Reshaping the State-citizen relationship

A corrosive culture distances the State from the public and legitimises demands for public ‘discipline’ to achieve policy goals
Police cane-charge a farmer at Karnal's Bastara toll plaza during a protest against the new farm laws, in Karnal, Haryana on August 28. (Manoj Dhaka / Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Police cane-charge a farmer at Karnal's Bastara toll plaza during a protest against the new farm laws, in Karnal, Haryana on August 28. (Manoj Dhaka / Hindustan Times)
Updated on Sep 02, 2021 06:40 PM IST
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By Yamini Aiyar

Caught on a now viral video, ordering police to “break the heads” of farmer protesters, Haryana bureaucrat Ayush Sinha achieved notoriety last week. The incident, coupled with the Haryana chief minister (CM)’s condemnation of the “choice of words” while insisting on “strictness” to maintain law and order, speaks volumes for how the State has demonised farmer protesters and their right to protest.

But Sinha’s crude turn of phrase and comfort with violence is not an isolated incident. In the last year, amid Covid-19 lockdowns, videos have regularly surfaced making visible, vulgar displays of bureaucratic power. District magistrates have been caught on camera slapping errant citizens, spraying them with sanitisers, and smashing their phones, all in a bid to secure “public cooperation” to comply with lockdown rules.

These videos reveal far more than the activities of a few rogue officers drunk on power. They point to deep tensions in the underlying norms that govern the relationship between the bureaucracy and the citizens it serves, and how the bureaucracy perceives the “public”. In the outrage that routinely follows, demand for reform, changes in recruitment and training dominate headlines. Yet, without challenging the norms that shape bureaucratic behaviour, no amount of discipline, training, and new recruitment rules will likely bring about real change.

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Political scientist Akshay Mangala makes an important distinction between bureaucratic cultures embedded in what he describes as “deliberative” vs “legalistic” norms. Deliberative norms promote a culture of dialogue and collective problem solving where bureaucracy engages the public. Citizens are partners, not passive subjects of administration. Legalistic norms privilege compliance, rule-following, and deference to hierarchy. Performance is understood as adherence to procedure. Hierarchy is deployed to exercise power and trust is replaced with a desire for discipline.

Legalistic norms shape much of the Indian bureaucracy. Command and control are the means through which accountability is extracted within the bureaucracy. Technology has aided and abetted this culture.

Command-and-control centres, equipped with biometric surveillance systems and GPS trackers, to monitor officials and track progress on administrative tasks are now a familiar sight in state governments across the country.

Legalistic norms inevitably sit in tension with the public-facing role of administrators. When trust is replaced with a penchant for disciplining, the temptation to meet goals through coercion, rather than building solidarity, shapes bureaucratic responses to the public. Citizens are seen as interfering in the bureaucracy’s ability to achieve policy goals – after all, the assumption is that the “public” often lacks awareness, willingness, and the capability.

Even when it comes to routine bureaucratic processes such as scheme implementation, the public is viewed with suspicion. To be recognised as a rightful beneficiary in welfare programmes, for instance, the bureaucrat appropriates the power to determine the “authenticity” of citizen claims. Words like beneficiary “verification”, “authentication” are routinely deployed, and their import vis a vis how they construct the “public” in the minds of bureaucrats are never critiqued. It is, after all, for the bureaucrat to extract compliance from the public.

A recently conducted survey by the Centre for Policy Research to capture perceptions of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on public administration during the pandemic illustrates this phenomenon. The survey was conducted in August and September 2020 and captured perceptions related to the national lockdown and the first Covid-19 wave.

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The survey asked bureaucrats to reflect on the dynamics of the interaction between the bureaucracy and the public in managing the pandemic. When asked about imposing lockdown rules and interacting with the public, 45% of respondents stated that it was through the “fear of law”, rather than willingness and cooperation, that compliance to lockdown rules was ensured. This, despite widespread acknowledgment of the importance of public communication. Discipline was still valued over possibilities of cooperation. The officers caught on camera slapping errant citizens at wedding receptions, smashing their phones, commanding the police to beat up those caught flouting compliance norms are merely extreme illustrations of this widely prevalent legalistic culture.

Interestingly, bureaucrats in poorer states, where capacity is considered weak — Assam, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh — gave greater weightage to the fear of law than in states such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Himachal Pradesh, where respondents expressed greater faith in public understanding and cooperation in complying with lockdown rules. They also pointed to an important relationship between State capacity and the fostering of legalistic norms.

When it came to poor public health outcomes — such as the capacity to expand testing — the tensions between the bureaucracy and the public were even sharper. Social norms, values, and practices were expressed as the real barriers to expanded testing. And while officers acknowledged the limitations of State capacity and communication failure, much of the responsibility and, significantly, blame was placed on the public.

Sinha’s vulgar display of State power needs to be understood in this larger context of culture and norms that govern relationships between the bureaucracy and the public. He is but an inevitable consequence of a corrosive culture that distances the State from the public and legitimises demands for public “discipline” to achieve policy goals. The public clamour for disciplinary action that follows such incidents must give way to reforms that challenge existing norms and reduce the distance between the bureaucracy and the public.

Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research

The views expressed are personal

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Sunday, October 24, 2021