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Cleansing Public Life:CIVIL SERVICE AS OPPOSITION? By Dharmendra Nath, Retd IAS, 4 March, 2013 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 4 March 2013

Cleansing Public Life


By Dharmendra Nath, Retd IAS


In his address to Parliament, President Pranab Mukherjee recently reiterated the Government’s resolve towards “greater transparency …and accountability in governance.” Towards that end amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act “to punish the guilty and protect the honest public servants” are under consideration. Sadly, the woods have been missed for the trees. The role of the Civil Services needs to be looked at in its entirety.

Recall Hon’ble Jim Hacker, portrayed as Minister and then Prime Minister in the once popular and very perspicacious BBC TV serial Yes, Minister & its sequel Yes, Prime Minister said in one of the episodes “Opposition aren’t really the opposition. They are just called the Opposition. But, in fact, they are government in exile. The Civil Service are the Opposition in residence.” What he means is that basically the Government and the Opposition are on the same side. In our country the Kejriwal exposes fully bring out the truth of the statement. Government and the Opposition, each is just as good or bad on the touchstone of probity. If there is a Vadra, there is a Gadkari too. Then where is the Opposition?

The Civil Service is or ought to be the Opposition. It used to be largely true with us once. Not so any more. With the introduction of the concept of a committed civil service and its large scale politicisation and a general all-round denigration of services all that has changed. Services today are hardly ever able to stand up against arbitrary exercise of political power

Civil Service are meant to carry out political decisions of the Government, but not without putting forward their viewpoint if the situation so demands. For the Civil Service, it is like walking on a razor’s edge, a very delicate exercise calling into play all its hidden reserves. A destructive interpretation can make the government a fighting arena. A constructive understanding of the same, however, creates unmatched possibilities of cleansing the public life.

The role of the Civil Service in this tricky situation is thus in constant need of a realistic definition between the extremes of servile subordination and arrogant professional stance. This is an area for the Civil Service institutes to keep visiting and revisiting in the context of the times. In their docility the Services chose to be silent during the Emergency. How was that brought about?

As it is, political executive is watched over only very remotely by the judiciary despite the provisions of public interest litigation and suo-moto cognizance. Mostly, somebody has to move the courts. Legislature is free to question the government, but again it is from outside. Civil service, on the other hand, is placed in a very enviable position in this respect. It has inside knowledge of matters. It is fully involved with the decision making and execution processes of the government. It works on the same files as the political executive and is fully aware in real time of the progress of matters under consideration. It can interrupt its masters with their hand in the cookie jar. James Hacker was aware of this inconvenient truth. That is why Civil Service was to him Opposition in residence.

Does anyone really care for our Civil Service? Let us leave out lower functionaries of revenue, police, forest and transport departments and their daily petty extractions. They are not a part of the public policy forming set. What about the higher Civil Service? Does it speak up? 

Admittedly, Civil Service does not comprise all saints. Nor does the society. It is all a matter of checks and balances and our willingness to use them. If we choose to use it, the Civil Service is an available safeguard to ensure due exercise of Executive power.

In India, we have devised ingenious ways of silencing the Civil Service and making it docile. One, floating the concept of a committed Civil Service. Two, constant harping on the mercenary aspect of the Service. Three, repeated admonitions to show respect to the elected representatives.

The idea of a committed Civil Service is of the same vintage as the accompanying political slogan Garibi Hatao (Remove poverty). Both are equally vague as to what is implied. Committed is a high sounding word. Committed, yes but to what? To the Constitution, to the ruling boss or to one’s own conscience? The slogan never went that far. In the meantime it has become a convenient tool to sift out a portion of the civil service.

That Services are mercenary whereas political masters are true public servants is an idea constantly dinned into the public mind in an effort to assert the supremacy of political power. This in effect denigrates the Civil Service. It tends to create in the public mind a distrust of the Services. This is totally counterproductive as we are thereby indirectly depriving ourselves of the full services of those whom we have paid for them.

Rendering service for money is not to be scoffed at. In fact, giving a fair return for money should be considered very honourable. It is much better than perpetrating frauds behind the façade of honorary service. In this matter we can do no better than recall the lines of A E Housman written for the paid soldiers of World War One who laid down their lives for their country:  ‘What God abandoned they defended, And saved the sum of things for pay.’

There is a lot of riding rough shod over the Services in the name of showing proper respect to the elected representatives. By all means due respect must be shown to this class but it should not become a convenient tool for them to browbeat the Services. Elected representatives many times use it as an arm twisting device. Let us not forget that rule of law is as much a part of democracy as its representative character.

Moreover, our Government’s handling of the Civil Service itself is far from satisfactory. Its system of empanelment and posting is calculated to create a docile subservient service. Continuous know-towing to the bosses, which it involves, has nearly broken down the back of the Civil Service. There is no frame, steel, bamboo or anything. If you have a straight spine you will not get empanelled, and if empanelled you will not get a posting in GOI. The system is looking for reflexive obedience.

Many out of those selected by government are subsequently investigated for criminal conduct and other irregularities. It may be revealing to investigate such cases and see what could have been done to avoid their selection. As it is, for most of the Civil Service, Government’s personnel policy operates as a glass ceiling and ensures that one moves up beyond a point only if one has a favourable voice.

The move to make the CAG’s office a multimember office should be viewed against this backdrop. Election Commission became a multimember body in similar circumstances. Political opposition is unlikely to pose any real problem to such a move. This time, though, it will require a Constitutional amendment. Who in power or hoping to be in power wants a strong CAG?

All in all, we need to firmly clarify the role of the Civil Service and its operational freedom in our scheme of things. To revert to the language of the opening paragraph, we need a clearer understanding of its constructive role as the Opposition in residence. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


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