Who controls babudom?

Centre-States Tussle

By Poonam I Kaushish

A Government of India car drives into Delhi’s Lodi garden at 6.30am, ‘saab’ instructs his driver to stay ‘right here’. So what if the slot is meant for self-driven cars. Besides, why can’t saab who has come to exercise, disembark on the road and walk a few steps, specially as he lives less than a km in a Lutyens bungalow? Bluntly, saab is the law and cares tuppence. Welcome, the DNA of India’s babudom!
However last week’s Central Government proposed amendments to IAS Rules 1954 enabling it to post IAS officers on Central deputation in “public interest” without consulting State Governments where officers are serving and in case the State refuses the officer would be deemed relieved “within a specified time” fixed by the Centre, has shaken bureaucratic smugness and has States up in arms. Already, 10 States West Bengal, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh and NDA-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Bihar oppose it.
Accusing the Government of striking State autonomy, federal polity and damaging the spirit of cooperative federalism which exists between Union and States leading to the Centre concentrating powers. This over-centralisation of powers would also induce fear and hesitancy among officials in implementing State Government policies of Parties opposed to the ruling dispensation at the Centre.
Discounting this, the Centre cites reduction in officers on Central Deputation from 309 in 2011to 223 presently. It avers officers would be posted only after States consultation. Moreover, they cannot always be posted in States which is inefficient for the Service and by working with both officers’ would broaden their perspectives, personal development and advance the mission of the all-India services.
Undeniably, the bureaucracy is a powerful lobby. An obscurantist force often rivaling politicians with its fair share of crooks, criminals and cheats. A majority of who work on the dictum, show me the face I will show you the rule. Which translates into grease my palms else I will read you the riot act and how!
Add to this, States are notorious for having a “committed bureaucracy” or being aligned to Parties, resulting in a spate of transfers and hounding out following a political change. Confessed a former Cabinet Secretary, “the problem is endemic in States like UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, where Chief Ministers have failed to draw a distinction between “political direction and political interference.”
Chimed in another, “Bureaucrats were to be checks in the system. The checks have turned into cheques while the balance is out of the window! The civil service has become an elite self perpetuating club which protects its perks, turf and corners all top jobs. Adeptly they have created jobs like regulators and committees, cornered by them alongside misusing their office to benefit a Party or cultivate certain constituencies while in office.”
Hong Kong’s Political & Economic Risk Consultancy ranked our IAS as Asia’s worst, 9.21 rating out of 10, worse than Vietnam (8.54), Indonesia (8.37), Philippines (7.57) and China (7.11) a few years ago. Adding officials accept under-the-table payments, are rarely held accountable and are the cause of mistrust towards Government.
Moreover some bureaucrats are seeking voluntary retirement and jumping into politics. The Government boasts of four bureaucrat-turned-Ministers: Foreign Minister Jaishankar, Railway Minister Avinash Vaishnav, Housing and Power Ministers Hardeep Puri and R.K. Singh. And, K.J. Alphons, Pavan Verma Aparajita Sarangi etc. Big deal if it’s unethical.
Lamented a senior Election Commission officer, “in States senior officers prepare grounds for their political career while in office. In 2012, the Commission recommended Government make a two-year cooling off period mandatory before babus could join politics to prevent conflict of interest. But the Government rejected it as it could violate their right to equality. Sic.
Ironically, even as the Government presents itself as strong and stable there is no stability vis-à-vis top bureaucracy whereby secretaries are shunted from one Ministry to another, often within months. There is abrupt end to tenures even as favoured retiring officials are given extensions.
Alas, nobody is thinking long-term. Shockingly, 17 Ministries have each had minimum 6-7 secretaries during the past 7 years. Not all, necessitated by superannuation. Rural Development 8 secretaries, ditto health and education. Some were shifted before completing their two year tenure. Who will be held responsible?
But there is a silver lining. To push its reform agenda the Government introduced lateral entry of private sector people who want to work for public good as in US. Simultaneously it must freeze senior positions numbers and desist from creating redundant posts to accommodate favourites.
Additionally, it has to break the neta-babu nexus which helps officers not only in promotions speedily without regard to seniority or merit but also joining the politician in looting the country. Whereby, a majority of bureaucrats are happy to go along with their political mai-baaps. Rooted in the firm belief, like their masters they are a law unto themselves. Over the years, they have become used to dispensing patronage arrogantly earning big pay packets for non-productive work.
Thus, every political change of guard leads to ad nauseum transfers resulting in most officials taking no initiative. In fact, the political identification of officials is becoming so marked that even the bureaucracy is able to predict who will occupy which top post, if ‘X’, ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ Party or individual comes to power!
The writing is on the wall. It is time politicians and babudom shrugs off inertia and restores its professionalism based on absolute, not obsolete principles. They must give serious thought to determining what action needs to be taken collectively to remove administrative deficiencies, expose political malfunctioning and restore the system One way is to internalize the zero tolerance principle and the “sunset principle” as in US. Under this method, justification for any Governmental activity is all time under scrutiny so that no acts of misdemeanour take place.
Questionably, will babus have courage to correct themselves? Unlikely, as corruption has become a low risk, high-profit area. The bureaucrat is the third angle of the triangular neta-babu-business axis which has perpetuated a vulturistic culture of the winner takes all.
Can competence and integrity, and not allegiance become the criteria for selection? A million dollar question that beckons an answer? Only those that matter can perhaps answer it. However, before it is answered, someone will have to muster the courage to ask this question.
Undoubtedly, if our polity and bureaucrats don’t change their values, a time will come when they will become increasingly irrelevant. Look how the country’s is rapidly progressing despite the bureaucracy. It may exist by the sheer force of Newton’s First Law of inertia but it will not be playing a role which would make it a meaningful part of the governance. Will our bureaucrats rise to the occasion or will they allow the steel frame to rot and rust as they revel in mediocrity at their political masters behest? — INFA