Dialogue October-December, 2011, Volume 13 No. 2


Governance in Post-Independent India

T.S.R. Subramanian*



The 1947 or 1950 India was a different kettle of fish from Britain. The experience, democratic temper, internal level of homogeneity in culture, language and social experience, the level of education and awareness of public affairs were far apart. However, an Idealistic group of Founding Fathers, led by Nehru had thought that transferring the British governance system to India mutatis mutandis, was the optimal prescription for ushering in and maintaining quality governance in India. This was thoroughly naive. In British India, the Viceroy and the senior functionaries (the ICS) enjoyed nearly untrammeled power; they were given a mandate, which they discharged indeed with extraordinary efficiency. Thus apart from the guidance of the Viceroy or the Governor, as the case may be, there was no immediate political supervision over Secretariat, District and field level functionaries. The control strings from Whitehall had a long lead, and were rarely exercised. The district magistrate was the ‘king of all he surveyed’. The internal checks and balances in that system came from the quality of the men who ruled India, the spirit of sacrifice and missionary zeal displayed by them.

      These fundamentals were lost on our founding fathers. The remote Whitehall control was replaced by immediate home grown domestic control, at all levels from the tehsil to the District to the State Secretariat, to Delhi. Nobody envisaged in 1950 that the local MLA will issue directions to the district magistrate (frequently for party politics or monetary considerations); or that Sub-inspectors of police would be transferred and posted through a computer in the Chief Minister’s office on the bidding of a local political goonda, who finds a particular functionary blocking his path. Suddenly, the rules of the game completely changed without notice; a whole new set of domestic politicians rose to the task of detailed micro-management and local control of the state apparatus, treating themselves as the direct operational bosses over the permanent executive. No doubt this phenomenon took about three decades to unfold, but the seeds were sown in 1950.

       The blunder of that time related to the non-creation of strong internal and external checks against the political class. Nehru, the idealist that he was, implicitly believed that all politicians would be in his image, self-less, devoted, self-sacrificing, public-spirited and noble. Contrast this with the way the Founding Fathers in US – the Washingtons, Jeffersons and the Franklins built in safeguards within the system, shrewdly recognizing that vast powers given to members of the executive will lead to excesses, unless checked with controls at every step. This understanding of human nature is really what distinguishes the Western administrations from what we have now in India. In the decades after independence, the politician slowly started recognizing his own inherent powers, and finding nothing to stop him has turned into a greedy monster, gobbling up everything in the way.

      It is critically essential to understand this fundamental point before any reforms can be attempted. This failure of our founding fathers, who otherwise gave us a fine document, is the fundamental basis of the difficulties the nation has been put through. Indeed I surmise that if we had been adequately cautious in 1950, today India would be ranking with the best powers in the world in terms of strength of economy and polity. The only question now is, can the political system be reformed?, can the political class reform itself – can it devise checks and balances to guide itself? In Indian experience, no institution has achieved excellence through self criticism, self regulation and ruthless adherence to standards. Even today the political class does not see the need for internal reform of politics – no political voice has been heard to articulate this thought. This is the true measure of the nation’s despair. This is also tragically the reason why the future seems bleak.


Fall in Probity Standards – Licence to loot …

     In the first two or three decades after independence, the level of integrity among the politicians was much higher than we have seen in later decades. Indeed the best among the legislators were entrusted with the responsibility of ministership. Thus in the Cabinets of Nehru, even coming down to Indira Gandhi period, generally ministers were men of some integrity; many of them quite scholarly, well-versed in rules, and sufficiently experienced to be able to command the respect of the senior officialdom. For instance, Sardar Patel, the first Home Minister, was a commanding personality; indeed many had felt that the path India took after independence could have been even more fruitful, had history entrusted him with the responsibility of leading the country, and had he done so for a decade or so; there is no point crying over spilt milk. One can recall many others, the likes of Jagjivan Ram, C. Subramaniam, R. Venkataraman who controlled their ministries with knowledge, understanding, acumen, and panache – their contribution in setting the initial path in the country has been invaluable. Similarly the states were lucky to have towering personalities as Chief Ministers – Gobind Vallabh Pant, Dr. B.C. Roy, Kamaraj are among the many who spring to mind – it may be mentioned that Kamaraj was hardly literate; he could still have the understanding and acumen to have made a lasting mark both at the state and centre levels.

