“The perfect bureaucrat is the man who manages to make no decisions and escape all responsibility” – Brooks Atkinson
Karl Marx had wished the state to wither away. It hasn’t. Even in the countries where Marxism was purported to have been practised, the State became increasingly powerful, and its prime tool, bureaucracy, became more and more relevant.
In capitalist countries, too, the bureaucracies have come to stay. We, in India, have our own brand of bureaucracy, which is castigated, pilloried, used, abused, harassed yet pampered, cultivated, and cajoled to assist in policy formulation and in executing such policy decisions. There is no likelihood of its withering away.
Amongst the various ills that afflict bureaucracy, corruption lies at the top of the stack. However, the moment we talk of corruption, a number of questions immediately crop up, especially in the wake of the emerging socio-political environment.
- Is the entire bureaucracy corrupt?
- Does the present-day bureaucrat have a choice to remain honest?
- Has the choice become limited over a period of time?
- Can the bureaucracy afford to be honest?
- Does the politician (the decision maker) want integrity in bureaucracy?
- What is the price to be paid for remaining honest?
- Is just being honest sufficient for a bureaucrat?
This is an attempt to answer some such questions. The idea is not to apportion blame but to analyse and suggest possible ways forward.
More sophisticated pseudonyms for corrupt practices have evolved over the years. However, perhaps the most dangerous development has been the acceptability of corruption as a way of life, and in certain contexts, recognition provided to its perpetrators in public life. A close look at the history of the criminalisation of politics will help us understand the milieu in which the bureaucracy has had to function.
The next stage of criminalisation of politics was marked by the direct participation of the criminal in the political process, contesting elections and winning them in style. They sought and acquired political legitimacy for their nefarious deeds. The last nail in the coffin was driven by these criminals starting to dominate the political process by adorning the mantle of cabinet ministers. The bureaucrat was to directly report to that very person whom he would have incarcerated at some point in time.
Coalition politics and unstable governments led to some other unfortunate consequences as well. The politician was unable to see beyond a few months. The visionaries were gone. The Indian administration stood on its head. The politician was more interested in the transfer and posting of officers as it provided immediate gains. Policy issues were brushed aside, and only such issues were taken up, which would either ensure their survival or result in some pecuniary benefit. That perhaps is the only explanation for mass scale transfer and mass scale cancellation of such transfers. In some of the underdeveloped states, the only industry that is known to flourish is the “Transfer Industry”.
Thus, unfortunately, the emerging political environment is inimical to honest functioning. However, bureaucracy has to share the blame for the present state of affairs. It is a different matter that the political environment encourages pliability and corruption. Generally speaking, a bureaucrat would fall into a combination of the following categories.
- Honest, efficient, not pliable
- Dishonest, inefficient, pliable
The corrupt bureaucrat-politician nexus is increasingly emerging as a major threat to the system where the majority of fence-sitters amongst the bureaucrats are wilting. Given these set of circumstances, the choice before this set of bureaucrats is becoming increasingly limited. Far from appreciating efficiency and honesty, the politician is busy evolving ways and means to use this tool called bureaucracy to fulfil their personal and political goals.
Given the state of affairs, what can a bureaucrat do? Is there a choice before the bureaucracy? There is a price to be paid for making any choice. If honest bureaucrats have suffered on account of being harassed and transferred, so have the dishonest ones as the law catches up with them. Some recent events have provided enough evidence to this effect. The high and mighty in the bureaucracy have paid a heavy price for being dishonest and pliable. An honest and efficient bureaucrat can be put to inconvenience (especially in the higher echelons of bureaucracy), but the dishonest one is more likely to suffer in the long run (what with increasing access of the media to official misdeeds and an ever-increasing number of the well-informed public). In fact, there is greater recognition today, both by the media and as well as the public, of the good work being done by bureaucrats. The number could well increase once it dawns on the bureaucracy that there is no other option. And it does not end with honesty alone. He has to perform and deliver.
A bureaucrat cannot afford to be inefficient. He has to be aware, accessible, disciplined, and, above all, transparent. The issue is not the survival of bureaucracy. The bureaucracy has to thrive in the interest of our country and our people.
Anil Swarup is a former 1981 batch Uttar Pradesh cadre IAS officer and was awarded Director’s gold medal for “best officer trainee” at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA). He served the Government of India in various capacities for 38 years and went on to become Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy and the Coal Secretary of India. He is the author of several books like ‘No More a Civil Servant,’ ‘Ethical dilemmas of a civil servant’ and ‘Not just a civil servant’.
This column first appeared in Taazakhabar News.