In 1994, the last ICS cabinet secretary in the government of India, N.K. Mukarji, topper of the final intake to the Service in 1943, opined, several years after hanging up his boots:
“Bureaucratic arrangements must fall in line with the multi-layered character of the polity. The Central, State and Local government bureaucracies must be placed squarely under the control of the elected rulers at each level. A suitable way needs to be found to close the IAS shop.”
Much has been said, in recent weeks, about the apparently disparaging observations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in regard to the IAS. For once, the PM’s critics seem to outnumber the defenders. It is possible that N.K. Mukarji subscribed, in some measure, to a view that his Indian seniors in the ICS did not, by and large, measure upto the nation’s needs and expectations in the early years of Independence and that Sardar Patel had overestimated their capacity and commitment.
More importantly, they failed to ensure a durable base on which the IAS could have developed on sound and progressive lines. Consequently, a steady decline of the IAS (and the civil services generally) had already set in before Mukarji himself retired around 1980.
Under the British, the prestige of the ICS was so jealously guarded that any member straying from the true path was liable to be ruthlessly ejected. Jawaharlal Nehru had then been sure that “no new order can be built in India so long as the spirit of the Indian Civil Service pervades the administration .....”. Later, the ICS Indians were invited to stay on; as one senior Congressman remarked “this would be unbelievable were it not true”.
The ICS tradition not only survived, it prospered. In due course, quite a few members of that tribe chose to be involved in arranging lucrative assignments – at home and abroad – for sons, sons-in-law and relatives who were often of the IAS; for those relatively less endowed, jobs were found in corporate houses and private companies. Instances of illegal monetary gain also arose, one of the first of this type resulting in the conviction of the then secretary, ministry of commerce and industry in the 1950s.
In Nehru’s day and for some years thereafter, anti-corruption drives usually focused on “big ticket graft” and malfeasance. It was gradually recognized that unchecked corruption erodes governance and destroys trust. Today, India’s ranking on the Corruption Perception Index-2020 has slipped by 6 spots to the 86th rank; the Index released annually by Transparency International grades 180 countries by their perceived levels of public-sector corruption.
Since the 1960s (even earlier), the Kashmiri kinsmen, the Tamil Brahmin brotherhood, the Allahabad University chums and the Kayastha cousins have all jockeyed for the plum bureaucratic positions, with a few Bengalis, Maharashtrians and others thrown in. Once the key persons backed by a certain lobby are in place, they are required to put other “clan colleagues” into coveted posts.
During V.P. Singh’s prime ministership, a lobby led by an Allahabad contemporary, a Kumaon Brahmin, was dominant. Two exceptionally capable IAS civilians (Rajasthan cadre and Madhya Pradesh cadre) --- both Kayasthas --- wielded great influence in the Narasimha Rao regime. The Tamils bounced back with the support of P. Chidambaram and other ministers.
P.V. Narasimha Rao is, arguably, the only PM – after Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi – to have exercised decisive control over matters of state and in maintaining a certain standard, despite the lack of a Lok Sabha majority.
The period between 1999 and 2014 has been described, perhaps rightly, as India’s “wasted years” characterized by loose coalitions, unprincipled politics and a bureaucratic apparatus riddled with nepotism and ineptitude.
Over the years, the fall of the IAS has been precipitous and such that it now requires a root and branch overhaul, including at the induction stage, not mere tinkering by way of more specialization and training. The wide-ranging civil service reforms promised after the 2014 polls did not materialize and precious little has been achieved towards toning up the administration. There has, however, been noticeable improvement in some of the “delivery systems”.
But there is many a square peg in a round hole. Integrity and probity have taken a severe beating.
Taking into account the diverse factors at play, the dream of responsive governance could remain a distant one for the Indian people. As a beginning, the one step that needs to be implemented with determination is to enforce accountability and responsibility at senior levels, that is, to the secretary of a ministry or the head of a department and not handed down the line. In other words, an additional secretary or joint secretary should be held accountable, not an undersecretary or a section officer, as has routinely become the practice; in the field, a divisional commissioner or a district magistrate rather than a tahsildar or naib tahsildar.
The screws have to be tightened at the top.
Many IAS men (the Gujarat cadre is more than well-represented here) have been working closely with the Prime Minister who did not pull back from amending an Act in order that a handpicked retiree may occupy a critical post. Apart from the PMO, the favoured civil servants populate the cabinet secretariat, the Niti Aayog and crucial ministries, not to mention constitutional bodies. These bureaucrats – superannuated or serving – are the ones who ought to be introspecting in the aftermath of the PM’s statement in Parliament.
When all is said and done, it is the political executive that will need to take more direct charge and lead from the front. In so doing, they may find the words of Warren Buffet (American business tycoon, investor and philanthropist, primarily through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) of relevance and value:
“Look for three things in a person – intelligence, energy and integrity. If they do not have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two.”
(The author was formerly in the IAS and retired as a secretary, government of India)