      Alas, there has been a general decline in all standards, particularly in terms of the integrity levels as well as ability of ministers from about the 70’s. Many observers have linked this overall decline in standards to the time of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency, and the decimation of ‘institutions’ – indeed as one wag put it, what was started by the father was ‘finished off’ by the daughter! Be that as it may, the reality is that standards in public life declined sharply from about that period – the overall quality of ministers, both at the centre and at the states was no exception.

     The principle of collective responsibility of the Cabinet demands that all members take interest in all decisions, and the final decision taken is a collective one, even when the matter pertains to one particular department. This is the theory part; however in practice, where the matter concerns only one department, no one in the rest of the Cabinet usually takes it up for discussion or comment – the matter is entirely in the province of the minister concerned. Similarly where the matter concerns say two or three departments, so long as there is agreement between the ministers concerned, the other members do not raise any issues. While this is per se not a bad working principle, there is also undue room available to each minister to usher in changes to suit individual parties or groups, for a consideration, without any comment or opposition from his colleagues. Indeed, whenever such individual cases come up, it is cleared without comment, everyone recognizing the benefit accruing to the minister, at the most with a nod or a wink. Naturally this courtesy is mutually reciprocal; every minister benefits through such an informal arrangement. While such a thing is going on, the other ministers look casually unconcerned, while indeed they are following the game with some interest. The recent 2G scam has indeed provided an example of this, concurrently demolishing the principle of “collective cabinet responsibility”, and simultaneously ushering in a new phony principle of coalition Dharma.

    It needs also to be mentioned that ministers usually locate staff officers or personal assistants to function as the conduit for the gratification that they demand in most instances. Most people in the business world, with minimal effort, could locate the dalals or the conduits, to transact business with the minister – this is a fairly well known phenomenon in every state government; though this is done with greater delicacy and finesse in the Government of India.


The Higher Civil Services

      If I were to dispassionately nominate one institution which has held the country together in the first 60 years after Independence, and contributed most to its progress till now, my choice would be the ‘the higher civil services’. The contribution of the higher civil services and the higher judiciary to the nation has been incalculable. We have already seen how the political class has acted as a predator. The lawyer class played a significant role in our independence movement, but in the past 50 years or so they have probably not contributed to nation-building. The professional classes – the doctors, the engineers, the accountants have played their role, in a limited way. As regards the business community; suffice is to say that they can hardly take any credit for the growth of the nation, despite some bright spots. The higher judiciary in fact has played a key role in nation building – notwithstanding the weaknesses or the major acts of omission by the judiciary; but the role of the higher judiciary in continuing to uphold the concept of ‘rule of law’ in the country has to be applauded. While the role of the judiciary is in full public view, by definition the role of bureaucracy is played out silently, behind the scenes, almost anonymously.

      There is no question but that the esprit de corps of the services has vanished; its élan a thing of the past. Indeed the higher civil services are now seen, especially in urban areas, with a sense of ridicule and even pity. To some extent this is well deserved, and has been wrought on themselves by the members of the services. However, even today, if one travels to districts and other rural areas, the IAS collector or district magistrate, is looked up to by most citizens as a bright, effective, and respected representative of the government. While the public may talk loosely about corruption at the level of the clerks in the collectorate or in the tehsil office, in general the district magistrate is even today highly regarded, spoken of with a sense of awe and is a role model for the youth of the district. He may not be the ‘king of all he surveyed’ of yore, but still plays the key role in holding the district administration together. His freedom of action has been seriously impaired in recent years, with the henchmen of the state’s political leadership looking over his shoulder; however, most district magistrates still manage to carry themselves with dignity and are highly effective.

