What ails the IAS?
In a democracy, real power rests with the political elite irrespective of party or ideology.
The IAS seems to be going through a credibility crisis for some quite time with allegations of inefficiency, lack of expertise, charges of graft etc. Frequent incidents of even physical attacks on officers make it worse. Media reported that around 6,000 aspirants from the corporate sector have applied for 10 IAS posts of Joint Secretary in Union government. The 'lateral entry' seems to ratify a phenomenon wherein quite a large number of IAS posts have already been manned by non-IAS functionaries in many states. It is probably felt that anyone can do what an IAS Officer can (or 'cannot') do. The bubble of indispensability has burst. Ironically, the IAS continues to be indispensible but the officers seem to be dispensable. Have the officers failed to deliver? An understanding of the system helps answer these questions.
Article 312 of the Constitution authorises the Parliament to create All India Services, common to the Union and the States, and also regulate recruitment and service conditions. The intent was to accord a pivotal role to these services as the life line of the Uni-federal system of governance, obviously with a view to enforce the Constitutional values. However, it is an enigma that the political executive, by the force of law, controls the officers and their careers. This is an important given paradigm that any discussion on the performance of IAS should begin from.
Civil servants and politicians are two sides of the same coin sharing a complementary relationship in public administration. What affects one, affects the other too. Political economy had undergone dramatic socio-economic changes in free India. Limited resources against exploding population led to a struggle for power. With 'India' gradually unfolding itself in to real 'Bharat', local interests of castes, faiths, and languages have found political expressions, acquiring primacy over national priorities. The composition of the political executive, generically the political elite, too underwent changes. Politics of convenience began to override that of convictions. Idealism was gradually overpowered by realism and politics of identity overshadowed politics of consensus. The direct consequence is that civil services came under severe pressure for in a democracy, the real power rests with the political elite irrespective of party or ideology.
Unsurprisingly, officers wasted no time in understanding that 'managing' rule of law is more important than enacting it. They assumed the role of managers and civil service, by and large, began to be perceived as political service. We cannot well blame an officer without appreciating the precarious position he is paced in when his tenure in a post, his performance appraisal reports and his reputation as 'successful' officer solely depends on how the political executive perceives him. In place of efficiency, suitability, and pliability of officers began to matter. In service, the training and upgrade of skills the civil servants undergo hardly find connections to their postings now because the political executive reserves the right to utilise them in the best 'interest' of State. It is an open secret that political elite patronises officers on extraneous grounds and as a result, a polarisation is seen everywhere in bureaucracy. Two kinds of officers exist in every State, one waiting for postings, and the other for whom the posting waits. As is said 'blood is thicker than water', impersonal character of Weber's bureaucracy only proves a fantasy now.
'All India Services' at times sound as misnomer frankly because, unlike in Central services, majority of IAS officers throughout the service actually work under the control of State governments. The local power politics influence their outlook and performance with vicissitudes of fortune. In place of thinking globally and acting locally, an officer tends to think locally but tries to act globally. The Central ministry of personnel sitting far away hardly interferes in State business, let alone playing guardian for officers. An officer has to protect himself no less than a gladiator does in the arena.
Now the question is; doesn't the statute guarantee protection to an officer's freedom and his career? An idealist may answer positively, but facts dissuade a realist to endorse it. The statutes related to service conditions such as IAS Cadre Rules, Cadre Regulations, Pay Rules, though prescribe clear-cut rules of cadre management, all proposals mandate the administrative approval by political executive, be it postings, promotions, pay, or deputations. The superior authorities in the hierarchy, with their own 'limitations', have only a recommendatory role which again is a potential source of proxy control on subordinates. Secondly, personal factors seldom fail in deriving a suitable interpretation of rules.
Contrary to general perceptions, in matters of disciplinary proceedings, an IAS officer stands barely on a different footing from any ordinary government servant. Suspensions, arrests, and dismissals are commonplace. However, political executive, of course, can always come to rescue; 'Stockholm syndrome' is a natural consequence. So real is the systemic dependence on political elite that service sentiment of officers gets outweighed by survival instinct. The fallout is evident in performance. The only saving grace is the presence of one class of benevolent political leadership, not extinct yet, thanks to whom IAS hasn't lost its relevance yet. Some officers with sound 'backward linkages' had early enlightenment and chose to resign and join politics.
Civil servants are supposed to serve the government which is beyond the political executive. But in practice, they serve only the political executive since it runs the government with unquestionable power and authority granted by law. A bureaucrat generally ends up as back-room staff and finds it rather unwise to assert his role as leader of administration. If this is what the service has come to, then anyone can do the job of a civil servant, no matter one enters laterally or unilaterally.
It is, of course, preposterous to challenge the authority of elected executive in a democracy. The idea here is not to advocate bureaucratic supremacy either but to focus on the undesired emasculation of the service and the consequent trust deficit. Bureaucracy is a permanent institution of governance and has larger concerns vis-a-vis the political elite. As specialists of administration, officers can deliver their best only when real freedom and protection exist, not as a personal favour but as a part of the system. In place of piecemeal solutions, there is a need for a paradigm shift in order to rejuvenate the IAS.
(The author is a senior bureaucrat of Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are strictly personal)