Problems of governance: Civil servants have a prime role in mitigating them

New Delhi: There have been open debates lately on the issues of governance and public policy in a democratic dispensation and in the Indian context, a narrative is projected that the political executive ought to run the country on Constitutional norms — the implication being that the regime of the day is perhaps not fully pursuing that path. This is an unfair criticism.

India rightly described as the mother of democracy has been governed for decades on the robust principle of ‘one man one vote’ not affected by caste, class, region, community or gender making the words ‘we the people..’ come alive – as used in the Constitution adopted way back in 1950.

The majority-minority question raised politically by interested parties was traceable to the fact that India won its freedom — that was coterminous with Partition made on communal lines — but inherited a Muslim population that could match that of Pakistan.

The competitive politics made it tempting for the parties to seek votes in the name of ‘minority rights’ and this encouraged many Muslim leaders to take a separatist approach and demand a ‘political share’ for the minority in the governance at the national level.

With the rise of BJP as the ruling party, the forces of the opposition also floated a view that the Narendra Modi regime was moving towards ‘majoritarianism’, ‘authoritarianism’ and neglect of ‘minorities’.

Civil society groups, sections of media and lobbies abroad seemed to have joined the ‘politics by proxy’ on these lines. This invites examination as to what fundamental practices of governance in a democracy should remain unchanged in the larger national interest.

In a democratic country, secularism is built into the system of adult franchise and enactment of laws that would not distinguish between one community and the others.

The state carried no stamp of religion but it professed respect for all faiths and granted freedom of worship as a fundamental right.

Supreme Court interpreted the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution that could not be amended.

As an important pillar of democracy, the Judiciary had the final authority to declare that any policy of the government or enactment of Parliament, was an ultra virus of the Constitution.

The political executive selected on the basis of the majority of the ruling party would not adopt a policy favouring a community or group — outside of the system of ‘reservations’ — and hence considering all of this, the burden of good governance in the eyes of the people falls chiefly on the administrative machinery of the government headed by and large by the officers of IAS and IPS who were expected to ensure that the implementation of a policy was impartial and that the law and order maintenance — a prerequisite of good governance — was uniform across the length and breadth of the country.

The validity of the All India Civil Services was tested in independent India and those at the top levels did consciously contribute to policy formulation. They were also expected to monitor law and order management of the states in the light of the Constitutional provision that gross failure on that front could even lead to the Centre taking over the reins of governance in the concerned state.

Gradually, however, the efficacy of these services declined on account of excessive bureaucratisation, weak supervision down the line and most of all, political interference.

Young officers prided themselves on their ability to serve the people as DM or SP of the district but saw how the bureaucrats in top positions succumbed to the dictates of the political masters — they crawled when merely asked to bend — and did that often for their gain which undermined their image as role models.

There is no civil service like IAS and IPS in any other country – that offered a career of leadership from the very beginning and created a certain degree of expectation regarding their capacity to resist the wrongdoing of the politicians. It would be incorrect to put the entire blame for flawed governance on the political executive.

In a large democracy like India’s, there are changes in the political complexion of the ruling dispensation but the principles governing the administrative functioning of the Centre remained constant.

The execution of the policies of the day by the administrative machinery should be kept ‘apolitical’ for the reason that the decisions of the political executive ruling the country set the relationship of citizens with the latter — it is for the people to criticise or welcome the policy.

Those heading the administrative machinery should express their reservations if any during the formulation of a policy but should make it a point to keep the official set-up of the government insulated from any public criticism the policy might attract.

Unfortunately, the heads of administration and Police in the states do not understand the importance of this clinical separation between the political executive and the implementing machinery of the government — in many cases, they themselves adopted a style of work that would please their political masters but not necessarily the people at large.

In 1993, the Vohra Committee report on the Politician-Bureaucratic-Criminal nexus that was ultimately accepted by the government threw light on the role such bureaucrats played in taking corruption to an entirely new level.

