Who rules India?

India is a democracy. We believe in government of the people, by the people, for the people? What than do the civil servants contribute? Strictly speaking they advise their political bosses who hold public offices, and once the latter have taken a decision, to implement it in letter and sprit. In the early days after independence the elected public figures were stalwarts of the freedom struggle, widely admired and applauded. The civil servants were no exception to that, although some of them were themselves a class apart, in terms of their personality, wisdom and calibre. In theory a political master in a democracy will come and go whilst the civil service is permanent. But in fact for several decades the Congress party remained in power and certain faces become familiar sights as veterans. In many cases the experience say of a Minister like Shri Jagjivan Ram far exceeded that of any civil servant who served under him.

In recent years the matter has undergone a dramatic transformation. More and more Ministers do not complete a full term. Furthermore, polarization of public opinion and its reflection in fragmented electoral verdicts and coalition governments has led to repeated reshuffles and changes in portfolios. The stature of public figures has also suffered considerably for a host of well-known cases. Vicissitudes of political life have swung the pendulum from one extreme to another. It is no secret that the present government of Utter Pradesh have several Ministers who till recently would have considered themselves lucky to be ushered into the company of District Magistrates of their Districts. Indeed the subtle or not so subtle threats about their immediate welfare were most likely conveyed by those very officers when the Mayawati government was shaky and their votes became crucial. Over night the tormenting symbol of power would have turned into a docile and subservient subordinate, smartly saluting the newly inducted Minister!

It would not be wrong to say that the civil servant believes that he is the legitimate keeper of government information and that the political bosses should be told on a strictly œneed to know basis. This may be a little different for the Head of government in the states and the Centre. But even for them the senior civil servant or retired civil servant they appoint as their principal Secretary probably has to use his bureaucratic skills to squeeze the information out of their own kind. It is not surprising then that a lot of people believe that something the civil service wants to do gets done quickly but something they are unsure of and only the politicians want to do is almost impossible to accomplish. Try a simple test with a civil servant you know reasonably well. Ask without prior warning if a particular matter can be approved. He will probably give a dozen reasons why that would not be possible. (It comes instinctively to them!) Then say thanks, but tell me as a friend how this can be done'. And yes will equally promptly have the answer. Flatter him a bit, and praise his initiative, and you can walk away with half the Department!

The present administrative arrangement is often explained in terms of the civil servants being experts in a sense, whilst the politician is considered untutored, lay person. That is understandable where this is actually so. But there are counter examples too well educated politicians who are professionals, like doctors and lawyers; others who have been in the armed forces or even in the civil service. Shri Ajit Jogi and Shri Jaswant Sinha are two examples of EX-IAS officers; Shri Suresh Kalmadi & late Shri Rajesh Pilot are examples of Ex-Armed Forces personnel; Dr. Manmohan Singh was once the economic adviser to the Central government. I could go on endlessly. Shri Shiv Shanker, Shri Bhardwaj, Shri Arun Jaithly are only a few successful lawyers who have been law ministers. How could then their Civil Servants even hope to pull cool over their eyes? It could be said that there is a premium on information and no matter how bright a minister might be, there is precious little he or she can do if access to information is blocked.

Over the past decade there has been a dramatic transformation in the way we look at economic issues and the decisions that have been taken. But when and how did this change take place? There was a blue print that late Shri Rajiv Gandhi had prepared but the Congress government that took office after his untimely, tragic death was never formally adopted. But the appointment of Dr. Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister and Shri P. Chidambram as the Commerce Minister trigged off a spate of reference that become the theme of the government. But with all the visible leadership that those two provided, someone else must have been working on the œstructural changes. The vocabulary of socialism was not all that changed. What was unthinkable a few years earlier became common place - private channels on TV, private airlines in the air, ITDC hotels living up to be bought by private hotel chains, mobile phones service provided by private sector. The unthinkable become a reality. We started to speak the language of BOT, FDI, Toll highways, etc. There was clearly no party manifesto that sought a mandate for all this. Nor was any such mandates given. The world had changed and so must we. The USSR changed and broke up into Russian Federation and may independent states; China has undergone incredible changes. In both cases somewhere, somehow ordinary people were involved but the thrust of the changes came from somewhere, deep inside the Kremlin and politburo respectively. People's aspiration and appreciation obviously had to be and was managed. But in a democracy like India people's mandate is indispensable. We have over the years since independence sought mandates for Swadeshi (of Gandhiji) secularism, socialism (of Panditji) nationalism (of Indiraji variety) modernism (of Rajivji) etc. and the BJP has sought mandates for Hindutva etc. but no party has ever sought a mandate for structural reform or globalisation. No leader of any worth has made passionate speeches about it. Then how is it that it has happened or is still happening? Is it that the man and woman who really rule India do not fight elections?

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