The UPA government’s recent notification of a fixed tenure for all services officers — the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service — in the states, coupled with the Supreme Court’s directive to the Centre to bring in reforms in the police administration on similar lines are laudable objectives. However, it remains to be seen how much of this will be translated into reality.
Successive administrative reform committees and commissions have emphasised that institutional safeguards must be built into the system to ensure that the bureaucracy remains insulated from politics. One of the ways was to empower civil services boards to regulate transfers and postings. But the suggestions have not had the desired effect at the ground level.
To understand why, one must look at the prevailing system. It is common knowledge that the political executive uses the mechanism of postings and transfers virtually as a weapon to keep the bureaucracy at its mercy, no matter the cost to the system. A change of government is followed by large-scale reshuffle of officials — this has become more of a rule than an exception.
This trend has worsened in the era of coalition politics, with regional and caste-based parties increasingly asserting themselves. It is not uncommon for state governments to promote officials who may be handy in espousing their cause.
The bureaucratic system, too, has its ‘pet’ postings where certain positions are considered lucrative because of the associated powers, prestige and privileges. Then there are posts where officers have no access to even basic facilities in their offices. The absence of mechanisms to regulate transfers and postings ensures the rise of those bureaucrats who are willing to cosy up with politicians to privileged positions. Extraneous factors — and not capability, integrity, sincerity or commitment to work — help officers climb the professional ladder. For ruling politicians, the bureaucracy is a tool to achieve a narrow and divisive agenda. What else can explain the removal of two chief secretaries during Mulayam Singh’s rule in Uttar Pradesh, only after the judiciary intervened? It is well-known that officials figuring in scams and known for their proximity with the ruling establishment land up in key posts.
Jawaharlal Nehru, a firm believer of the principles of Western liberal ideology, and Sardar Patel, a home-grown orthodox politician, shared similar views on retaining the colonial administrative legacy of the ‘steel frame’ and had reposed their implicit faith in the civil services’ ability to enforce the rule of law and, in the process, strengthen India’s progress.
But down the years, this changed. Indira Gandhi sought to redefine the bureaucracy. In the garb of fashioning a responsive administration, she propounded the concept of a ‘committed’ bureaucracy and a ‘committed’ judiciary. Her plea was that the bureaucracy must be ‘committed’ to the social agenda of the political establishment. A neutral bureaucracy was equated with a disinterested bureaucracy and was believed to be a stumbling block in Indira Gandhi’s hold on the political system was still in doubt and many of her own party members were not willing to accept her authority in inheriting the Gandhi-Nehru-Patel legacy.
It was during this phase that the regional parties and disparate political groups marked their presence on the political scene and first threatened the Congress’ single-party dominance. Indira Gandhi wanted a bureaucracy that would be subservient to its political master. On the same lines, the regional parties wanted bureaucrats to adopt their approach in governing the states. Thus, the seeds of the politicisation of the bureaucracy were sown.
This has now acquired a new twist. With myriad political formations at the Centre and in the states, the bureaucracy, particularly the IAS and IPS, gets caught in the crossfire that periodically erupts. And this question begs an answer: are they watchdogs of the Centre or are they supposed to ‘belong’ to the state that they serve?
State governments do not have full control over all officers as the overall cadre management lies with the Centre. This is essentially the crux of the problem. Granting fixed tenures to officers has been discussed in various fora, including at the Chief Ministers’ conference. If the central government is serious in its effort to get the states to follow procedures, it should delegate a degree of authority to the state bureaucracy. A fixed tenure for key postings here would also be seen to mean that the officers appointed to such posts would be even less accountable to the political executive in the state.
The move to amend the services rules and provide fixed tenures to officers should be seen in this context. Considering that the move is mainly spearheaded by the Congress, which no longer enjoys single-party dominance and leads a coalition, one wonders whether such measures will be implemented in letter and spirit. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, of course, must be given credit for having deviated from past practice in retaining most of the officers of the previous NDA regime after he came to power.
Will the Centre’s move be acceptable to the states, even those run by the Congress’s own coalition partners? Will Lalu Prasad Yadav or M Karunanidhi agree to be pinned down by procedures in the postings and transfers of key officials in their states? No amount of procedure can daunt a political set-up from setting up a mechanism and then subverting the process. After all, officials to man the systems would have been chosen by the same political dispensation. On the other hand, having a system, even one likely to be subverted, is better than having no process at all, as is the current case.