State of bureaucracy: Honesty still pays

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State of bureaucracy: Honesty still pays

Wednesday, 14 July 2021 | ANIL SWARUP

State of bureaucracy: Honesty still pays

If honest bureaucrats have suffered on account of harassment and transfers, so have the dishonest ones as the law finally catches up with them one day

Karl Marx had wished the state to wither away.  It has not. Even in the countries where Marxism was purported to have been practiced, the State has become more and more powerful and its prime tool, bureaucracy, more and more relevant.  In capitalist countries too, the bureaucracies have come to stay.  We, in India, have our 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 a variety of ills that afflict bureaucracy, corruption lies at the top of the stack.  However, the moment we talk of corruption, several 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 the choice to remain honest? Has the choice become limited over time? Can the bureaucracy afford to be honest? Does the politician (the prime decision-maker) want integrity in bureaucracy? What is the price to be paid for remaining honest? Is merely 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 a possible way forward. Corruption is ubiquitous and has been in existence ever since the emergence of the human race.  However, its degree has varied from time to time and place to place.  The acute nature of the problem in countries like India is the impact that such corrupt practices have on the common man.  The shift from ‘nazrana’ (a practice of giving gifts to the emperors and kings as recognition of their tutelage) to ‘jabrana’ (extortion by state agencies, including bureaucracy) is a serious cause for concern and requires to be addressed.

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 a certain context, recognition provided to its perpetrators in public life.  A close look at the history of criminalisation of politics will help us understand the milieu in which the bureaucracy has had to function.

Immediately after independence, the country was driven by standards set by those who sacrificed their lives to free India from British rule.  The politician would keep criminals at a safe distance. This changed during the post-Nehru era when criminals started helping politicians but still the politicians would shy of openly associating with criminals.  With the changing political environment and the emergence of coalition politics, criminals became necessary to subvert the political process. Bihar set this trend but it was soon pursued in other states as well.  The association between crime and politics started becoming visible as governments became increasingly insecure.  The next stage of criminalisation of politics was marked by 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 in the form of these criminals starting to dominate the political process by becoming cabinet ministers. The bureaucrat was to directly report to that very person who he would have incarcerated at some point in time.

Coalition politics and unstable governments led to some other unfortunate consequences as well.  The visionaries were gone. The politician could not see beyond a few months. The Indian administration stood on its head. The politician was more interested in transfers and postings of officers that provided pecuniary gains.  Policy issues were brushed aside and only those were taken up that would either ensure their survival or result in some benefit. That perhaps is the only explanation for mass-scale transfers 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”.

However, what is even more dangerous is the move to destroy institutions and systems to ensure that unfettered discretionary powers remained with the decision-maker.  This enabled the decision-maker to extract a price for every decision.  The destruction of institutions and the threat of  harassment were often used as a lever to extract as much as possible from the bureaucrat.  The critical factor is not efficiency or the lack of it, but pliability.  If you do not conform, you are shown the door and harassed.  It is much worse amongst the lower echelons of the bureaucracy as they are more vulnerable to such extortionist pressures.

Thus, unfortunately, the emerging political environment is inimical to honest functioning.  However, the 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, and pliable.

It would be an honest admission to accept that the combination of an honest, efficient, and non-pliable bureaucrat has become a rare occurrence.  As mentioned earlier, the politician would prefer a pliable and dishonest officer who is also efficient.  Not surprisingly, most of the known corrupt bureaucrats are efficient as well as pliable. These two attributes are essential for survival.  Such an officer thrives on account of these attributes. These bureaucrats have basic capabilities of performing efficiently but their focus is not a public good but their own interest as well as that of the politician.

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 succumbing.  Given this set of circumstances, the choice before these 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 fulfill one’s 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 harassment and transfers, so have the dishonest ones as the law catches up with them one day.

Some recent events have provided enough evidence to this effect. The high and mighty amongst 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 the 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 well-informed public).

There is greater recognition today, both by the media and 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.  The officer has to perform and deliver.  A bureaucrat cannot afford to be inefficient but 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.

(The author is a former IAS officer. The views expressed are personal.)

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