     We see this dichotomy that the best young men and women of India join the civil services; you look at each entrant 20 years later – he has lost his integrity; at least his intellectual integrity has gone, and in many instances this is so in the financial sense also; he has transformed himself from a ‘public’ servant to a ‘private’ servant of one politician or a party or generally to the political class; either this is his profile, or – he has lost all motivation, he is apathetic, and has turned himself into a file-pushing ‘babu’. The above two categories, sadly, describe most of these bright young men. Why has this happened? How has this happened? More often than not a civil servant is enticed or pummeled to submission; inducements, blandishments, threats and victimization used as weapons to transform the honest civil servant into a conforming robot, devoid of morality. The well-orchestrated instruments include irrational frequent transfers (from one station to another station causing great inconvenience), adverse annual performance entries, special adverse ‘character roll’ entries, harassment through false inquiries, physical threats or physical attacks, on the one hand; and on the other, inducements to join the game as a hunter and partaker of the spoils. Sadly, many of the middle-level officers, with growing children to educate, elderly parents to look after, cannot bear the constant pressure, and buckle; they either switch off and become irrelevant to the system, or they join the politician, and all is well thereafter! This is true, in general in most situations, in practically every state of the country. Unfortunately, it is increasingly true also of the government of India.

    The question has been asked as to why the higher civil servants, who enjoy job assurance and ‘status’ in society, should buckle to political pressure. This is a legitimate question. I would blame, to put it bluntly, the weak-kneed lack of spine shown by the senior-most officers of the 50’s and 60’s, who did not stand up to take principled positions; allowed the first predatory inroads to destroy their ability to work autonomously. Perhaps this is a harsh assessment; however, I do believe that the equations were set in the 50’s and 60’s; it was not possible for senior and junior officers in subsequent decades to battle against odds. The initial blunder was committed when our constitution did not define the relationship between the political executive and the bureaucracy; the relationship was to be defined in practice, as expediency and experience unfolded. Alas, the earliest administrators in the post-independent era could not appreciate the responsibility they carried on their shoulders; for petty rewards they curried the favour of the political class and surrendered their positions.

    In a democracy the citizen is the most important entity; his representative viz. political executive is the undisputed boss; the civil servant has to work clearly under the direction of the political executive. Having stated this, what are the terms of engagement between the civil servant and the political executive? What are the relations between the District Magistrate and the MLA or MP? In a private listed company, clearly the CFO is subordinate to the CEO. However, is the CFO required to collaborate and pander to the not-so-legitimate needs of the CEO, who may represent the owner and may be interested in swindling the company for private gain; the situation can be multiplied. There are defined norms for every functionary of a company in this regard. There ought to be similar norms in the relationship between the political executive and the civil servant. There was failure by the earliest civil servants in the post-independent era to establish healthy, transparent and effective norms, with appropriate counter checks, to define an efficient relationship contributing to the public weal. From the point of view of the civil services of later generations, this has been a major factor leading to the ineffectiveness, indeed paralysis, of the public services as they stand today. We have also seen, how the concept of ‘committed bureaucracy’, introduced by the political executive in the mid-70s, played havoc with the higher civil services over the next decade or so. These two phenomena, the role of the higher civil services in the 50s and 60s, as well as the concept of ‘committed bureaucracy’ can be highlighted as the landmarks in the process of the collapse of the Steel Frame.


Administrative Reforms

     A large number of administrative reforms recommendations have been made over the past two decades. Starting from the Appleby Committee, followed by the Santanam Committee and many others at least 35 or so over the years. Some time in the 80’s, the Jha Commission was specially constituted as an ongoing body to make recommendations for administrative changes. Veerapa Moily has chaired one such body in recent times. By and large, Moily’s prescriptions are palliative and localized in nature, tinkering with this aspect or the other, probably correctly. However, the fundamental flaw is the failure to recognize the basic malaise and to boldly suggest a cure – what else can you expect from a political spokesman of the ruling party – clearly his credentials are suspect for this assignment. Other committees have focused on aspects of reform, including review of secretariat procedures, reduction and rationalization of government departments and government staff, and the like. Many state governments have also had their own commissions and committees recommending changes.

