Crumbling Foundation

Had the Mahatma been alive to witness the civil war like situation in Manipur, and communal riots in Haryana, he…

Crumbling Foundation

[Photo : IANS]

Had the Mahatma been alive to witness the civil war like situation in Manipur, and communal riots in Haryana, he would certainly have died a second death ~ by shame; unable to comprehend the kind of country he had helped create. However, leaders of today are unfazed; made of sterner stuff, their skin is far thicker than that of the Mahatma and his followers. Also, in contrast to the Mahatma, for the current lot of politicians, politics is not a service to society, but only a means to grab power.

Shamefully, while the Opposition sees opportunities in every tragedy that befalls the nation, the Government is perpetually in denial mode; they would have us believe that we are living in the best of times. More unfortunately, the Parliament’s response to crises is not one of constructive guidance, but of meek acceptance of the diktats of the executive.

Tying itself into knots over technicalities, Parliament has only now discussed the unprecedented breakdown of law and order in Manipur, though more than three months have elapsed since violence first broke out. The Supreme Court is trying to prod the Government to take proactive action, but has not been successful so far. Rather, a scurrilous social media campaign has been launched against the Supreme Court, warning it to lay off Manipur and such contentious issues. Although it is easy to blame polarising forces for the current unhappy situation, a fundamental question arises: What makes Indians so easy to polarise?


Probably, fissiparous tendencies lie just below the surface in most Indians, who value caste, creed and religion much more than nationalism. After the Mutiny of 1857, that had seen most Indian soldiers uniting against them, the British organised Army regiments on caste basis, safe in the knowledge that no two regiments would see eye-to-eye, much less collaborate against them: “If one regiment mutinies, I should like to have the next so alien that it would fire into it” (Sir Charles Wood, Secretary of State for India, May 1862).

Unfortunately, seventy-five years after Independence, this grotesque assumption by the British remains valid, because religion and caste still remain divisive forces, which are frequently amplified and misused, by political parties and vested interests. In this context, a recent editorial by a respected columnist in a national daily deserves mention.

The columnist justified communal polarisation for electoral purposes but unequivocally condemned its use for dividing society, forgetting that polarisation is not a pet dog, that will go back to its kennel after performing its tricks. Rather, polarisation is a genie, which released from its bottle, will devour all within its reach. Another, even more glaring reason for the Government’s failure to handle crisis situations, is the oft noted failure of its machinery in crunch situations, be it floods in Delhi, riots in Haryana or armed clashes in Manipur.

It is seen that wherever conflicting political interests are involved, civil servants willingly abdicate responsibility and act only with the approval and guidance of their political masters, sacrificing good administration in the process. A number of judgements of the Supreme Court to shelter the police and civil administration from the whims of the Government of the day e.g., the celebrated TSR Subramanian case and the Prakash Singh case, have been blatantly ignored by all governments. Left at the mercy of the political executive, most bureaucrats willingly collaborate with politicians.

The bureaucrat-politician partnership could have been transformative for the country, because the vast administrative experience of bureaucrats would supplement the politicians’ vision and grassroots connection, leading to quantum change. However, such politician-bureaucrat collaboration is mostly used for ulterior purposes, and seldom for noble aims. Not surprisingly, there is a tough competition between bureaucrats for the favour of powerful politicians; dog eat dog rather than service brotherhood is the new culture of the bureaucracy.

The mass transfer of bureaucrats and police officers on every change of regime, is proof of this fact. No wonder, honest bureaucrats feel dejected, while the less scrupulous align themselves to individual politicians and factions. Daily reports in newspapers about corruption in bureaucratic ranks shows a mirror to the narrative of good governance. With top bureaucrats tangoing with politicians, the lower bureaucracy has been left leaderless.

Additionally, Indian bureaucratic culture has become highly deficient; under the guise of Indianisation, timeless values of honesty, integrity, and responsibility have been discarded ~ to be replaced by a culture of showmanship, brazen commercialism and avarice. It would appear that corruption, and a meek surrender to politicians, have made seniors lose all moral authority over juniors, while a convoluted procedure for punishment of errant bureaucrats has eroded their real authority also.

The worst loser in this scenario is the public, which is often let down in adverse situations, and which has to suffer deficient service on a daily basis. The problem of bureaucratic non-performance is so acute that in a longish speech in Parliament, on 10 February 2021, PM Modi questioned the operational capability of IAS officers. The only solution for this problem is to have a well-trained, reasonably honest bureaucracy, one that is alive to the problems of the public.

In any case, reforming the bureaucracy, and aligning it with 21st century requirements, is urgently required, but changing the ethos and work culture of a massive and well-entrenched organisation is a daunting task. The Government had launched the National Programme for Civil Services Capacity Building (Mission Karmayogi) in September 2020, with a timeline of one year, for this purpose.

However, no substantial progress can be noted, even after three years. Even reports of the First and Second Administrative Reforms Commission (1966 and 2005) have been only partially implemented. Fearing job losses, optimisation and automation of work processes are perpetually placed on hold. The Government has tried to leverage technology to rein in corruption by eliminating discretion, but with little success.

Rather, technological solutions have promoted centralisation; that has hamstrung bureaucratic initiative at the operational level. A decidedly better approach to improve bureaucratic performance could be to first realise that there is an acute shortage of employees at the cutting edge, like constables and teachers.

By an ingenious bureaucratic stratagem, such shortages are made up by hiring contractual workers, who are not trained and have no responsibility or loyalty. Such staff provide poor service to the public, and are the first to desert their posts, in the face of any crisis. This problem has arisen because most departments have surrendered large numbers of lower-level posts for some few posts at the top.

Resultantly, bureaucracy now resembles an inverted pyramid, with a large number of commanders, who have no troops to command. Routine measures that would improve governance with little effort, like giving proper training to subordinate Government employees and formulating SOPs for them, in light of recent technical advances, are hardly attempted. Also, a matrix of responsibility and accountability for government employees needs to be worked out, so that dereliction of duty can be identified and dealt with.

Lastly, the procedure to book delinquent officers needs to be streamlined, by getting rid of the meaningless rigmarole that makes action against bureaucrats virtually impossible. This would put the fear of God in lower-level functionaries, who in addition to service rules are protected by their powerful unions. Hopefully, such measures would prevent the handover of armouries or innocent women to militants (as in Manipur), make the police stop religious processions from degenerating into frenzied mobs (as in Haryana) and ensure proper upkeep of barrage gates (as in Delhi).

In the context of civil service reforms, an instance appearing in the book Comparative Government: An introduction to the study of politics, by Professor Samuel E. Finer bears repetition: “Two American political scientists (Professors Almond and Verba) made a survey of what they called ‘the civic culture’ in five countries. These were USA, Britain, Germany, Italy and Mexico. Answering the query (in the opinion poll they held), ‘which aspect of national life do you take most pride in?’… 33 per cent (of Britons) named their governmental arrangements. Furthermore, four-fifths of the (British) respondents believed that the civil servants would treat them fairly, and no less than ninetenth believed that the police would.” We can only hope that our bureaucracy could achieve these high standards.