Are elite civil service cadres becoming training schools for politicians?


It is a fashion of the times that officers of the elite Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and Indian Foreign Service join political parties and get elected to public office.

The civil service conduct rules, which require an officer to be apolitical, no longer apply once (s)he leaves government service. This approach is congruent with the view that once a government servant becomes a private citizen (s)he enjoys all the fundamental rights, including the right to political activism.

The case for temporarily suspending the fundamental right to be elected to political office for a retired government servant

However reasonable restrictions on fundamental rights are judicially acceptable if they are statutorily imposed and serve public interest. Can public servants be restrained from joining politics after leaving? The case from doing so is particularly strong for the elite services because their “electability” is enhanced by virtue of the high public office they occupy. Conversely, officers can enhance their future “electability” by arbitrary and biased political decisions. Consider how politicisation of the civil service, post the 1970s under former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, degraded the quality of fair and dispassionate public service.

sanjay gandhi

Today, politicisation has become the norm, not least because high profile civil servants seamlessly become politicians on leaving. Possibly the desperation of officials today to establish a public persona, even whilst they are wet behind the ears with barely four to six years of active service, by using selfies and Instagram to tout their achievements, springs from keeping an eye out for a future political career.

It is particularly obnoxious when the elite services (IAS, IPS and the IFS) indulge in this charade. These services are meant to be “gold standard role models”. Their charisma is derived not from individual accomplishments. It is the institutional structure which exceptionalises them. Accelerated promotions without any qualifying tests; a disproportionate number of high-level positions reserved for them; qualitatively higher levels of executive experience and training pull them above others. Like Harvard, these services are difficult to get into but once there it is a lark. Some of this is necessary to inculcate esprit de corps and a commitment to work in public interest.

Is all of politics public service?

Anna Hazare 2

The problem arises when officers misuse the high profile persona, bestowed on them by the government, as a stepping stone into politics. You could argue that both an IAS officer and a politician are rendering “public service”. Yes, some politicians do render public service as members of parliament or as ministers but only for the limited period they are in position. Once out of office they simply become members of their political party whereby they subscribe to the particular ideology of that party.

In India, we wrongly equate actions of the state with actions of the government in power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Erasing the distinction between the party and the state would make us a single party democracy, like China. There you can vote to choose between multiple candidates but they will all belong to the same party.

The “Weberian” apolitical, public service officer

In contrast, an apolitical public servant should implement the programs of any party in power as diligently per the rule of law. It matters little whether she votes for that party or not – this being a personal choice. The average public servant must, therefore, keep his/her two identities – citizen voter and public servant completely independent. In the event of a severe conflict of conscience, (s)he is free to resign and follow her convictions – as many have done.

But should this option to leave and become politically active be freely available, as today? Should not the option of becoming a politician be closed at senior decision-making levels so that prior to leaving there is no incentive to become politicised? Should not an official’s performance metrics show on the official records, not on Instagram?

Officials who seek to publicise their work, like NGOs or politicians, are breaking from the mould of public service which is, by definition, a support service. It is the politician who must always remain the public face of the government because (s)he is the one who takes the rap in Parliament for snafus. The public servant, even the highest – the cabinet secretary – is merely in support and not in command.

Public sector woes are aplenty

There are many reasons why our public service cadres are unravelling – inconsistent political leadership; inability to specialise; frequent transfers; poor selection processes which emphasize scholastics by rote rather than commitment to public service or aptitude for a specific cadre and institutional barriers like artificial asymmetric benefits – not linked to merit – for the three elite services. The latest trend – the last straw- is for officers to leave midway using the voluntary retirement route, after 20 years of service, to join a political party with full post-retirement benefits.

Enact a mandatory “civil service reserve” of retired civil officers

It is time to draw a red line and change the All India and Central Services conduct rules. For five years after retirement/voluntary retirement, an officer should be ineligible to become a party member, an office bearer or seek elected office. To avoid a legal challenge to this change, a statutory “civil reserve” – as in the army- should be created. Each ex-officer would become a part of the reserve for five years.

Civil reservists could be called up for appropriate public service like elections, disasters, emergencies, instead of disturbing those actively holding positions in government, as is the case today. Reservist would draw a small ex-gratia for being on reserve and full last salary and benefits whilst rendering active service as reservists. In return, they would be bound preserve their political neutrality and not seek political affiliations or office just like regular civil servants.

Civil servants desperate to join politics should resign and forfeit their post retirement benefits to follow their political dreams

To further guard against a legal challenge, those civil servants who prefer to leave and join a political party immediately would be free to do so but only at the cost of forfeiting their pension and other benefits available post-retirement.

Political activism, funded by a handsome government pension, is unseemly. One can either be in government or out. Presently a tiny fraction of government servants, who join politics, have the cake and eat it too.

Also available at TOI Blogs November 28, TOI Blogs November 28, 2018

2 thoughts on “Are elite civil service cadres becoming training schools for politicians?

  1. It is perhaps the curse of belonging to the IAS, that once selected, every person proves that their decisions are driven by self-interest of the “elite cadre” than public interest, and their job is to mostly articulate their own interest in in terms of public interest.

    Having identified politicization of the IAS, and th increasingly premature migration into politics as symptomatic of the death of bureaucratic neutrality as a weberian ideal, the solution is to institutionalize post-retirement sinecures through a mandatory “civil service reserve” of retired civil officers?

    The migration of so-called technocrats into politics is a global phenomenon. It is pointless to try to arrest that trend. It is necessary to think of how to ensure public service needs to be insulated from the adverse effects of this trend. What differentiates India is the perpetuation of IAS, a colonial artifact with life tenure protections, written into the constitution of a deepening democracy. In this era of privitzation and contractual work force, life tenure protections for a class of public servants is an anachronism, even if one manages to ignore the naked self-interest driving their decision-making.

    Politics-administration dichotomy is a big thing in India, due to the myth of babu neutraility. The rest of the world acknowledges and accounts for the fact that bureaucrats are political actors. Offices are insulated from bureaucratic overreach with strong accountability mechanisms to ensure neutral competence and ethics. The delay in moving in that direction explains why today’s Indian bureaucracy is increasingly comfortable with technocacy, authoritarianism, neoliberal politics and disdainful of democracy and the normative operations of its institutions

    Lateral entry is at best a partial solution for the shift towards regulation from governance. What is needed is to, either remove 311 protections or rationalize and expand them to all public servants, and not just some elite cadres. Public service recruitment should be decentralized and based on requisite levels of expertise and fixed terms of employment based on positions commensurate with agency needs.

    The serving IAS have an opportunity to lead in the process and thereby ensure expertise is democratized in service of better public administration. Doing so will ensure they retain the commanding heights of Indian public service for generations. Alternatively, they can continue to “manage” change by using their power till one day it becomes evident that the sum of historical contributions of the IAS exceed the damage the post-liberalization generations of IAS do to the body polity, by self-perpetuation sans accountability e.g. IL&FS. That even ex-IAS officers lack the willingness to suggest adapting to change, without making it all about themselves, shows how the cadre has become a gaint bubble insulated from the growing demands for better governance outcomes.

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