Were it not for its very serious implications, the latest proposal floated by the Government to “reform” the civil service would have been laughed out of court. According to media reports, Niti Aayog has recommended to the PMO that the present system of the UPSC recommending a list of successful candidates to be appointed to various services based on merit in an open competition, be scrapped.

Instead, it has suggested that the list of successful candidates be forwarded to the Government without assigning any particular service or State of allotment. Thereafter, all the successful candidates be subjected to the common Foundation Course and the marks obtained at the end of the same be added to the marks obtained in the UPSC examination, to determine the inter se seniority. The total marks of the two “examinations” should determine the service and the cadre to which the candidates will be finally allotted.

The suggestion is bound to damage the existing system which is best designed for an efficient and independent civil service in a Constitutional democracy. Furthermore, it is also free from any political influence or political ideology. What is more disturbing is that the suggestion is unconstitutional. According to media reports, the suggestion has emanated from some of the economists in Niti Aayog.

Apparently, they are theorists of the ‘dismal science’ who are entirely innocent of the Constitution and its working. Indeed, it looks as if economic theory proscribes modern Constitutional jurisprudence in India, as elsewhere.
At present, recruitment to all the services is done by the UPSC through an open competitive examination, arguably the toughest in the world.

The candidates who secure the highest marks are recommended for appointment to the IAS, which is the preferred first choice of almost all the candidates. The candidates who are lower in the merit list are allotted other all-India services such as IPS or IFoS or other Central services. All the candidates are then trained briefly in a common Foundation Course where only the basics of governance are taught. Thereafter, the various Services are sent to their respective specialized training institutes.

The suggestion needs to be examined in the context of the working of India’s Constitution, which is federal in character and has borrowed heavily from the US, the democratic world’s first Federal Constitution. The Founding Fathers particularly studied the system of recruitment to the US Government, only to discover that it was seriously flawed.

The US followed the “spoils system”, which could hardly be described as a “system”. Appointments of members of the Executive under the US Government were based on the basis of patronage; the elected ruling politicians offered appointments on a political basis to their friends and supporters. In short, the partisan “system” was open to serious abuse.

As India’s Constitution is based largely on the British model, the Founding Fathers consciously decided to opt for an independent civil service which would function without any political bias and treat all citizens equally, irrespective of their political affiliation. Accordingly, they made a specific provision in the Constitution itself to set up an independent body ~ the Union Public Service Commission ~ which would be free of any political pressure in its functioning.

To secure its independence, the Chairman and other members were given fixed tenures. The UPSC comprises eminent civil servants and other experts, to cover recruitment to all civil posts and services. It is a lasting tribute to the Founding Fathers that the system has worked so well during the past seven decades.

Incidentally, in the land of its birth, the “spoils system”, which was introduced in the last century is itself out favour and has been progressively jettisoned for several decades now. It had taken all the considerable authority of the great visionary, US President Roosevelt to rid America of this scourge. Today, more than 95 per cent of the recruitment to the US Government is based on merit.

The UPSC, and State PSCs were given Constitutional status to prevent the abuses of the “spoils system”. In the memorable words of Justice Shah Commission report, constituted after the Emergency: “Unless the Services work for and establish a reputation of political neutrality, the citizens will have no confidence in the impartiality and fairness of the Services”.

The UPSC is mandated by the Constitution thus: “It shall be its duty to conduct examinations for appointments to the services of the Union”. In other words, it is a Constitutional duty entrusted exclusively to the PSCs and to no other authority, not even the Government. If the suggestion of Niti Aayog is to be accepted, it will imply that there will be two examinations, one by the UPSC and another by the Executive under the ruling political party. Undeniably, the training institute for all Services is headed by a career civil servant. But pressure can always be brought on him to look after the interests of favoured candidates, to “adjust” them in the service of their choice.

The competition in the UPSC examination is so fierce that the difference between the all-India and Central services is just a few marks. As successful candidates who are not high up in the combined list are already assured of placement in the Central Services, they have nothing to lose in bringing political pressure on the senior staff of the training institute/faculty to “upgrade” their marks to “improve” their inter se seniority over more meritorious candidates in the combined UPSC list of successful candidates.

Once this happens, more meritorious candidates may be pushed downwards, and relegated from the all-India list to any number of Central Services.
In the new pattern being advocated, merit will be the first casualty. The UPSC examination is an objective assessment, conducted in secrecy and anonymously. The viva voce is the same, as conducted by experts free from political influence or control.

For this reason, the tenure of the Chairman and other members is fixed and they are barred from any further employment either under the Government of India or a State government, according to the Constitutional scheme. Further, the Commission does not report to the Government of the day but to Parliament. Although the Government is not obliged to accept in full all the recommendations, it has to record its reasons for non-acceptance and place these before Parliament.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the term ‘examination’ means a written test and viva voce. This is where the rub lies. The senior staff at the training institute can always be pressured to provide high marks for the viva, even assuming that the subsequent written test conducted by the training institute is with adequate safeguards and secrecy.

As a result, an objective and time-tested examination conducted by an independent Constitutional body has the potential to become a subjective examination conducted under the authority of the ruling political executive. It would be virtually introducing the “spoils system” by the backdoor, indeed politicization of the Services at the very threshold. Hopefully, the suggestion would be aborted at birth – after all, post the Irish legislation on abortion, it is the flavour of the season.

The writer is a retired IAS officer