Vol. 6 | Issue 5 | Aug 2012
behaviour prabhat kumar
The fundamental problem with the country is not the evil politician
but the ‘obedient’ Government servant
The recurring theme of the relationship between political leaders in the Government and the civil servants has not been extensively debated. In my interactions with the younger members of the civil service, the question ‘how should we deal with political pressures’ crops up frequently.
My simple answer to the dilemma is that as a politico-bureaucratic interaction is intrinsic to parliamentary democracy, it depends mainly on the civil servant to steer the relationship in the best interests of the State while keeping institutional integrity intact.
A bureaucrat should be able to distinguish between the State and the Government of the day. In my view, it should be his endeavour to protect the interests of the State. The basic constituents of the State are the Constitution, the legitimacy of the political system and the security of the nation. He should not allow the integrity of the State, however imperfect or inadequate it may be, to be compromised.
For example, I consider the revelations of the weaknesses of our defence preparedness to be an act against the State. In fact, the Chief of Army Staff should not have written the letter to the Prime Minister on the subject. While his concern for the security apparatus may be genuine, I think it was a grossly improper move because he had not exhausted the remedies available to him.
There is a core group on security headed by the Cabinet Secretary that meets once every month or even more frequently, if required. All matters regarding security are discussed threadbare by this group, which has as its members the Chiefs of Defence Staff, the Defence, Home and Finance Secretaries, and the chiefs of all intelligence agencies. Besides, there used to be a weekly briefing taken by the Defence Minister when I was Cabinet Secretary in which all top defence brass were present. George Fernandes, the then Minister, was very particular about these meetings and I am sure such a forum still exists.
The big question is whether an issue of such immense proportions was raised and deliberated in these forums? If not, the intentions of the General are suspect. If it was (and no action was taken), there is certainly a policy paralysis in the Government on matters of national integrity. Nobody can take cover under coalition compulsions as has often been voiced by the Prime Minister.
Institutional integrity at the policy making and at the cutting edge levels largely depends on the civil servant. The conditions that constitute a system (or a group or an organisation) to function operate or behave to produce an intended outcome defines its institutional integrity. If institutional integrity is diminished, the opportunity for performance is also reduced. When the integrity of any component of a system diminishes, the workability of the system declines.
Confrontation occurs when the superior authority (political master or sometimes the senior bureaucrat) forces a civil servant to do something illegal or questionable or when a civil servant refuses to obey the legitimate orders of the superior authority. In my experience, I have come across instances of both.
A Chief Minister asked me to do a big favour to a business house of his choice that was unwarranted and patently irregular. When I expressed my inability to accede to his wishes, he threw me out from a prestigious position to a sinecure one. Unfortunately, the request was acceded to by the bureaucracy after I left. Though it gave me a feeling of being treated unfairly, there was no visible confrontation leading to a permanent fracture between us. On the contrary, there was a sense of relief at not compromising my conscience for a transitory advantage. In fact, much later when the action of the State Government was quashed by the High Court, the same politician admitted to me that it had not been proper for him to penalise me.
In another instance, there was a case of a learned and fiercely vocal Cabinet Minister passing a detailed speaking order on a file overruling the Secretary and favouring a business house of questionable repute. According to the rules of business, the Secretary was duty bound to comply with the directions of the Minister. But smelling something fishy in the Minister’s motives, the Secretary informed the Cabinet Secretary, who advised the Prime Minister to quash the order of the Minister. The matter was projected in a section of the media as a case of politico-bureaucratic confrontation. It may be mentioned that there was no open defiance of the Minister’s orders by the Secretary, who had only taken the legitimate step of bringing the matter to the Prime Minister through the Cabinet Secretary.
Similarly in 1999, there was a case of a high ranking defence official refusing to honour a lawful order of the Government. Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, an otherwise intellectually brilliant Chief of Naval Staff, chose to confront the Cabinet with his own views. The confrontation cost him his job.
The Government of the day is fallible on account of political agendas and exigencies. There are compulsions of coalition politics that militate against the interests of the State. It is my conviction that bureaucrats should not play a part in such machinations and should, to the extent possible, resist the pressure to do the bidding of his/her political masters. There are various ways in which they can express their views in a disciplined, unexceptionable way. They can point out the illegality and undesirability of certain actions in discussions with the concerned minister. If that is not adequate, as in many cases it is not, they should clearly and unambiguously submit their advice on the concerned file. There have been several instances in my career where I have done this. If a Minister is clever, he will find a way around in such cases. However, if he is bull headed and obstinate, he will vent his annoyance and try to remove the civil servant from the scene. Whether he succeeds in doing so depends on the Chief Minister/Prime Minister. I will refrain from giving the details of my experiences on this matter lest they may be construed as self glorification. Suffice to say that such instances occur quite frequently in every officer’s life.
In essence, the relationship between the political system and good governance remains complex. In an arbitrary political system, it becomes negatively correlated. There is enough empirical evidence of such negative correlation in several states like UP, Bihar, etc.
There are compulsions of coalition politics that militate against the
interests of the State. It is my conviction that bureaucrats should not play a part in such machinations and should, to the extent possible, resist the pressure to
do the bidding of his/her political masters.
Bureaucracy is a cocktail of textbook civil servants, greedy officials, obedient Government servants and belligerent individualists besides sundry incompetent mandarins and mad caps. They exist in a world of reality, make believe, sleaze and procedural mishmash. But there also exists a coded repertoire of laws, rules, procedures, legal pronouncements and precedents to show the way.
At one end of the spectrum, there is a tribe of ‘obedient Government servants’ who have lost their backbones out of sheer timidity, past experience or the lack of guts. They are generally not corrupt, only spineless. For example, an officer of the rank of Director General in the Audit and Account Service signed a critical 2G document without recording his disagreement because ‘he was an obedient Government servant’.
According to K J Alphons, “the fundamental problem with the country is not the evil politician but precisely the obedient Government servant” because the politician “cannot make a killing unless there is the obedient Government servant around to aid and abet them.” He further says, “clearly the obedient Govern-ment servant as a category is a bigger danger than the corrupt because there is a system to deal with the corrupt.”
The majority view among the veterans of the civil service is that civil servants must express their disagreement in discussions and in writing but stop short of fighting with their political masters. In such a confrontation, the issue is often lost and confrontation becomes the issue. There are several examples of officers who never compromised on their principles and made politicians see reason. In my personal knowledge, Nirmal Kumar Mukerji and Abid Hussain were two classic examples of steadfast integrity and unflinching views who never clashed with their political bosses.
Harsh Mander says that even legitimate and lawful orders should be rejected and violated, if they do not conform to the conscience of a civil servant. In my view, it is a fallacious viewpoint. If every civil servant starts acting according to his/her conscience in violation of the laws of the land, the whole system will result in a farcical chaos in which the democratic structure will be swept away.
If there are lacunas in law and regulations, a civil servant should try to amend them through the due process according to the Constitution. He should not act against the
law while remaining in service. For him, it would be appropriate to leave the service. There is plenty of space in civil society for people like Harsh Mander.g
(The writer was the Cabinet Secretary and the First Governor of Jharkhand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)