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Civil Servants & Politicians: DANGEROUS CHANGING EQUATION, By Dr S Saraswathi, 27 August, 2013 Print E-mail

Open Forum-I

New Delhi, 27 August 2013

Civil Servants & Politicians


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The suspension of Durga Shakti Nagpal, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate in Gautam Buddha Nagar district, Uttar Pradesh, has come before the cry over multiple transfers (said to be over 40) of Ashok Khemka of Haryana batch has subsided. These cases, whatever be the truth and justifications for actions taken by respective parties, necessitate reopening of debates on the role and relation between the executive authority and the high level bureaucracy. Doubtless, in the present context, changes are needed in concepts and attitudes governing this relationship vital for good governance.   


The two cases have also brought into limelight several other cases of suspected victimization of civil servants by political bosses for reasons supposed to be not any administrative wrong doing. UP is on top of the list of suspensions served on civil servants in recent decades. 


Reports since published reveal the variety and frequency of punishments meted out to civil servants in different States in the form of frequent transfers, and demotion in posts.  Such “punishment postings”, as they are dubbed, are forms of coercion and harassment of civil servants, who are or who become “persona non-grata” for their political bosses.   This phenomenon has been recorded in the reports of Civil Service Survey also.  However, their permanent removal is not in the hands of the State political bosses.


In the business of running the Government, four wings are involved – a legislature to make laws as expressed by the elected members, an executive to implement the will of the people expressed in Parliament, a judiciary to interpret and review the law and its implementation, and a civil service to operationalise  the will of the executive in day-to-day business.


The civil servant, as the name indicates, is mainly concerned with purely civil and non-technical affairs of the State. His/her responsibility is to administer the law of the land in letter and spirit. The executive and the civil service directly interact with each other and together form what is looked upon as the Government by people. The former has limited tenure while the latter, which works under the former, is permanent and does not change with the change of the executive.


The Indian Civil Service was established in 1911 by the British. After independence, it was reorganized to include the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Foreign Service (IFS), the Indian Police Service (IPS), and the Central Services grouped in four categories. The groups have expanded in course of time with addition of several services.


Finer has succinctly described civil servants as a body of officials, permanent and skilled.  Selected impartially through a tough competitive all-India test, trained for administrative competence, given orientation to be politically neutral and non-partisan in dealing with people, and expected to evince a spirit of service to the community in functioning, civil servants constitute the most vital pillar of good governance. They have to remain committed to the law of the land under all circumstances.


The concept of neutrality and impartiality in public office regardless of the person and Party in power is central to the British civil service system adopted in India. However, Karl Marx rejected the concept of neutrality of civil servants. He regarded the service as an instrument of the ruling party. This idea has been adopted by single party authoritarian regimes whereas democratic countries like the UK and US put faith in the neutrality of civil service. Unfortunately, some comments heard in the Durga episode sound like coercing civil service to be meekly obedient to the executive.


Tampering with independence and neutrality will seriously undermine the very object of a civil service which is to professionalise the functioning of the Government. Political interference in the bureaucratic administration will exactly do this unless we infuse and enforce healthy norms to govern executive-bureaucracy relation.   


In the early decades after Independence, the role civil servants played was actually crucial for establishing sound norms and precedence in politics-administration interface.  For, they had necessary qualifications, adequate knowledge of the subject matter, abundant information and proper skill in application of knowledge to situations.  Ministers in those days depended on the permanent civil servants for advice and information necessary for policy-making. In that stage, civil servants were expected to point out the pros and cons of a policy to the political head on the basis of their knowledge, specialization, and experience to help him take a decision.


Determination of the policy, however, was the function of the Ministers. Once a decision had been taken, the civil servants had to abide by it and carry it out even if they were not fully in agreement. Sometimes, executive-bureaucracy differences marred smooth functioning of the Government.


Ministers at times had expressed a general grievance of non-cooperative attitude of civil servants. Perhaps, the legacy of the pride of the old ICS bred in colonial mind-set was still lingering. Gulzarilal Nanda (twice Interim Prime Minister and Home Minister for some time in Nehru’s Cabinet) had mentioned of not getting adequate secretarial assistance and that his appeals had failed. He said civil servants didn’t toe his line of thinking and he was unable to have his way in policy-making.


The situation has radically been changing. Today, civil servants often nurse a grievance that they are made servants of their political masters and unable to discharge their duties as prescribed by rules and regulations, and adhere to the code of conduct expected of them. A day later Durga was chargesheeted, UP Chief Minister justified the action saying it was like school kids being “punished by teachers and pulled up by parents for doing wrong”. 


The report of the Administrative Reforms Commission (1968), listing a number of recommendations to promote good governance has mentioned that “Ministers should not interfere in the day-to-day administration except in cases of grave injustice, serious default, or maladministration on the part of civil servants”.  The report describes official relationship between Secretaries and Ministers as one based on principles of loyalty and confidence.


Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once remarked: “If government has to do more for the people, its employees must play a more dynamic and more creative role as the instrument for implementing government policies and programmes”. The remark seems to presuppose parity of views between political and administrative leaders. The dynamism of the civil service is expected in implementing policies taken by the executive and not in assisting the Government in taking proper decisions. Clearly, the role of bureaucratic ‘babus’ was diluted. The concept of “committed civil service”, committed to their political bosses was introduced!


The change reminds one of Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ which emphasizes loyalty and sincerity as two principal qualifications required for civil servants. The treatise recommended constant watch over the functioning of the civil servants – an advice detrimental to neutrality and impartiality of civil servants in the present context.  


Unfortunately, it is the age of corruption and nepotism. The chances of civil service falling in the trap and losing the principles of neutrality and rule of law are growing strong.  At the same time, political climate not favouring strong and stable government, the role and responsibility of civil service will also grow.  It is all the more urgent to keep the civil service insulated from the wave of politicization. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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