    There is a common thread to all the problems of governance confronting the nation. This has been the vice-like grip of the political class on every aspect of national affairs, this is the common denominator. This fundamental has to be recognized before any reform is thought of, or undertaken. Most recommendations from reform committees and commissions ignore, or slur over this aspect, and give ‘technical’ recommendations for reforms. While these may be necessary, or even essential, the fundamental reform has to do with the isolation of politics from all implementation aspects. Unless this is done, we simply have to wait till the system follows its current logical path, and collapses under its own weight. At that stage we may have to search for a new Constitution – indeed one that may be imposed on us.

       In a democracy, politics is essential, and will play a role. The political executive will be at the helm of affairs. However, it must be clearly understood that the legislator is part of the law making machinery – he is not an executive or implementer. Any intervention by him in the implementation process amounts to exercise of authority without responsibility and accountability. This is a fundamental change in attitude and approach the political class needs to make; and which alone, can lead to a discussion of the reform process. If this bridge is not crossed, we should be practical and make the most of what we can – devil take the hind most!  
       No one questions the crying need for reform of the civil services. The IAS and other services stand aloof from the problems of citizens. Politicization of the civil services has taken deep roots. The level of corruption in many civil services has reached alarming levels. The morale of the civil servants themselves is low, be it at the centre or in the states.  Groupism is rampant. Some even ask whether the time has come to abolish the all-India services.                                                                                  
       What is needed is reform, not scrapping the system. Civil servants should be enabled to perform with freedom, efficacy and accountability.  For this, one should reach out to tackle the core problems, not just tinker with peripheral issues. The necessary political will has to be summoned if such a thing were possible, to tone up and cleanse the civil services.

     The core problems afflicting the civil services stem from larger political causes, relating to unstable governments, and an insecure political executive exploiting the public servant for narrow personal ends, as well as a flawed electoral system, where money power plays an inconsistently large role.  Politics having become the most lucrative business in the country, with few checks and controls, there is compulsion for the minister or political leader to tempt or coerce civil servants to collude with him for mutual benefit. The service rules and procedures have been progressively adapted to facilitate this process. Frequent transfers, ministers hand-picking the officials to work with them, and sidelining of efficient but honest officers are common now, specially in the states and increasingly, in the Centre. An array of weapons is used: arbitrary transfers, control over the annual character roll entry, and unleashing of departmental inquiries to keep civil servants off balance and submissive, prodding them to collusion. These are the key issues which need to be addressed, for a meaningful reform. 

    The Hota Committee’s recommendations for reform of the civil services has to be seen in the above context. The report is said to be under scrutiny of another committee in the cabinet secretariat.  The recommendations are generally unexceptionable; whether they are implementable is another question. The weakness of the Hota report, as of most other earlier reports, relates to non-recognition of the deep interface between our political process and the rot in our administration.  This issue cannot be solved till there is reform of the political process itself.  Mere change in the technical aspects would only have cosmetic impact.                                                                                                                          
      Stable tenure in postings is one long-standing recipe, forming the core of all previous Reform Committee recommendations, and reiterated by Hota. But, will the political masters, especially in the states, allow officers to complete a full tenure of three or five years in a post? The lucrative transfer industry flourishes in most states, and generally yields two crops annually.  What will stability of tenure do to the pressure groups and vested interests in every district?  As governments come and go with regularity at relatively short intervals, won’t the new minister want his own man? Will he trust a man appointed by his predecessor? The other significant suggestion of Hota is that the corrupt officers should be thrown out and their illegally obtained properties confiscated. But, who will bell the cat when the masters themselves are corrupt?  And how does such peremptory action tackle the problem of enquiries themselves being rigged to persecute honest officers?

     The national media has recently high-lighted some of the proposed steps towards reform. These include recruitment age, selection process, use of specialists and some others. Contrary to popular belief, the civil services still attract talented individuals, some of the best available in the country. That they become supine, listless, self-centred and carry a negative attitude is substantially a part of the baggage that they acquire after entry, and should not be laid at the doors of the recruitment policy.  It is a failure of our system to utilize properly the civil services. Indeed, there is great demand for the services of retired senior civil servants in the open market, whose services are sought with great alacrity; which is one index of their quality. The cynic would say that this is merely due to their ‘liaison-role’ potential; while this is partly true, the larger reality is that there is genuine need for their services, largely stemming from their ability and experience.

