It is becoming increasingly fashionable to blame ‘governance failure’ for all kinds of crises and misadventures. With elections only months away, each and every initiative of the Government that goes awry is quickly branded as a ‘governance failure’ by the opposition. On the other hand, the Government attributes all its failures on the ‘governance failures’ of earlier regimes.
However, far more serious than the political governance failure, recognition or negation of which depends on the political party you support, is the bureaucratic failure in the premium organisations of the government. Sadly, the grave consequences of bureaucratic governance failure have not been adequately realised so far. True, newspapers publish lurid details of the raging internecine wars in organisations like the CBI, but their focus is mainly on the personalities involved and rarely on governance issues.
The existence of bad eggs at the top levels of the Government is difficult to understand because appointments to all posts above Joint Secretary level are made by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), a committee which has the Prime Minister as Chairman and the Home Minister as a member. More sensitive appointments have to pass through the Central Vigilance Commission also and in some cases, a committee having the Leader of Opposition as a member has to ratify the appointment.
What is the reason that people selected after the scrutiny of such high-powered panels are often found wanting in the essential requirements of probity and efficiency? The current spat in the CBI has revealed that integrity is lacking at every level, which begs the question – why were only officers of suspect integrity seconded to CBI? Can such compromised officers be relied upon to handle the sensitive cases entrusted to CBI? The unedifying spectacle of bureaucrats adorning high posts with fancy titles fighting for the loaves and fishes of office leaves us common folk disheartened.
Seventy years after Independence, the pool of talent for any post is virtually unlimited so it cannot be said that the Government had no option but to pick up a particular person for a particular post. For example, all DG rank IPS officers are eligible for appointment as Director, CBI or as Directors General of Central Armed Police Forces.
The reason for the current integrity deficit in the CBI is not difficult to fathom. The Government wants pliant officers to carry forward its agenda. Once the Government appoints compromised officers at the top, such officers bring in persons of their choice to sensitive posts in the organisation. The officers so brought in follow only the commands of the people who brought them in, as a result of which the organisation is reduced to a fiefdom of top officers. Provided their work gets done, the Government does not bother about the antics of their favourite officers, intervening only to protect them from harm.
The face-off between the Government and Reserve Bank of India highlights another facet of the problem. Given the defined role of RBI of safeguarding Government revenues, it is fine if the Government persuades the RBI to do something but forcing the RBI to act against its best judgement is wrong. What is the point of having an independent watchdog if the Government ignores its warnings and arm-twists it do what it wants? But it appears that the Government would carry forward its agenda even if it leads to the virtual demise of a respected organisation.
Then we had the case of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) where three erudite members, who were not in sync with the Government’s views were ruthlessly axed (‘Dissent Stifled’, The Statesman, 10 September 2018). One wonders about the utility of such supposedly independent bodies when the Government will ride roughshod over them without the slightest compunction.
Lower level appointments have been compromised since long; State Public Service Commissions are known to be making caste and money based selections for ages, as a consequence of which public service for the majority of public servants means serving their own interests first. With the rot contaminating Government departments from top to bottom, it would indeed be surprising if the public gets the service it pays for.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi wanted to have a committed judiciary but now by a natural process we have a committed bureaucracy. There is also an emerging view in the public, maybe prompted by the Government, that the judiciary should not pass judgements against majority views. Such developments portend ill for the future of our democracy but the Government, being an interested party, is unlikely to step in. Only public opinion can shame the Government into observing constitutional proprieties.
We have seen, as of now, the system is on the verge of being subverted. A cost-effective way, in the present circumstances would be to subordinate all organisations to the Government, with the concerned Secretary directing everyone to toe the line. It is a different matter that such a set-up would be a fraud on the Constitution which has laid down an elaborate system of checks and balances.
In a way it is certainly fortuitous that the CBI and RBI crises have erupted at the same time. The public has been forcefully made aware that with undeserving people manning the highest echelons, all is not well in the premier agencies of the Government. The methodology of appointing top functionaries in the Government is certainly ripe for a change.
Presently, for top posts, appointments are made by the ACC on the recommendation of the Committee of Secretaries (or a Search Panel), out of the names shortlisted by the Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT). As such, the process is completely under the control of the Government, lacking both objectivity and transparency.
Moreover, the Annual Confidential Report (ACR) (now known as Annual Performance Assessment Report (APAR)) is the most important instrument for evaluating the merit of candidates. It is an open secret that even in notoriously corrupt departments, all Class I officers get perfect scores along with certificates of integrity in their APARs. With such deficient inputs it not surprising that very few civil servants are hauled up for corruption and very often the wrong kind of persons make it to the top.
Till the time a better system is brought in to assess the integrity and competence of civil servants, the process of appointment to top posts has to be overhauled. Probably, a Parliamentary Panel on the lines of the Public Accounts Committee can be constituted to vet the recommendations of the Committee of Secretaries with the power to reject or include names.
Good bureaucratic leadership is very important to take an organisation forward. Conversely, corruption and incompetence at the top can put paid to the efforts of the entire strength of lower level officers. The main reason that the present Government has not been able to implement its visionary schemes is the lack of an honest and capable bureaucratic leadership.
It seems that the lack of trust between the political leadership and the bureaucracy has led to a situation where top posts are manned by persons close to the political leadership, who may be incompetent and/or venal at the cost of unconnected but deserving persons. Consequences of this flawed selection process are now manifesting themselves, doing immeasurable harm to the credibility of the Government and bureaucracy.
One can only hope that for its own sake the Government would realise its mistake and ensure that only proven honest and capable persons lead the bureaucracy.
The writer is a retired senior school English teacher based in Jaipur.