Bureaucracy and its political crutches
Image used for representational purpose only.

Sugata Srinivasaraju

The two bickering officers are part of a nationwide phenomenon of being trapped in the web of political expectations, opportunism and factionalism.

Even amidst a newsy and rather noisy buildup for the assembly polls in Karnataka, something else diverted the attention of the general public in the last fortnight. It was the mudslinging between two mid-career lady officers who belong to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS).

This development did not provoke wise commentary or sane intervention by peers or political bosses but generated sensational headlines and gossip. The sniping between the two began (as all sniping does these days) in the gutter lanes of social media. It then became irresistible fodder for local media and everybody else. The reason for this ugly spat, it appears, had little to do with a professional disagreement or a principled position. As the controversy acquired legs and fangs, it became clear that they had some personal animosity. They entangled their husbands too into their fight—one, a businessman in real estate development, and another, an IAS in charge of land records.

In recent years, the two women had been in the news for various wrong and right reasons, making an onlooker wonder if they had never been taught the virtues of working quietly. They both seemed to be the type who had a certain dalliance with the media and came across as ambitious. The fact that the two were in important public roles, and were relatively young, led the media to construct stereotypes of power and glamour around them.

However, this does not and should not remain the story of just two bickering officers. They cannot be seen in isolation. Both are part of a nationwide phenomenon of being trapped in the web of political expectations, opportunism and factionalism. In recent years, there is a new dimension of ideological affinity and stridency that has encroached on a supposedly neutral bureaucracy.

When a politician tries to bend the system to suit his exigencies, the casualties of such acts are often found in the officialdom. In the portals of power, covert or overt suggestions are about which officer is close to which party or politician. Even in the case of these two women at war, such conjectures have actively been made.

For instance, one of the questions that came around on social media with regard to one of the officers was why she was retweeting a ruling party functionary with such regularity. Why did she have a shrill nationalistic tone? With regard to the other officer, her singular pragmatism and political networking was highlighted. It was also suggested that the two perhaps represented influential factions within the ruling establishment. It may suffice to say that there is an elaborate political patronage system at work in the bureaucracy. Running parallel to the political patronage system is a corporate patronage system, but the lines intersect at different points.

Besides these largely understood affinities, we observe yet another affliction in the officialdom. That is a tendency to grandstand, to constantly launch moral crusades, to be self-righteous and to claim transfer martyrdom when moved out of a certain posting. The two women officers in question were prone to this trend as well. Most officers who become ‘lions’ and ‘lionesses’ due to their crusades via simplistic media representations often clandestinely aspire for a greater public role than their duty permits. The current BJP president in Tamil Nadu was a ‘singham’ IPS officer in Karnataka not long ago. Even a book he wrote was pompously titled Stepping Beyond Khaki: Revelations of a Real-Life Singham. He prematurely quit the service after nine years.

One wonders if idealism in the present times desires the crutch of party politics and ideological brazenness and cannot stand independently, stubbornly, and anonymously. It would be unfair to many officers who are greatly evolved to generalise this aspect, but it is very tempting to observe this given the number of bureaucrats who appear the ‘committed’ type on either social media or in the media. They create a lopsided perception of the officialdom.

The ‘committed’ idea is not in any way new, none of this is new, and there are only fresh layers and subtleties that have been added. Indira Gandhi, in November 1969, said: “The creation of an administrative cadre committed to national objectives and responsive to our social needs is an urgent necessity.” A month later, in December 1969, Jagjivan Ram had said that the “theory of a neutral bureaucracy is hardly relevant to Indian conditions.” Their statements may have been uttered in a certain context, but objectives and conditions do not remain the same from regime to regime and party to party.

The many reports like the first and second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) report, incidentally, led by two former Karnataka chief ministers—K Hanumanthaiya and M Veerappa Moily, addressed the issue of political neutrality and ethics of governance. They also fine-tuned aspects of public conduct. The P C Hota commission report on civil service reforms dealt with it elaborately too, but they have all happily remained on paper. Then there is, of course, the ‘All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968’ that has been revised from time to time.

In April 1969, months before Indira Gandhi remarked on a committed bureaucracy, K Hanumanthaiya, in his cover letter to her, while submitting the first ARC report, said: “The parliamentary and party system of democracy has, as one of its foundational principles, the neutrality of permanent services between party and party. Civil Services neutrality must, therefore, be meticulously observed at all levels.”

The Hota report has an interesting paragraph on mentoring junior officers: “The career advice and helpful guidance, which senior officers used to provide to juniors in civil service, is in danger of fading out. Each young incumbent is then left to grow in an isolated fashion, sometimes picking up undesirable habits in the process.” The mentoring by senior officers has perhaps become difficult because politics, ideology, also caste, linguistic and other identities have short-circuited it. It appears there is very little universal about all India services. In the case of the two ladies, the government of the day appeared reluctant to intervene, and when it did, took only a half-hearted measure. We do not know what considerations restrained them. The two ladies are currently without a posting. Some would call it a paid holiday, not a punishment.

(The writer is a Senior journalist and author)