      However, there is still a strong case for reducing the maximum age of recruitment to 24, which would improve considerably the quality of intake.  I once heard a director of the IAS training academy at Mussoorie mutter, “how can I mould the attitude and character of a fresh recruit, when he is already a grand father!”  We should not however swing to the other extreme to try to “catch’em young”, by recruiting potential administrators as they leave high school.  After all, we are not recruiting potential athletes for the Olympic games. Most children leaving high school do not have sufficient maturity to make up their minds if they wish to be lifelong administrators, to the exclusion of so many other professional opportunities now open to them.

     There is the other suggestion, sometimes seen in the papers, to replace the present selection board for senior posts with “outside experts”. There is no harm, and indeed there will be benefit if suitable outside expertise is utilized in personnel management. But to replace the present selection structure with a brand new process transplanted from outside will do more harm than good.  If we do not trust our own senior most management echelons, who know our own senior personnel well, how do we expect strangers to the system to do this job better?  This is not a task that can be outsourced – there will be higher costs and quality will not improve.  Here again, we are barking up the wrong tree. The malaise is not so much in the interpretation of the annual character rolls of the personnel, as with the very process of writing the annual remarks in respect of each officer, by his own bureaucratic and political superiors.  That is the core of the problem that needs to be addressed.

   The specialist vs. generalist debate is perennial; it resurfaces periodically.  I have seen a chief of the Electricity Board, an excellent engineer who managed his power plants and transmission systems extremely well, totally clueless in matters relating to power policy. I have seen a first rate irrigation chief engineer taking over as Secretary of the irrigation department and floundering from day one, on administrative issues. On the other hand, I have seen scientists, long abdicating their scientific work turn into fine administrators and policy makers. I have also seen IAS secretaries, with excellent reputation, unable to find their feet in alien departments. My own experience is that there is no hard and fast rule in such matters. I believe that at present, roughly half of the jobs at the level of secretary in the government of India are held by so called “specialists” and the other by all-India service officers. This is not a bad balance really. I have found that the suitability and background of each officer for a post is more relevant than his label.  Certainly I would hesitate to place any officer at secretary or additional secretary level in any department unless he or she has had some previous exposure to that or an allied department – one gets no time to learn the basics at that level.

      If we have to face the reality of our existing milieu, the key to quality governance lies rather in concepts like transparency, opening up of the economy, fewer regulations but strict enforcement, larger role for NGO’s and less government in general.  In any event, if core issues cannot be addressed for political compulsions, there is no point tinkering with the periphery. Reform of the political class will automatically lead to reform of the civil services.

     All recent efforts at administrative reforms I have seen are narrow technical exercises which miss the basic fact that the civil services are only an instrument, as good as how the wielder of the same wants it to be. To be only slightly overly-cynical, most ministers at the center and the state, want only collaborators to aid their own self-interest – they do not need administrators. Any reform will have to take this central aspect into account. Technical reforms through enactment of a Public Service Law or amendment of the all India Civil Services Rules etc. will have little impact, unless there is a political consensus that a sharply improved and independent civil service is essential for good governance; good governance incidentally is imperative for removal of poverty and provision of education and public health, and so on. All of this will be a pipe dream till we reform our politics and the politicians. Does Anna Hazare portend the beginning of a new dawn?

      In the ultimate analysis, it is the quality and moral fiber of the people who govern us that is the most critical determinant. In any system, if the top is uncorrupted, clean, public spirited and efficient, that system will furnish good governance. Merely changing the system is not going to change anything, unless we prescribe genuine checks and balances and expect and get highest standards of probity at senior-most levels. It is not sufficient for a prime minister to be personally honest while his other ministers make hay at every sunshine. There is no magic formula to produce men with probity at the top.

   Our political class, unless it reforms itself seriously and comprehensively, is now turning out to the unfit to govern. Will they take heed, make the necessary course corrections and at last play the role envisaged for them? Will the public wake up at some stage and force them to do so. Will the Anna spirit triumph to clean up the whole system.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati