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Minister-Secretary relations — I : From public to private servant

B. S. Raghavan

For two decades after Independence, relations between politicians and civil servants bore the stamp of trust and mutual benefit. Over the decades, however, those officers who stuck to what they deemed to be the right course suffered humiliation and harassment, and were bludgeoned into becoming "pliant and unprincipled."

THE Ministers of the United Progressive Alliance have taken charge of their respective Ministries. They will pass through the inevitable shake-down period and take some time to settle down in their new jobs.

Veterans such as Dr Manmohan Singh and Messrs Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherji, Shivraj Patil and P. Chidambaram, who know the ropes, would have got going from Day One.

Those who are new to Parliament and their duties will initially be heavily dependent on the bureaucracy to educate themselves on the intricacies of their responsibilities. If they are humble and receptive, that is.

Some Ministers lose their heads and throw their weight about (as those in the Delhi Administration, who are reportedly raising a ruckus demanding fancy cars for their use). Some others are distrustful and unsure in forging equations with their officials, and tend to staff their personal secretariat with political henchmen to browbeat the bureaucrats.

Magnificent bureaucratic machines

Governments may come and go, but the bureaucracy goes on forever. The same bureaucracy which, worldwide, is reviled, maligned and scorned, keeps the wheels of administration moving through good times and bad.

It was only the steady and solid efforts put in by the administration at all levels that helped India emerge all in one piece out of the horrendous bloodbath following Partition and other calamities and crises since.

So also, while the coalition capers and the accompanying power-plays are consuming the time and energy of politicians, the men in their magnificent bureaucratic machines are quietly processing and docketing the necessary material for churning out policy options on a bewildering variety of subjects to be placed before the Ministers.

A comparison between Britain and India in the matter of adjustments to changes of governments is interesting, as both countries follow the same parliamentary system of government serviced by the same kind of administrative procedures.

In Britain, the Cabinet Secretary officially circulates the manifesto of the party forming the government to the higher echelons of civil services asking them to study the contents so that they can provide active assistance to the Ministers in implementing the programmes smoothly.

In Britain, again, the incoming Ministry does not, as soon as it takes the reins, resort to gimmicks like "administrative shake-ups".

Permanent Secretaries heading departments continue undisturbed for one simple reason: The civil service tradition of candour in tendering advice, impartiality in enforcing laws and rules, and integrity in dealings with stakeholders in governance is so strong and deep-rooted that Ministers will gain nothing by pushing around the officials and replacing one with another.

The camaraderie and the esprit d'corps among members of the permanent services are such that they present a solid front against any attempt by Ministers to deviate from norms and rules. In rare cases of conflicts that they find unable to handle themselves, they can look up to the Cabinet Secretary to use his prestige and authority to bail them out.

Sardar Patel's admonition

In India, too, during the Jawaharlal Nehru-Lal Bahadur Shastri era, the situation was very similar.

Indeed, one is taken aback by the courage of conviction of the founding fathers, especially the emphatic observations in which the then Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel couched it, while piloting in the Constituent Assembly in 1949 the chapter in the Constitution on protection to civil services.

They bear testimony to their uncanny ability to peer far into the future and visualise the hijacking of the polity by those who were the very antithesis of themselves. The prospect they most feared was officials being at the mercy of changing parties and subjected to temptations leading to sycophancy and subservience.

Patel was at his trenchant best in condemning any attempt to whittle down their capacity to resist improper or indefensible demands made by Ministers and politicians: "... as a man of experience I tell you do not quarrel with the instruments with which you want to work... Have morals no place in Parliament? Today, my Secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom to all my Secretaries. I have told them, `If you do not give your honest opinion for fear that it will displease your Minister, please then you had better go. I will bring another Secretary!' I will never be displeased over a frank expression of opinion... "

Patel's expostulations found a ready and resonant echo in the speeches of Constituent Assembly members. To give just a few examples of the many:

"... An enlightened bureaucracy is the need of the hour. We must strengthen the foundations of our civil service and protect it from the onslaught of mobocrats who are, in the name of democracy, trying to boss over those who are their superiors in their intellect and morals... The foundations of our national life can be secured (only) if the public servants are assured of their security, if they get the conviction that they will not have ministerial interference" (Brajeshwar Prasad)

"... public servants, whether of the Union or the States, who are so important to an efficient administration (should not) be reduced to virtual slaves. I shudder to think what will happen to our administration if that situation develops... " (H. V. Kamath)

"Whatever the Constitution may or may not provide, the welfare of the country will depend upon the way in which the country is administered. That will depend upon the men who administer it." (Dr Rajendra Prasad, President, Constituent Assembly)

As if by way of a refresher course for his colleagues, Jawaharlal Nehru invited, in 1953, Paul Appleby, an eminent authority on civil service, to review India's administrative apparatus, and made the Cabinet take note of his blunt views.

Here is a sample: "Civil servants should be in no danger of reprisals for opinions freely and vigorously expressed to Ministers... Anyone who knows anything about the administration of difficult and complicated institutions knows that continuity of personnel is of great importance, that heavy turnover is costly in money and more costly in effectiveness... ."

In their time, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri and most Chief Ministers never took any interest, nor interfered, in the postings and transfers of career officials, and left them to be decided by the Cabinet Secretary and the Chief Secretary.

Ministers were expected to accept whomsoever was posted to work under them by the Prime Minister/Chief Minister on the recommendation of the Cabinet/Chief Secretary and forbidden to ask for any particular official(s) by name. In fact, C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), when he was Chief Minister of the then Madras State, issued written orders against any MLA approaching any official in the secretariat or the districts with any kind of request.

Pliant and unprincipled

I must say, having worked with, and seen at close quarters, Indira Gandhi in 1962-75, that she too in the early years of her induction into the government as the Chairperson of the War Publicity Group and later of the Cabinet Committee to go into the demand for Punjabi Suba, and subsequently as Minister of Information and Broadcasting, maintained the long-standing traditions. However, the stresses and strains of the bitter fight with "the Syndicate" resulting in a split in the Congress, and the tumultuous events, including the proclamation of Internal Emergency, following the Allahabad High Court judgment unseating her, seemed to have wrought a sea-change in her personality.

She looked the other way when her hatchet-men in the PMO, led by her son Sanjay Gandhi, launched the era of "committed" civil servants, (there was even an open call in Parliament for "committed" Justices by the Steel Minister, Mohan Kumaramangalam).

Those who stuck to what they deemed to be the right and proper course suffered painful humiliation and harassment. Indian officialdom right up to the higher reaches never recovered its élan thereafter. Pusillanimity became the badge of the tribe.

In the words of the former Cabinet Secretary, Mr T. S. R. Subramanian, "the transition from a public servant to a private servant" was complete and officers were bludgeoned into becoming "pliant and unprincipled."

(To be concluded)

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