When top-level babus turn pliant partners


Unlike in the past, a regime-specific loyalty is discernible in the higher echelons of bureaucracy, with loyalty being rewarded handsomely post-retirement. In these times of heightened political centralisation, the situation of officials of non-IAS cadre occupying positions which were traditionally the IAS domain has also resulted in increased ‘YES Boss’ syndrome. We are seeing how the system has totally collapsed in Andhra Pradesh, and how no official has freedom to speak on any issue in Telangana or for that matter in West Bengal or even at central level. What will happen if the babus refuse to be simply postmen? Insignificant postings seem to scare them

The shuffle of IAS and IPS officers in Telangana soon after the election code came into effect has made the bureaucrats feel ‘sandwiched’ between the State and the Centre. Why is it so?

This is something which the bureaucracy in India needs to ponder over seriously. They may not agree, but there has been tremendous change in the style of functioning and the role of All India Service officials. Who is responsible for this? Well, to a great extent it is the political executive, and to some extent the growing aspirations of the bureaucrats have perhaps created a situation where they now feel caught between the state and the centre.

It is an undeniable fact that there has been increasing centralisation in the political system in India, particularly in the last decade and a half or so. This has resulted in undermining the original objective of the prestigious All India Service.

At the same time, what needs to be examined is why the bureaucracy has allowed the IAS to get undermined by the political executive. The political executive can only take policy decisions which need to be aided and assisted by the bureaucrats right from the time of draft proposal to its implementation. They are the people who are the elite group who are supposed to shape the dynamics of India’s federal system and are the most critical component in ensuring proper federal relations.

The bureaucracy is not supposed to become a part of the political executive but should be able to explain to their bosses the pros and cons of each decision. They can aid the government of the day in taking correct decisions but not abet in allowing the governments to do whatever they please. They are the most important elite cadre and there is no need for them to be subservient to anyone or say, “Yes CM or Yes Minister1.”

That was the kind of bureaucracy India had seen at least for about five decades after Independence. For example, when Field Marshal Manekshaw was the Chief of Army Staff and Pakistan attacked India, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked him if he could move his troops and free Bangladesh. He said that he cannot do so if there was political intervention. He said if the Prime Minister assured him that she would not ask him to stop the war halfway and return to barracks, he can achieve what the government wanted, and he had his way.

In the words of Dr P V Ramesh, IAS, who was the Special Chief Secretary to the Government of Andhra Pradesh, it is a common feature for the politicians to put a lot of pressure on the bureaucracy but it is the duty of the officer to ensure that he acts as per law and not dance to the whims and fancies of politicians. During a TV show, he narrated an incident when a local legislator insisted that his word should prevail regarding a certain decision but he as District Collector refused to oblige him. He was then called by the then Chief Minister, N T Rama Rao, who asked him what the matter was. When he explained in detail, NTR told him that he should not deviate from the rules and as the CM he would see to it that local leaders would not interfere in such matters. Such broadminded thinking and magnanimity are missing now.

The officials should always call a spade a spade. But then many old timers feel that the political pressure on the officers has increased tremendously, for which both sides are responsible. The political parties which only talk of federalism but do not implement it want the bureaucrats to just implement what they say. The officials also have stopped resisting such tendencies and are falling in line with the political bosses leading to regime-specific loyalty, thus breaking the dual control accountability structure. This kind of loyalty is being rewarded by the ruling parties plum posts as post retirement gift.

According an article published by Centre for the Advanced Study of India, the original design of IAS was to balance far too many considerations but, as a result, cadre representation in the Centre tends to disproportionately favour a cluster of states like Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, and the North East and vacancies at the central government level compared with allotted posts has always been large, particularly for junior posts (deputy secretary to joint secretary).

In the present moment of heightened political centralisation, these endemic challenges to the original design have proven a useful instrument to deepen centralization. Several key posts in the Government of India are now occupied by senior officers from the Gujarat cadre who were loyal to the Prime Minister in his Chief Ministerial avatar, the article said.

Moreover, the persistent manpower shortage at the Centre has created a legitimate opportunity for the proposed amendments. In addition, to bridge the manpower gap, several non-IAS cadres (forest and railways) have been empanelled and now occupy positions that were traditionally the IAS stronghold.

On one hand, removing the IAS stronghold in policymaking can induce much-needed competition. On the other, it deepens centralisation by undermining the objective of bringing state representation into national policymaking.

The situation of officials of non-IAS cadre occupying positions which were traditionally the IAS domain has also resulted in increased ‘YES Boss’ syndrome. When each wing crosses its boundaries, it leads to collapse of system as we are witnessing in many states in the last two decades. We are seeing how the system has totally collapsed in Andhra Pradesh, and how no official has freedom to speak on any issue in Telangana or for that matter in West Bengal or even at central level. In January 2022, the Government of India proposed an amendment to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) Cadre Rules, 1954, which would allow the Union government to command the services of an IAS officer in the “central” government overriding consent (as required by current rules) from the State government or the bureaucrat concerned. This was strongly opposed both by the bureaucrats and the state governments who argued that federal spirit would be affected. But my question is where is the federal spirit? Does it really exist? Why should bureaucrats oppose being drafted to Centre? There they would have greater scope to deliver what is good for the country.

Though they may not say it on record, they do express during informal talks that bureaucrats across all levels of the administrative chain are more like postmen who must respond to commands from their bosses. Well, the basic question is why did they allow such a situation to arise? What will happen if they refuse to be postmen? They would be transferred to some other department.

Fine why should they undermine any department and feel that they have been given an insignificant posting? Why can’t they show their talent in making that department a vibrant one and make the political bosses understand their calibre? This is not a theoretical statement. There are officers who proved their mettle in what were previously known as insignificant posts.

Why should the officers want to be hanging around the CMO always? If they allow the political executive to dominate them, then they would certainly be reduced to postmen. It has happened with media which has allowed itself to be dominated by political parties.

No government fears media exposure of omissions and commissions these days. In fact, they have almost taken full control of media houses. Anyone who wants to remain neutral or who does not want to fall in line is not favoured for release of government advertisements which they should get as per rules.

Most of the I&PR departments are headed by non-officials who are conferred IAS. They duck saying that it is their political bosses who decide who should be given advertisement and who should not be. This is neither democratic spirit nor federal spirit.

This has happened because the checks and balances of dual accountability built into the original design failed to contain centralization which finally resulted in collapse of checks and balances of dual accountability that was originally designed for IAS and the bureaucracy has become pliant partners.

If they really feel that they are getting sandwiched and are becoming sitting ducks, well they need to find ways and means to reverse the trend. They should stand up and call a spade a spade.

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