B S Raghavan

Re-ordering bureaucrat-minister relations

B.S.RAGHAVAN | Updated on October 30, 2012

Morarji Desai even passed an order that no Minister should ask for a particular officer to fill high level posts in his Ministry/Department.

I am in no mood to comment on the recent Cabinet reshuffle, since all that can be said has been said and there’s nothing new that I can add. Further, in the context of the weird manner in which parliamentary democracy has evolved in India, particular persons being inducted in particular Ministries or invested with, or divested of, particular portfolios has ceased to make a difference or even sense.

The cardinal principle of collective responsibility has long ago become a casualty, with each Minister regarding the Ministry his exclusive fiefdom. If there is one thing that all the cascading scams make evident, it is that if only the Prime Minister, who ought normally to function as the pivot and cornerstone of the Cabinet system of Government, had been asking of the Ministers the right questions at the right time, many who got away with the loot could have been caught whilst their hands were still in the till.

There have been plenty of commentaries holding up the recent reshuffle as some kind of new ORBAT (order of battle) to vanquish the UPA’s foes in the general election due in 2014. The immediate response to that kind of supposition is that, if a week itself is, as Harold Wilson famously observed, a long time in politics, well, the 80 weeks between now and the Lok Sabha election constitute an aeon.

Given the manifestly malfeasant temperaments and traits pervading the entire political class, regardless of party labels, there is no guarantee of either the durability of the dispensation or the restoration of the trust and the faith of the people.

FLICKER OF HOPE

Is it that it will all be more of the same? Is there even a trace of a chance of arresting, or at least slowing down, the backslide? There is a flicker of a hope that the ugly trends befouling India’s democracy and incurring the wrath of all sections of the people can still be reversed if the civil servants proximate to the Ministers are willing to make an attempt to assert themselves.

First, they should regain their self-pride, sense of honour and dedication to public service. They have had the best education, come from highly respectable backgrounds, and are second to none in ability and talents. They should stop demeaning themselves by becoming virtual accomplices and abettors of those who look upon their Ministerial portfolios as avenues for outright plunder of public funds or for bribes and extortion. They are public servants, and not servants of individual Ministers. They should remember that evil flourishes not because of evil-doers, but because good people remain silent.

Second, they should develop the mettle and courage to resist both orally and in writing illegal and improper demands from their Ministers. For some time now, the civil servants have begun acquiescing to the practice of leaving out of file notings the points of disagreement with their Ministers and recording only the course of action decided upon, after having a prior discussion to know the minds of the Ministers. There have been instances when notings already put down in files have been replaced or withdrawn at the behest of Ministers.

If a Minister insists on laying down a policy or course of action that, in the civil servant’s judgment, went against laws, rules or national interest, he should put it in writing and forward it to the Cabinet Secretary for being placed before the Prime Minister for his direction.

SADISTIC MINISTERS

Third, the posting of civil servants to Ministries should be governed by their suitability for the job and not on the sole criterion of compatibility with the Minister, which is nothing but asking for pliability. In the times of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, and even these days in the UK, the mother of democracies, the Cabinet Secretary had a decisive say on the selection of civil servants for various assignments.

Morarji Desai even passed an order that no Minister should ask for a particular officer to fill high level posts in his Ministry/Department. Manmohan Singh, too, will be well-advised to pass an order to the same effect.

Finally, the one factor that has had the effect of weakening the moral fibre of civil servants is the power of transfers, promotions, deputations and disciplinary action that the wayward Ministers freely use to force them to capitulate.

The media has been full of stories of upright civil servants being made, by sadistic Ministers, to undergo the torture of innumerable transfers within a short period.

All service associations should join and demand, as was being urged by the freedom hero C.Subramaniam so long as he was alive, that the power should be taken out of the hands of politicians and entrusted to a newly constituted Commission comprising 4-5 eminent persons in public life reputed for their record of public service and integrity, and experienced in public administration and its advice made binding on the Government.

BIGGEST OBSTACLE

Of course, chronic sceptics will raise questions about the availability of such persons and about the new body itself becoming vulnerable to pressures, blandishments and so on. Even so, the new arrangement will certainly be better than the present situation in which politicians resort to transfers, etc, at the slightest provocation.

The biggest obstacle in the way of setting up any such body will be the political power structure. A duty is cast on the civil society organisations to take the proposal before the Apex Court as a public interest litigation, as they did in the case of candidates being required to declare their antecedents, movable-immovable properties, and educational qualifications.

There is already a petition pending before the Apex Court filed by some 60-70 eminent persons on instituting reforms in governance and administration, and this proposal could be made a part of it.

Published on October 30, 2012

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