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Bureaucratised Society

The power of patronage, lack of accountability and corruption, which are the bane of bureaucracy, often inspire young men and women in India to join it. Additionally, the hierarchy in the Indian Government is such that the scientist, doctor, engineer and the technocrat all work under the bureaucrat


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a bureaucrat as: “An official in a government department, in particular, one perceived as being concerned with procedural correctness at the expense of people’s needs.” There are other definitions of bureaucracy – all with the underlying thought that bureaucrats are a lot that value rules and procedure more than the outcome. Everyone, however, agrees that whatever be its drawbacks, the bureaucracy is a necessary evil; the bureaucrat efficiently splits the complicated task of governance into smaller jobs that can be handled by domain experts. Viewed in this perspective, our inherited ‘generalist bureaucracy’ is a contradiction in terms; such a bureaucracy was suited only for a colonial administration, whose main task was to govern rather than serve.

The bureaucratic form of administration has a long history; bureaucrats called the tune in ancient Egypt, in the Roman Empire, and in imperial China. Bureaucracy has always grown like Jack’s beanstalk; early Rome had maybe a few hundred bureaucrats but in its last days, the Roman Empire had no less than 30,000 to 35,000 bureaucrats! A swollen bu-reaucracy and excessive taxation spelt the doom of the mighty Roman empire. “The number of ministers, of magistrates, of officers, and of servants, who filled the different departments of the state, was mul-tiplied beyond the example of for-mer times; and (if we may bor-row the warm expression of a con-temporary) ‘when the proportion of those who received exceeded the proportion of those who con-tributed the provinces were op-pressed by the weight of tributes’” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Edward Gibbon). No doubt, the public was also responsible for the fall of the Roman empire, the Roman public ceased to concern itself with public affairs, once it had free food and elaborate games and spectacles to watch.

Modern times have seen a resurgence of the bureaucracy; the rise of the modern nation-state was accompanied by the bureaucratisation of administration and creation of a permanent corps of officials. Initially, bureaucratisation helped democratisation because it eliminated feudal, plutocratic, and patriarchal bases of administration. The German sociologist, Max Weber, was the first to study the bureaucracy scientifically. He propounded the bureaucratic theory of management that envisioned bureaucracy laying down an impersonal and rule-based administration. According to Weber, a high level of efficiency was the characteristic of the bureaucracy. Starting from British times, we have had a long history of being ruled by bureaucrats; top bureaucrats were deputed from London, who were aided by lower level homegrown ones. However, at no time has our bureaucracy come even close to the Weberian ideal of impersonality and efficiency. At the time of Independence, there was a proposal to do away with the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Police (the precursors of the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, respectively) but our founding fathers realised that they themselves had no administrative experience, so along with the British Chiefs of defence services, the services of colonial bureaucrats were also retained. Despite its many failures, bureaucracy has successfully perpetuated itself; at the time of Independence the Government of India had around thirty secretaries, which are nearer a hundred now. Politicians are often voted out of power but bureaucrats always rule the roost. Looking to its many material successes, our youth is enamoured of the bureaucracy, though for patently wrong reasons. The power of patronage, lack of accountability and corruption, which are the bane of bureaucracy, often inspire young men and women in India to join the bureaucracy. Additionally, the hierarchy in the Indian Government is such that the scientist, doctor, engineer and the technocrat, all work under the bureaucrat. No wonder, the prime ambition of any young man or woman in India is to join the permanent bureaucracy, at whatever level.

Such admiration for bureaucracy has made it easy for bureaucratic values to permeate all sections of society. The bureaucratisation of our society has affected the pursuit of excellence and knowledge; the best minds try to get into bureaucracy, shunning art, literature, science and research. This scenario is strikingly similar to the one seen in the last days of the Roman Empire: “The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evapo-rated” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Edward Gibbon).

Traditionally, politicians and bureaucrats had perpetually been at loggerheads, if not openly then covertly, as brilliantly portrayed in the television series ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes, Prime Minister.’ However, in India, at some point of time bureaucrats and politicians decided to collaborate; to the exclusion of their own party workers, politicians recruited bureaucrats as their closest advisors. Politicisation of the bureaucracy has been a fait accompli for long but a new challenge has now emerged, that of bureaucratisation of politics.

Political parties organizing themselves in bureaucratic structures, is one of the manifestations of this phenomenon. Even more significantly, most political parties have sacrificed inner party democracy to a culture of nomination for party posts. Taking another cue from bureaucrats, politicians have learnt not to counter their opponents politically, but to use enforcement agencies against them.

Looking to the failure of the bureaucracy in resolving the problems of modern society, anti-bureaucratic reform efforts are gaining momentum in England and Australia, in what is called New Public Management, which aims at decentralisation, market-based decision making, replacing career civil servants by managers on contract, reducing the number of rules and enhancing the discretion and accountability of persons working lower down.

It is contended that debureaucratisation would do away with the procedure-based approach of administration and would make governance more flexible and performance oriented. But, moving in the opposite direction, the Indian Government is trying to make governance even more centralised and procedure-based and as a corollary, reduce discretion with public servants. So far, this approach has neither decreased corruption nor has it increased performance but has, doubtless, reduced flexibility.

We have, so far proved unequal to most of the challenges facing our polity. First, we had the problem of criminalisation of politics, which has increased over the years with 233 MPs (43 per cent) of the current Lok Sabha facing criminal charges compared to 34 per cent in the last Lok Sabha (Source: Association of Democratic Reforms), despite the best efforts of civil society and active intervention of the Supreme Court. Then, we had the problem of politicisation of the bureaucracy, which has been resolved only with the entire bureaucracy being politicised. We now have to see how we cope with the bureaucratisation of politics.

Let us recognise the danger of our entire society getting infected with the enervating influence of bureaucratisation which would make us lose our native genius, vigour and efficiency. Appearing on the Phil Donahue show in 1979, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman summarised the pitfalls of bureaucratisation beautifully: “The world runs on individuals pursuing their self-interests. The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus. Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the automobile industry that way.”