The architecture of India’s governance
This is not about Alapan Bandyopadhyay, whose ability as a classical civil servant I had the pleasure of observing when I was working in West Bengal (2004-2009). Nor is it about the circumstances of his concluding days in service and their getting vestibuled into a post-retirement appointment as adviser to the chief minister of that amazing state.
Enough has been written about that subject and I need not add to the wordage.
What I am concerned here with is the hinterland to those proceedings, where the political and administrative flanks of the government meet. We, the citizens of the country, stand at that joint with, very often, the third flank, namely, the judicial, joining them. An understanding of that hinterland and that intersection is essential to our sense of the citizenship of India.
I will start with a memoir. When, in 1968, I was among those who “made it” to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), a communication came to me, as it did to all appointees, from the ministry of home affairs, asking me to confirm, by telegram, that I was accepting the appointment. I do not know if that formality is still in vogue.
Before sending my telegraphic response, I showed the small draft of it to my maternal grandfather, Rajaji (C Rajagopalachari), whose respect for the civil services was strong, and who had encouraged me to take the examinations for it that year. “Offer Accepted” is what I had drafted. He pondered the draft briefly and asked me to add a word. “Say gratefully accepted”. Who, I wondered, in that vast office, is going to notice that word. Reading my thoughts, the just-turned-90 veteran said to me, “There is such a thing as form.”
Form. The concept was crucial. Rajaji had worked with officials from the higher position of their political head. He had, when he held high office, given instructions, issued orders. He had occasion to pull up the slothful, the errant. An officer, he knew, had to have what used to be called (and I hope still is known by those three letters) OLQ – Officer Like Qualities. These did not include the raised chin, the swaggering gait, the air that says “I am the sarkar”. These included a sense of what can only be called “the purpose of public administration” which is, basically, ministration, service, to the people.
When, with my batchmates, I showed up at the National Academy of Administration, I encountered one of the ablest officers I have ever met — TN Chaturvedi. TNC, as we knew him, was not the academy’s director then, but as number two, he personified for us, what being in the service of the government was all about. It was about respect for the architecture of governance and for the governed. It was about humility before the reality of India, its complexity, its grandeur and, simultaneously, a deep awareness of its multiple immiserations in removing which we were to do our little bit.
And this meant that we had to acknowledge that the political class, which goes through the treadmill of elections, knows the pulse of the people in ways in which we do not. And that the politicians’ specialisation in the “pulse” and our acquired expertise in “pulse-taking” and “pulse-treating” must work together, in mutual respect.
Mutual. The concept was crucial. And one person who knew this better than anyone else from among the founders of our Republic was our first home minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
The Constitution of India is the product of much deliberation, many perspectives. Patel, in charge as he was of the services, spoke for two articles of the draft Constitution affecting the services. The first of these was Article 311. That formulation protected officials from arbitrary punishment by their political bosses.
Now, Patel, like many of the members of the Constituent Assembly, was a stalwart of the freedom struggle. As such, his stature was peerless. He had known what it meant to be jailed and be treated with harshness by big and small officials. To give it back to officialdom would have been natural in a lesser “first home minister of free India”. But Patel was Patel. There was to be no vendetta.
On the contrary, there was to be trust. More, there was to be respect. Respect for the civilian’s opinion, criticism. “Today”, the Sardar said in the assembly, “my Secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom to all my Secretaries. I have told them: ‘If you do not give me your honest opinion, then please you had better go’.”
And he said in the course of the same speech to critics of the new guarantees that he was introducing under Article 314 for civil servants: “If you…decide not to have this Service, I will take the Service with me and go. They will earn their living. They are capable people….Do not take a lathi and say: ‘We are a supreme Parliament’.”
This was not an Indian Civil Service officer speaking. This was Sardar Patel. He knew what respect means, in the giving and receiving of it.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed are personal