A collection of retired bureaucrats, claiming to have no political affiliation, have written to the Prime Minister on the centre’s poor handling of COVID. At first glance, it appears that the bureaucracy, which failed in correctly advising the polity in every adverse situation that the nation has faced, sought to shift the blame on the polity, which,as per protocol,are guided by their advice.To safeguard bureaucratic failures and their rapid withdrawal from the COVID battlefield, serving bureaucrats employed the services of their veterans. Not a single bureaucrat resigned during the current COVID scenario when their advice was rejected. This evidently implies they were in cahoots with the polity, whom their kin seek to crucify.
On the contrary, as the West Bengal chief secretary’s case proved, loyalty of the bureaucracy is never towards the common public or the nation,but to their private bosses, who controls post-retirement benefits. The chief secretary of West Bengal was to brief the PM on the state’s losses in super cyclone Ampan, leading to release of central funds for relief and restoration. However, following the call of his CM, he walked out, ignoring protocol and responsibility. At the end of the day, the bureaucrat gained 3 years of post-retirement employment as compared to a few months, which had been granted. This displays, that for the bureaucracy, the sufferings of the common citizen be damned, as long as their own long-term self-interests are catered for.
As COVID cases grew in numbers, the bureaucracy ran out of solutions, hence took the simplest of steps of drawing the armed forces into the fight, giving it powers for emergent procurements and withdrawing themselves from the battlefield. Bureaucracy in states like Delhi were in such disarray that their CM was requesting the army to take over the running of all medical facilities. Blaming the polity for not adhering to the advice of various committee’s makes little sense, as these committees are established and monitored by the bureaucracy. Their findings are processed by the bureaucracy to the political leadership.
In states like Delhi and Punjab, senior bureaucrats stated that vaccines are in short supply, while media houses exposed sale of vaccines to private hospitals on directions of the same bureaucrats. In Rajasthan, ventilators were leased to private hospitals, while in Punjab they were dumped, with simultaneous claims of shortfalls. When the centre ordered audit of oxygen and other essentials, shortfalls vanished. How can such bureaucracy ever give right advice to propel the nation forward.
If the political leadership is blamed for conducting elections in an ongoing pandemic, then where was the election commission, which incidentally comprises largely of ex-bureaucrats. The election commission is an independent body and should have acted, as an independent body. If it bowed to the polity, then it was because it has been trained through its service to keep self before service, rather than the other way round.
When the first wave was being tackled with efficiency, the bureaucracy was present in media interactions claiming success in daily press briefings at the centre and states. With a failed second wave, none of the collection of secretaries at the centre or states are to be seen in public, while their retired colleagues lambast the polity, aiming to support an organization, which has failed the nation.
Health is the responsibility of states, which have bureaucrats at every level, drawing immense perks and privileges. However, as has always happened in Indian history, the bureaucracy attempts to shift blame and failures onto the polity, protecting themselves, while pulling in the armed forces to cover their failures. Which state health or chief secretary resigned due to his department’s failure in preparing his state for the second wave. Historically, ministers have resigned, never a single bureaucrat, despite most failures being at their level. Even the collection of bureaucrats who penned the letter, like their ilk, sought to blame others, while defending their callous colleagues.
There are exceptions amongst the bureaucracy, such as Dr Rajendra Bharud, the collector of Maharashtra’s Nandurbar, who foresaw and prepared for the second wave. His region saw no shortfalls in oxygen, and he was able to cater for needs of neighbouring regions.Which state health secretary can publicly admit that despite insisting that the state enhance its oxygen requirements, the polity refused.
Bureaucrats as Bharud can be counted on fingertips, while the majority flowed with the tide and were caught off guard. Why did collectors at district levels, across the country, fail in catering for healthcare needs of the populace? The letter should have mentioned that local governance, the responsibility of the bureaucracy, atrociously failed across the country. It should have demanded an analysis into why the bureaucracy fails on most occasions and never takes responsibility, rather than giving suggestions to elected politicians.
The authors of the letter attempted to pin the blame on those who come to power by elections and are vulnerable to public opinion, while protecting those responsible for managing finances, resources and facilities on a daily basis. It sought to protect states, while blaming the centre, well aware that health is a state responsibility. Yet, these authors claim they possess no political bias. If this is not hypocrisy, then I wonder what hypocrisy is.
Ministers may come and go, while bureaucrats remain in the chair and are expected to be capable of functioning independently. Political games will continue in a democracy, even during a crisis, as was witnessed in West Bengal recently and between states and the centre through the pandemic. Every incident, pandemic or otherwise, including involving national security (Chinese intrusion, Uri, Pulwama and strikes across the border), will be exploited for political purposes in a democracy. The nation will always come second to manipulating vote banks, especially since India is always in an election mode.
For the bureaucrats, who penned the letter and are masters at survival, such scenarios of political manipulationsare not new. They have witnessed them through service. However, it the task of the bureaucracy to coordinate between the state and centre, even if the polity does not see eye to eye. If they cannot, then it is their callousness, poor managerial skills and weak leadership.
The author is Major Gen (Retd)