Rusting steel frame? New India needs bureaucrats who are in sync with today’s realities

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Those who confuse the premier Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), and indeed all the Central Services such as the Indian Police Service (IPS), the Indian Revenue Service (IRS), and so on, with the army of clerks that Thomas Babington Macaulay sought to create in the British Raj are making a mistake.

It is true that Macaulay, historian, Whig politician, a former Secretary of War, and a Paymaster General, via his Minute on Indian Education, in 1835, was responsible for the introduction of Western Institutional Education in India. But, it had a large number of unintended consequences, even as it led to the creation of an enduring skeletal structure to build our nationhood upon.

The original Macaulay-made sarkari babus were indeed clerks and not the high and mighty denizens of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), and their successors in the IAS and other allied services. But the current day Indian bureaucracy is also built on a solid foundation of very powerful clerks.

The UPSC building in New Delhi. Image: courtesy News18

Macaulay may have wanted to create a tribe of half-educated order-takers who read and wrote English but couldn’t think for themselves. But that may have been the arrogance of imperial overreach that afflicted many in the British Empire on which the sun never set at the time.

Indians were surely glad to secure employment as clerks in the British Raj, particularly in highly intelligent Bengal, which also housed the capital of British India for most of its tenure. But because of extensive delegation by the relatively few White men amongst them, originally the Writers of the East India Company, they became much more.

And in just over 20 years after Macaulay’s vision document, it was 1857. The First War of Independence, or as the British like to call it, The Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, resulted in the British Crown taking over the administration of India from the East India Company.

But an early taste for bureaucratic thrust and parry was decidedly born in the Indian sarkari babu. It was different from the elaborate formality of the Indo-Persian way already in situ from the Mughals. This new manner was redolent of Whitehall and Westminster, brought over to India and the Orient by steamer. And made into a peculiar Indo-British hybrid like no other. However, comparisons have been made with the Egyptian bureaucracy, a post-colonial set-up, suffering from similar malaise and exalting similar strengths.

Western liberal education in newly set up colleges and universities in India also fanned the early flames of the independence movement. Indians began wondering quite early about how to throw off the British yoke here, soon after Macaulay’s introduction of Western education. The Indian students studied the independence and republican movements in Europe and America that largely extinguished the era of monarchies and empire after the two world wars in the 20th century. What was good for the goose could not be bad for the gander.

Today, there is a need to take stock of what has happened to the products of the competitive exams over 75 years since Independence. Three young Hindu women bagged the first three places in the UPSC entrance exams for the IAS/IFS and the Central Services 2021, just announced. It is significant that the top rankers were all Hindu, because Muslims, even today, do not generally encourage their daughters to study and excel in competitive exams.

Representational image. PTI

This trend of young women, from middle-class families and others from much poorer backgrounds selected and excelling during training, in the armed forces, sports, the bureaucracy, the police, becoming pilots, is a departure from the past when most became teachers in the main. One hopes that the female influence will help rejuvenate the services they have qualified for.

In fact, of the 685 successful applicants, 508 were men, 177 were women, and only 22 were Muslim.

Of the chosen, only 244 were from the general category, meaning the everyman, 73 were from the economically weaker sections, 203 from Other Backward Classes (OBCs), 105 from the Scheduled Caste and 60 from Scheduled Tribes.

These products of a highly competitive set of exams attract fine minds from all over the country and form the backbone of the officer class administrative structure. They are a cut above the state-run provincial services and start their working lives in senior positions that others can aspire to only at the end of long careers. And this for the most diligent, working their way up from the ranks.

Yet, in many ways, the elite bureaucracy is not in aspirational fashion anymore amongst the ambitious and upper classes. These are the days of multiple options, technology, IT, start-ups, unicorns, entrepreneurship, large Indian and MNC corporates, with hugely better paid jobs.

For some time, reservations and quotas have cut into the merit of the competitive exams, medical college admissions, government jobs of all kinds, and led to a lesser God among successful applicants.

The desire to serve the country has been supplanted by a sense of self-importance, aggravated by the permanent tenure and security of such government jobs. Could this be the consequence of uplifting the underprivileged with affirmative action? Have the chosen ones taken their positions for granted and become arrogant?

The old burrasaheb tone, copied from the British era ICS, is intact still, but a certain gaucherie has come into it. The louche manners of many IAS people leave a lot to be desired. They copy politicians in this regard, many of whom revel in their criminal tendencies. Times have changed, and the moral fabric of society is definitely under threat.

