Review: The Steel Frame by Deepak Gupta
The Steel Frame is an addition to the extensive body of literature on the Indian Administrative Service
It wasn’t easy for the East India Company or its political overlords in London to govern multicultural India. With the steady growth of power, both floundered. The powers-that-be felt that administering the subcontinent while maximizing revenue collection for British interests needed a bureaucracy to ensure authority. In 1793, Lord Cornwallis planted the seed for a network of grass root level administrators. The concept worked. In 1858, when the Company “gifted” India to Queen Victoria, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) was created along with Britain’s Indian Empire.
When India became an independent republic in 1950, the ICS changed to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the nation’s premier instrument of public governance. An extensive body of literature covers every nuance of the services, then and now. So it is a trifle surprising that somebody has bravely decided to add one more book.
Stands to reason it wouldn’t do if this “somebody” was a “nobody”. Indeed he isn’t. Author Deepak Gupta, an IAS officer, is intensely loyal to the civil services in keeping with his family’s passion for them. He writes: “As young children we were told that our grandfather wanted all his sons to join the imperial services... Getting into the ICS was seen as a great intellectual challenge. It was not just a coincidence that all four of us brothers joined the civil services.”
Implicit pride sometimes drives Gupta to write pompous prose: “The power and prestige of the ICS and its successor service provided an unparalleled opportunity to contribute substantively to nation building efforts and to do public service.” Never mind. His narrative is otherwise consistently meticulous. Its wide scope has space enough to describe a swathe of IAS experiences covering insightful subtopics like life as a young district officer, training practices, traditions, the examination procedure and an intriguing Chapter Nine titled “Reinventing the IAS.” Occasionally, the book reads like a doctoral thesis. Well, almost!
Importantly, Gupta is fully aware it has to remain a “historical account” spanning two centuries and not a “political history.” Therefore, it doesn’t delve into current treacherous administrative quicksands where service rules might require IAS officers to accept, obey and carry out grossly political directives from elected representatives with criminal records. For IAS officers to perform yet keep the high moral ground is not easy.
The author doesn’t altogether gloss over this delicate reality. However, he is circumspect and oblique. Also, yet again, Gupta is pompous here. His view is worth an excerpted quote: “It is with a spirit of idealism that I worked throughout my career consciously trying to function with the (correct) attitude, values and ethical framework. While writing about the IAS I have liberally sprinkled the text with anecdotes from my experiences; none of these deal with great events and individuals or as has become common, with scams and controversies. An IAS officer is better off dealing with the nuts and bolts of administration. Policies matter and we must give our considered inputs in the most diligent and objective way to promote sound decision making.”
Focusing on “nuts and bolts” while shunning “shams and controversies” is one of the biggest defects of this work; the other is author’s penchant for sanitized anecdotes.
So will this book sell? It will for it enjoys a large captive audience. As per official statistics, there are 4,926 IAS officers in service. That’s not a bad number when it comes to assessing this book’s sales potential. Good luck, Deepak Gupta, I urge you to express an honest, very close view of scams in your next book.