The bureaucracy needs to embrace lateral entry, technology, and the ‘perform or perish’ culture.
Bureaucrats are not exactly among the most loved people in India. Often considered snooty, self-serving, impervious to people’s issues and even corrupt, many are delighted that the Government has finally started to nibble away at their imperious arrogance. In this background, it is not surprising that the move to re-introduce lateral entry on an organised scale into the higher echelons of “babudom” was greeted with glee. But on sober reflection, much of this enthusiasm would seem premature if not altogether misplaced. Can just 10 Joint Secretary-rank officers to the Government of India make any difference whatsoever to the functioning of the administration?
All those who remember the iconic BBC teleserial “Yes Minister” would remember the way the British bureaucracy deftly ran rings around the plans of enthusiastic political bosses making them completely dependent on scheming babus determined to preserve their turf and influence. Years ago, then Prime Minister PV Narasima Rao had said in Davos: “Our bureaucrats are like trained dogs. They will wag their tails whichever way we want them to.” The bureaucratic response was to grin and bear the remark, but wag their tails only when they wanted and in the direction of their choice.
This being the nature of the beast, it will be foolhardy to expect a surge of new blood to alter the DNA of the Indian Babu. But the other question is whether the bureaucracy is such an obstacle to governance that it requires transformation. Analysed without prejudice, it can be said that the Indian bureaucracy, except those with a corrupt streak running in their veins from the start, actually constitute a meritocracy. The implementation of caste-based quotas may have diluted the merit component somewhat but it constitutes the steel frame originally crafted by the British to govern this vast and largely unruly country. They have also responded to the changes demanded of them, especially with regard to the needs of a competitive democratic system that has now devolved even to the village level.
A sense of accountability dominates the system and despite the pressures to accommodate corrupt demands of politicians, many have the courage to swim against the tide. How a few outsiders, in whom this culture is not ingrained, will function in this milieu is an open-ended question. To begin with unaccustomed to the ways of government, they could easily lose their way in the labyrinthine ways of the “system”. If they are unable to assert their authority meaningfully, it is highly unlikely that they will succeed in functioning effectively. They will get confused and bogged down by paperwork to such an extent that the airy-fairy ideas with which they might have applied for a Joint Secretary’s position will take leave of their mind-space in no time.
- Sreedharan of DMRC is an outstanding example of what a man can achieve within the system if given autonomous space. He was after all, part of the railway bureaucracy most of his life but his gritty determination and sterling honesty made him an icon of contemporary India even without a bureaucratic rank. The Government may be better advised to induct such talented persons with deep domain knowledge and impeccable honesty as advisers to selected ministries instead of inducting them as ineffective bureaucrats with indeterminate authority.