In the pre-Independence Raj, it was the ICS that upheld the order, ethos and prestige of the British Empire, backed, if necessary, by the police and military. The denizens of the ICS were drawn from the gentrified upper classes in Britain, with a smattering of well-heeled ethnic Indians in the latter-day. They were paid well, had stupendous perquisites, and wielded enormous power under the Viceregal Council. They concerned themselves with just revenue, a colonial extraction process, and law and order. To a large extent they were also responsible for intelligence gathering, keeping a finger on the pulse and the mood of the vast masses they oversaw. Many became chroniclers, writers, Indophiles, genuinely interested in the welfare of ordinary people.

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Our IAS have a lot more on their plate now, with full-service cadres involved in the progress of the country in a comprehensive manner. The British Raj ICS had no bother of elected officialdom over them, nor the vagaries and tumult of a forever jostling and jockeying democracy. They enjoyed more or less untrammelled power at their level, with just a hundred-odd running the bureaucracy.

Upamanyu Chatterjee (IAS) wrote English August 30 years ago. His protagonist, the 24-year-old Agastya Sen, anglicised, city-bred, spends his first posting in small-town India, bored, waiting to be transferred somewhere more salubrious. He kills mosquitoes, surreptitiously smokes ganja, masturbates, tries hard not to look down at the cleavage of his boss’ wife. But all this did not mean he wasn’t out to serve his country as promised.

The elitist, Westernised, convent-educated type, joined the competitive services in the first few decades since Independence. It was highly desirable to people from the reasonably well-off upper crust from the metro cities, who believed in essential integrity and sense of duty. They wanted to be nation builders, just as the ICS before them wanted to preserve and strengthen the British Empire. They weren’t joining to see how much dowry they could now command, nor for the opportunity for politically sponsored advancement, and the filthy lucre from graft. Nor did they want to throw their weight around in district towns, sometimes forgetting to rein it in, when posted in the national capital.

And that is why most IAS folk of that vintage saw authenticity and truth in Chatterjee’s novel. Upmanyu Chatterjee himself, who stayed with the Service till retirement, also wrote a number of other books, mordantly preoccupied with loss and death. None of them had the sly send up of English August: An Indian Story.

Can there be radical reform in the competitive services to bring in a longed-for sense of urgency and accountability, in place of obstruction and red tape? Can the bureaucracy, a vast army of clerks and officers, in the Centre and the states, be divested of their iron-clad job security in all but the most clear-cut cases of corruption, dereliction of duty and so on. Can the short service lateral entries being utilised of late make a dent in the ways of the permanent bureaucracy? Can vast amounts of out-sourcing to, and collaboration with, the private sector/start-ups, unicorns, as is now being done in the area of defence production, help? Can the bureaucracy be realistically down-sized, when the number of MLAs and MPs are being upsized, and a bigger parliament is under construction for them?

The answers are difficult. Whatever has been accomplished by way of reform has been done internally by the bureaucracy itself. But there is a political makeover of great consequence. Is there hope for a closer alignment between a Hindu nationalist government as it obtains today, that may well be headed towards declaring a Hindu Rashtra, and the old bureaucracy that has been Left-inspired, and largely Nehruvian in outlook? What will be the impact of laws such as the Uniform Civil Code, The Population Bill, the movement to reclaim mandirs from the usurpation of mosques in the Mughal era, the CAA, the NRC, have on the bureaucracy and its functioning going forward?

Since retirement at specified ages is an all but rigid requirement of government service, many die-hard opponents will retire. The new entrants may prove to be Hindu nationalists too, provided the UPSC selection procedures are tweaked to suit. This will reduce, if not eliminate, bureaucratic split-personalities. Instead of the distortions that have stood in place of genuine secularism, and resulted in decision-making, or the adamant blocking of developments, on an ideological basis, one that was pushing a very different agenda. The bureaucracy, like all organs of the government, media and public opinion, cannot operate in a vacuum.

The same problem and possibility exist when one contemplates the judiciary, and possibly a number of other government institutions essential for fast-tracking nation-building.

But there is great hope, because the actions of the present government have markedly increased prosperity and modernity already, and promises to do even better.

The political landscape has turned favourable for a long innings for the BJP and its allies, while eclipsing the fortunes of those that subscribe to the thinking of the old order. From changes in the NCERT syllabus, and a reordering of recent history, a more representative set of films. To the substitution of Mughal era names of cities and towns. To a more assertive and nation-first foreign policy, a great emphasis on aatmanirbhar defence production, massive infrastructure development. There are great changes afoot.

The biggest impact will be felt when India becomes the third biggest economy in the world, in the near future. This is proof of the pudding that recalcitrant forces cannot hold back. The competitive services are essential to all this, as always from the start, and must play its part in building New India that is firmly on the anvil.

The writer is a Delhi-based commentator on political and economic affairs. The views expressed are personal.

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Rusting steel frame? New India needs bureaucrats who are in sync with today’s realities
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