Of Babus and bureaucracy

Kr Swarn Kishore Singh
“Don’t you realise what would happen if we allow the Minister to run the Department? In the first place, there would be chaos, and the second, which is much worse, there would be innovation! Public Debate! Outside Scrutiny!” says Sir Humphrey Appleby. Sir Humphrey Appleby was a character from a British sitcom, ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ wherein he played Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister of Britain. Yes, Prime Minister was a popular satirical TV show of BBC which used to manifest the struggles and hurdles faced by an elected minister to administer a policy and to wake the government from inertia of rest when opposed by status quoist British Civil services. Although it is considered as a work of fiction but believe me it is pretty close to the way bureaucracy really works globally.
To explain the influence and toxicity of bureaucracy, let me jog your memory with few incidents; In 1881, 20th President of the United States of America, James A. Garfield was assassinated because he had proposed substantial civil services reforms. In Britain, there are Osmotherly rules which clearly state that that civil servants are not accountable to parliament, neither they could be summoned by the parliamentary select committees. And the spectrum of their authority can be evaluated with the fact that civil servants are the ones who will determine whether or not some material evidence is to be released after someone requests under freedom of information ( same as RTI in India). And back in India, Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for road transport and highways had very recently said about the bureaucrats working in his ministry that, “Mein in logon se haar gaya hoon and now I don’t waste much time on them”.
Let me set the record straight at the outset that here we are not dealing with PN Haksars & Brijesh Mishras, it is about babus & super-babus who have a general tendency to hold onto power while staying immune to aspirations of the people. And there is a reason why this article isn’t about babus like PN Haksar; while PN Haksar served at the pleasure of Indira Gandhi and he was the one who had orchestrated the rise from Gongi Gudia to PM Indira Gandhi. He helped her politically to manage her supremacy in Congress, he advised her in almost every decision she took as Prime Minister and she even used to seek his advise in her own family matters. But when Indira Gandhi tried to return the favour by recommending his name for second highest civilian honour, Padma Vibhushan, he refused to accept the award with humility and wrote to the then Home Secretary, “Accepting an award for work done somehow causes an inexplicable discomfort to me”. Not to talk about the impact and influence of bureaucracy, the elected representatives are also so very inclined, addicted and dependent on these babus that they come out all guns blazing just to support a babu, no matter how good or bad the accusations on him are. Recently Mamta Banerjee staged a dharna to shield an IPS officer, Former Additional Director General, CID, West Bengal, Rajeev Kumar, from investigations of CBI over the all popular chit fund case. Although there is no denying that this chit fund case is a big example of corruption and misappropriation of public money but that was hardly any deterrence for Mamta Banerjee.
After influence and extravagant dependence on babus, we need to find what the real role of bureaucracy should be. “Economy and Society”, a book originally written by Max Weber, a German sociologist used bureaucracy as a form of public administration and governance. But then we know the role of bureaucracy is defined in another popular dialogue of Sir Humphrey Appleby (supra) says, “While it has been government policy to regard policy as a responsibility of ministers and administration as a responsibility of officials, the questions of administrative policy can cause confusion between the policy of administration and administration of policy”.
Look at the irony, to become a finance secretary or foreign secretary, to become a collector of Bastar or Baramulla or to become SP of Kutch or Kottayam, all you need to do is to get a room in Mukherjee Nagar, Delhi, somewhere near Batra theatre and start cramming Urdu Literature and public administration for a year, trust me you can top the exam, at least someone a decade ago did. Then in the hills of Mussoorie they are made to believe that you are the most brilliant and fertile minds of the country, which ostensibly is a well managed fraud. Also they are told that there is a hierarchy and you need to obey and obey only to prosper.
The bureaucracy here in India is pretty much of British style, it was an ostensible choice for us but nothing changed even after the British left. During British rule, the civil servants were predominantly firangs only therefore they had an in-born idea of supremacy over us Indians but things did not change afterwards as well. The arrogance, elitism and ignorance still stands out as the trademark of the bureaucracy in today’s India. The successive governments failed to bring an alternative to this fiasco or even some reforms in the bureaucratic system. In 2017, Niti Aayog had recommended lateral induction of personnel at par with career bureaucrats. These personnel were supposed to be appointed after considering their expertise and specialisation in some specific domains. And when a person becomes a bureaucrat after cramming Urdu literature and anthropology, expecting any sort of expertise in any subject or issue is above and beyond from them. To pull in some fresh talent and experts in governance will ostensibly effectuate significant improvement in governance. Just imagine since independence only finance secretary we got, who wasn’t a career bureaucrat was Dr. Manmohan Singh. Someone who would have possibly got inducted into civil services for writing Urdu couplets in UPSC Mains examinations, have been deciding our financial issues and preparing our budgets. Ludicrous!
Just imagine a proposal of 2017 sent by Niti Aayog and up till now just an advertisement has been notified, doesn’t this remind us of UPA regime sluggishness? Remember there is a pact of omertà between all the civil servants that every one of their species has to protect the indigenous of the civil servant community. When the bureaucrats are made to move ahead with this option of lateral entry by the NDA government, remember civil service options to cabinet is like a conjuring trick. Take any card, you will always end up with the card the magician forced you to take. Why this denial to change, it is only because of the indolent mechanism of functioning of bureaucratic set up. There are three styles which can explain the functioning of our bureaucratic set up; it takes longer to do things quickly; it is more expensive to do them cheaply; it is more democratic to do them in secret. And if this mechanism isn’t put to rest soon and this disorder isn’t treated then as Weber very profoundly said, “no summer bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness”.
(The author is an advocate & a political and legal analyst)