary sounds particularly ominous: “For better administration, it is necessary to chop off dead wood”.

In principle, there is nothing wrong in the attempt by the government to improve bureaucratic efficiency. No one will disagree with the fact that a great part of our officialdom performs below par, and there is sufficient scope to cut out the slack, and take action against the corrupt and the inefficient. But, whenever such moves are announced, there is also legitimate worry. Will the performance appraisals that lead to such draconian action be truly fair and objective? Will such steps be used to browbeat fearless officers into compliance? What guarantees are there to eliminate mala fide subjectivity in such assessments? Cannot such measures be used to create a pliant bureaucracy instead of a more efficient one?

Such worries are not misplaced. Politicians and political leadership in our country is not of the stature of Ravi Shankar Shukla anymore. Today’s political masters like bureaucrats who tow their line. They are not happy with those who question or demur. For them an “efficient” official is one who efficiently implements their orders, rather than question its legality or ethicality or administrative validity. Officers who interrogate an order and give fearless advice are seen as a nuisance. They must be put out of the way. In this respect, all governments are the same. Officers like Ashok Khemka or Durga Shakti Nagpal will be at the receiving end of governments of all political hues. In such a milieu, what is the guarantee that orders such as this one, that hang a Damocles sword over any officer who is over 50 or has done 30 years of service, will not be used for partisan, motivated and subjective political vendetta?

This question acquires new resonance given the Bharatiya Janata Party’s record in the last 16 months or so. Some 500 senior officers of the rank of secretary, additional secretary and joint secretary have been arbitrarily transferred. These transfers include some high-profile cases like that of the foreign secretaries, two finance secretaries and two home secretaries. Some of this widespread reshuffle may be justified, but there is sufficient evidence to infer that many more were removed merely because they refused to bend before their political bosses. With this government another factor must be kept in mind too. Evidence suggests that officers are being judged by the totally extraneous criteria of their “ideological” leanings as part of a larger planned and verifiable “saffronisation” drive. If you can claim to be from the right “background” you are considered efficient, but if not there is always a replacement available.

The significant issue is how to make the bureaucracy more efficient and accountable without necessarily making it more susceptible to political manipulation. To be honest, there are enough officers who are more than willing to barter their conscience to curry political favour. Giving more powers to the government to penalise those who don’t fall in step, without adequate checks and balances to ensure objectivity in performance appraisal, is the best way to melt the “steel frame” into a pliant and servile apparatus. The need of the hour is urgent administrative reforms that ensure stability and security of tenure, objective and verifiable performance appraisals, and insulation from unwarranted political interference. By all means let the government dismiss those guilty of corruption or of doubtful integrity or those who are verifiably underperforming. But the great danger of such drastic measures, like the one being taken now, is that good officers will also be punished. Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to ask himself if the track record of his government thus far does not raise this fear.

Author-diplomat Pavan K. Varma is a Rajya Sabha member

( Source : deccan chronicle )
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