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Anticipatory obedience: The service syndrome

Subservience, together with an unquestioning stance, it might seem, is an essential precondition to service

Anticipatory obedience: The service syndrome

"Eager to please', ' we are here to serve you, Sir', and 'we await your pleasure', are some of the stock phrases heard in shopping malls, hotels, and restaurants. We may have heard them in corporate houses, family-owned businesses, or maybe in the corridors of power. Corridors replete with civil servants, ministers and a whole long line of favour-seekers and a multitude of people (gender no bar) broadly classified derisively as sycophants. Yes sir, yes boss, 'ji huzoor', 'saheb ji' and variations of these abject forms of addressing one's seniors, or superiors in rank and hierarchy, are de rigueur in our caste-bound employer-employee equations across most organisations. The dominant code of conduct spells the basic dictum: the boss is always right. No arguments, please!

Subservience, it would seem, is an essential precondition of service and also is its twin brother: unquestioned obedience. It can be argued that in uniformed services, this is very much a needed ethos, as orders must be obeyed and not challenged. True, forces have to deal with situations where a moment is a call for action and this does not brook any arguments and delays. But, even in such situations, subservience is not a requisite. In the general context, a national trait seems to have got cultivated and embedded in our psyche where a subordinate uses his faculties to create analytics, reports, and performance inputs designed to make the boss look good. He floods him with 'All is well' reports, underplaying the bad news and overplaying the good, hoping that there will be no shocks or surprises as long as one's assigned tenure lasts. And sadly if it does happen, the default defence by blaming the predecessor is a good option and if it is a bit far-fetched, then pin the blame on the lowest credible functionary. Once the crisis passes, the old game of what would please the boss starts again. This pastime has the indulgence of everyone in the hierarchy.

The continued sugar-coating of management information coupled with a compliant 'yes sir' culture has harmed the ethics and ethos of governance in our country. Pedalling fictions of good governance might sustain the game of perceptions for some time but will always end in the erosion of goodwill and 'Iqbal', the ethical dimension of the governors of public systems. The civil service is a caricature of its former self and is seen only as the handmaiden of the party in power. Likewise, the police force has been reduced to answering the whims of the serving chief minister instead of being fair and impartial upholders of law and order. There is an overwhelming preoccupation with anticipating the needs of the political executive generating a cascading effect through the entire chain of hierarchy. The result: governance for special interests as opposed to public interest. The sense of fair play was the navigator of the executive decision-making process, and the judiciary was designed to come into play only in case of an obvious failure of fairness. The designed scheme for the management of the affairs of the state has been wrecked because of directed decision making and it is little wonder that the judiciary is filling up the executive's spaces. Parliament has lamented this and so have prominent ministers but without appearing to even want to give the required muscle to the executive instruments. The politician is comfortable in managing the civil service with inducements and threats but not with wit and acumen as should have been the basis of a vibrant and useful relationship flourishing under a rule of law. Hence, the façade of fabricated obedience is intended to serve as an insulation of sorts from possible shocks of accountability that any political master should legitimately demand if governance is intended in public interest. This feigning of compliance also helps to keep the politician under an obligation to defend the bureaucrat as a part of the quid pro. This has led to a kind of a loyalty based bureaucracy.

Thus, fair play and a just executive is the casualty. The arrangement as devised by the Constitution never contemplated abject obedience but only compliance with legitimate orders of the political executive. The off-the-record suggestions disguised as 'do it or else…' implied both benefits and penalties. Human beings being just that human, in a majority of situations, preferred to go along as even a different view is looked upon as defiance. The shine has come off the civil service who as the prime and only instruments of governance came up short in the delivery of citizens' entitlements and services. True, there are other reasons too and some need structural changes, but upright bureaucracy is the key to a nation's governance by rule of law. They have to build and sustain a framework of obedience of legitimate orders. It will be to the advantage of the politician whose stature will rise in the public eye, and people's respect for the executive ability will be enhanced.

We have to see a change in the idioms of political thought and speech. 'We are in power', 'in our rule', 'our reign', these are not the conversations in a 'democracy'. One can understand 'recalling our days in office' or 'our time in government'. The political party does not rule, it is in government only to serve the country and its people. It does not wield power, it is the majesty of the law that has the power and only that deserves obedience. The customer can always be right as a matter of marketing courtesy, but the boss can be wrong and an appropriate expression conveying so is not a discourtesy.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Raj Liberhan

Raj Liberhan

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