There is hardly any room today for the average officer to display any sign of independence or candour in decision-making.

The Central Bureau of Investigation's decision to arrest the former Telecommunications Secretary, Siddhartha Behura, along with the former Minister, A. Raja, in connection with the 2G spectrum case, revives an old debate over the relationship between the civil servant and the politician. The drastic action by the agency should shake the entire bureaucracy, especially the officers of the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, out of their complacency. It should make them introspect on how they should regulate their responses to ministerial demands for unequivocal compliance of directions. The issue is ticklish and may never be resolved to the satisfaction of either side, or even those members of the public who believe that the independence of the civil service became extinct a long time ago. Nevertheless, it has become necessary to place things in perspective, so that the public understands the dynamics of a relationship which places enormous strain on officers at the senior levels of the bureaucracy.

There is nothing that has been reported till now that suggests that Mr. Behura had been dishonest and received monetary favours from the companies which benefited. Only a CBI charge sheet will lead to the process of confirming or disproving his integrity. There is just a possibility that, while being personally honest he had been more than willing to do the Minister's bidding, in order to stay in the good books. It is not insignificant that he had worked under Mr. Raja earlier in the Ministry of Environment. The fact that he signed more than 100 letters in regard to the issue of licences within days of assuming charge as Secretary, is a cause for grave misgivings: he was dishonest or negligent or displayed a lack of application of the mind. His lawyer claims his client had raised several objections to the Minister's actions. It is not known whether these had been recorded on the files. If Mr. Behura's dissent had indeed been put down on paper, that would provide an extenuating circumstance when his criminal liability is assessed.

Lord Macaulay, who was the Law Member of the Governor-General's Council in India and later Secretary of War in England in the second half of the 19th century — he is recognised as the draftsman of the remarkably structured Indian Penal Code — visualised the civil service as a body of young men with outstanding intellectual abilities and values. His report of 1864 paved the way for streamlining the recruitment for and training of the members of the Indian Civil Service. The foundation he laid stressed the qualities of discipline and integrity. The early years of Independence saw both Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Sardar Patel nursing the civil services with great care and affection. They were convinced that the bureaucracy, as it evolved under the British, constituted a vital and dependable machinery to push through with the various reforms that an infant nation desperately needed. The uprightness and patriotism of the two great men ensured that the civil services were kept insulated from the muddy waters of day-to-day politics and played the key role expected of it in maintaining social stability, thereby providing the right ambience for development work.

Overall, despite a few hiccups, the culture that respected the average civil servant flourished. A clear distinction between the policymaking role of the Minister and of the implementation function of the civil servant had come to be established. By and large, the latter could argue against a Minister's decision without the peril of being humiliated or penalised. Once the Minister made up his mind after a discussion, he had the last word, and the Secretary had no alternative but to implement the decision. There was therefore everything in the system that promoted candour and honesty.

The watershed in the infamous history of the Indian administration thereafter was possibly the Emergency, declared in 1975 on specious grounds. The arbitrariness that ensued led to the dilution, if not the annihilation, of many traditional institutions. The civil service just caved in without protest.

Since then, the floodgates have remained open, and there has been no stopping the process of tinkering with the civil service. The casualties have been the fearlessness and objectivity of the members of the civil service. Barring a few, Ministers both at the Centre and in the States have steamrolled the bureaucracy so much that a fear psychosis now envelops the whole civil service. The judiciary has generally been remiss in undoing the damage. This is because of the stand that it cannot step in where routine administrative matters (such as transfers and suspensions) are involved, and that an act of injustice done to a civil servant does not constitute any infringement of the fundamental rights embodied in the Constitution. The Administrative Tribunals have occasionally offered some redress but have not done enough to remove the fear that grips a majority of public servants. This explains the rot.

The current situation is one in which the average IAS or IPS officer can hardly say ‘no' to a ministerial fiat. Blind obedience is what is expected, even when a direction is downright illegal. Some of the unfortunate recent scams are a direct outcome of this situation. A few of the so-called ‘encounters' involving anti-social elements also belong to this category. The demand these days from a Minister is for instantaneous action, and any perceived delay by an officer is fraught with grave consequences. In earlier times, ministerial displeasure often resulted in an officer's transfer from a sensitive job. These days, however, the consequence of ministerial ire is an inspired physical assault or a dubious departmental enquiry.

Against this backdrop, how do you expect even an iota of independence or candour from civil servants? It is easy for many of us to be critical of them for their submissive behaviour. But any non-conformist uprightness is a sure route to disaster. This is despite many safeguards, including the protection provided in Article 311 of the Constitution, which guarantee due process before a major penalty (dismissal, removal or reduction in rank) is imposed. Suspension from service is perhaps the worst ignominy that can befall a government official. No doubt there are some restrictions on this power. These do not, however, deter a reckless Chief Minister from settling scores with an unbending civil servant, especially in the higher echelons. The Union government caused great damage by sharing this power with the States in respect of the All India Services. This has been the chief source of fear even among bold officials. Major reform is immediately called for in this area.

It is not as if the blame rests squarely with the politicians. Overzealous and greedy civil servants have contributed equally to the dilution of standards. Many of them have looked the other way when Ministers were found indulging in malpractices. Worse is the case of those who have themselves functioned as conduits for money passing to Ministers. A third category comprises those who are themselves guilty of corruption and cannot blame their Ministers of unethical behaviour. How else do you explain an IAS-officer couple in Madhya Pradesh having been allegedly found to have assets worth more than Rs.300 crore?

Are such officers the products of an ambience where there is a premium on dishonesty? Or, is it that they have a DNA which prevails over any instinct to be straightforward? What is clear, however, is that unless New Delhi takes up a major exercise to promote honesty in public service, especially in the IAS and the IPS, the country will come to be looked upon as a banana republic by the rest of the world. The growing feeling among major investors from the developed world that they cannot do business in India without paying bribes is a matter of shame.

In the meantime, my advice to senior officers is this: put down any dissent from ministerial directions in writing, and just abstain from any decision that even remotely suggests any irregularity or illegality. Do this even at the cost of being victimised through suspension or being ignored for a significant position that is legitimately your due. These are golden rules which you can ignore only at your own peril.

(The writer is a former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.)

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