In the debate on where the blame lies for misgovernance, the attention is always on ruling politicians but there is a glaring underestimation of the expectations people had from the administrative machinery headed by the IAS and IPS, whose members enjoyed a great deal of respect for their supposed dedication to public cause, ‘power’ and capacity to deliver.

There was a time when the Collector and District SP were looked upon as the ‘highest door’ for grievance removal leaving people with little ground to go to the state or the national capitals. There is learning from the practice, the British followed of elevating a Collector to the status of Commissioner without moving him out of the district in a case where he had proved exceptionally effective in keeping the public contented.

On the other hand, however, the politician-criminal nexus had operated in many cases even without the complicity of bureaucracy creating a situation where the upright officers doing their duty with fervour might run the risk of direct or indirect attack from hired criminals. Any case of assault on officials during the discharge of their duties will deserve to be investigated from this angle.

It is natural that after Independence, the advent of democratic rule would change the position of bureaucracy in terms of its equation with the new rulers, preservation of its own turf and the challenge of facing the pressure of politicians in many spheres of its duties.

What did not change was the widely accepted code of professional ethics that IAS and IPS were expected to follow and the degree of accountability that they had to measure up to in regard to the implementation of the legitimate policies of the government of the day.

What also did not change was the impartiality of recruitment to these services through a national-level competitive examination, the guarantee of security of service to them and an attractive salary structure — comparatively speaking — with the added facility of housing and travel.

Perhaps the biggest shortfall these services have allowed is in the area of improving the performance of revenue and police officials on the ground – at the level of overseers, civic Inspectors and Station House Officers. Not all of this can be ascribed to ‘political interference’.

Senior officials as they moved up the ladder progressively lost their image as a role model for the younger lot — generally speaking. They tried to please those with political influence to gain some personal advantage, gave up the responsibility of ‘supervision’ that entailed exercising their administrative power and working harder or simply fell for the lure of illicit money.

As someone said the officials of administration and Police were supposed to be ‘friendly not familiar’. It is a matter of public concern that the core of bureaucracy that upheld ethical norms of profession, was shrinking. This is a contagious flaw that must be checked and halted. Police Performance should be a point on the agenda of the annual DGPs Conference chaired by the Director, Intelligence Bureau.

The current ruling dispensation at the Centre is headed by a Prime Minister, who came onto the scene on the strength of personal integrity and the capacity to run the administration with a firm hand. These were the weak spots in the earlier regimes.

There is a visible improvement in inter-ministerial coordination, the pace of execution of policy and recognition for good work.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi can further stabilise the working of the nation’s administrative machinery by taking certain measures that had been talked about but were still not fully put in place.

First is the strengthening of the Centre’s role in the appointment of the Chief Secretary and the DGP of the state. In what has the backing of the highest judiciary, the UPSC should draw a panel of three names on a seniority cum merit basis in consultation with the state government which would then have a certain autonomy in exercising its choice.

Secondly, the Centre should continue monitoring the performances of officers of IAS and IPS allocated to the states after training, through the DoP&T and ensure that the legitimate directives of the Centre were scrupulously followed by them.

Thirdly, the Centre should be able to send a strong message to the states that any unfair treatment of the officials faithfully carrying out their duties would be firmly opposed by the government.

Fourth, India being a democratic Union of states, the Centre expected that the law and order management would be kept at a certain level of efficiency throughout the length and breadth of the country in accordance with the Penal codes of the nation. The IPS was created precisely for this purpose.

It has to be made clear that failure of law and order indicated by a series of instances would invite a firm response from the Centre as provided for by the Constitution.

And finally, the combined Foundational Course in which All India and Central Civil Services Officers were brought together at the beginning of their career must be utilised for inculcating in them the values of professional and personal ethics, making them aware of India’s strategic and national security profile and impressing on them the importance of cooperating with each other as they rose to handle national level responsibilities in future.

All these are steps that are feasible and capable of being implemented with the right amount of effort.

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