Assessing Nehru’s Legacy IV
“Continued from Perpetuation of Colonial Administrative System”
“The perfect bureaucrat everywhere is the man who manages to make no decisions and escape all responsibility.”
May I begin with an apocryphal story even though I heard it at the Writers’ Building in Kolkata from the horse’s mouth? A young British ICS officer had his first posting in Siliguri. He was appalled by the mess in his office, cluttered with mountains of files covered with layers of dust dating back to half a century, stacked in one store room after another. Determined to cleanse the Augean stables, he wrote to his superiors (in then Calcutta) seeking permission to destroy all irrelevant files.
Now, what’s relevant and what isn’t is, in the world of bureaucracy, highly debatable. The matter was given a great deal of thought. And after several reminders the senior mandarins delivered their verdict. “The old records may be destroyed after making copies thereof.” Now tell me, dear readers, isn’t the bureaucracy overworked?
Transplant of Anarchism
No wonder, therefore, this system, eminently suited to bureaucrats of the pre-1947 era, was readily adopted after Independence. First, it provided far more job openings for the so-called educated middle class which, historically, served as mercenaries of the rulers of the day. (When it comes to serving their masters, their most obedient servants are utterly and completely indifferent to the color of the rulers’ skin. The brown sahibs are served with the same devoted care as the white sahibs, were). Secondly, the system gave wonderful opportunity to exercise power without any accountability. Nowhere in the world does such a unique arrangement obtain where the power-wielders are in no way answerable to those whom they are — perish the thought — supposed to serve and who pay their salaries. If, for instance, a bridge built under the charge of CPWD collapses, the chief is transferred to another area as the enquiry meanders for years till its report is finally “filed”. Thirdly, there is always safety in numbers. After all, ten heads are better than two.. (Anyone familiar with the powers of Ravana knows this).
The invisible master puppeteers — always hidden from public gaze — excel in the art of pulling strings lest any puppet should deem itself too important to stay in one place. The bureaucratic system works through frequent transfers. The rationale is two-fold. Our imperial masters were against the idea of someone staying in a place for more than a couple of years lest he should muster strength enough to be a threat to the raj. Most particularly, the system was devised for army officers whose tenures were strictly monitored for security reasons. The same considerations weighed with the postings of civil servants.
But how on earth a Joint Secretary in a Ministry in Independent India is likely to hatch a plot to overthrow the Government of India and should, therefore, be continually transferred from one Ministry to another, and from the Centre to the State and back and forth.
Doesn’t this policy work to the utter detriment of organizations! Take a General Manager of an Ordnance Factory. He is assigned to a unit for about two years. Why? Because the British system had it so!! It takes the new incumbent a year or more to get a firm grasp of the situation, know who’s who and what’s what. When he really settles down, it is time to get transferred out. What continuity of policy could you expect?
Before the Government of India in its profound wisdom started appointing CEOs of PSU’s for an extended term, the heads of these units were appointed—hold your breath -- for a year or at the most two. Before they understood what was expected of them, it was time to start lobbying for an extension with the Joint Secretary of the concerned Ministry. And often these extensions were granted for six months. What miraculous results would you expect of functionaries living on bureaucratic tenterhooks?
And all this happens because of a distrustful system bequeathed to us. That, however, isn’t the only reason why the system has continued. It conferred vast favor-granting authority to those who were controlling the levers of power in the Government. Who, on earth, will like to part with these, especially when they carried no corresponding accountability for results? The system, thus, has worked wonderfully well benefitting everyone excepting those whom it is supposed to serve.
One attribute of the system that merits an industrial sociologist’s study is its impact on those who stayed on in these institutions, cynically watching the goings-on at the upper levels. Take a CEO’s Secretariat that has witnessed this melodrama unfold every couple of years. Coal India Limited could be an instructive case study. The monolith came into being in 1973 after Indira Gandhi nationalized coal industry. So far, it has had at least two dozen chairmen i.e. an average tenure of about two years. Every time a new incumbent is appointed, he is welcomed with usual pomp and ceremony. To earn the enthusiastic support of his staff, he promises to streamline the system. The proclamation, for those who heard it, had an air of deja vu. Each new incumbent had promised to change things but the status quo ante was never disturbed. The wise French have a phrase for the profound cynicism that the oft-repeated exercise generates. Plus, ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. (The more things change — apparently — the more they remain the same).
If you’re a Delhite, take the DDA (which a World Bank study declared as the world’s most corrupt body). It has had since its inception in 1959 nearly fifty Chairmen. If a deep apathy informs the attitudes of those who witnessed these frequent play acting i.e., making of promises never to be kept, who is to be blamed? Devoid of a sense of commitment, they acquiesced into accepting the roles of spectators. And those who were enterprising enough among them, devised ways and means of using the system to their advantage by cultivating the right connections and playing corporate games.
Transplant in Public Sector
Another great achievement of the bureaucratic system has been to clone itself in the running of our public sector. As one PSU after another came into being in the 1950s and 1960s, the style of their functioning, it was assured, conformed strictly to bureaucratic procedures. The file culture was the first plant of the know-all civil servants who were deputed to run PSUs. No wonder, most of them don’t operate at more than one-third of their potential.
One of the most fascinating sights that unfailingly catches your eye if ever you are in the chamber of the CEO of one of these undertakings, is a large-sized board — almost 6 feet by 9 — which has the engraved names of all the incumbents. It proudly records the meritorious services rendered by all those who were deputed to head the organization. From it you learn that Mr X joined on, say, 14.01.1962 in the afternoon and handed over charge on 20.03.1963. What on God’s earth could he have achieved in the fourteen-month stint? And you discover he was from the ICS. — the steel frame of the Government of India. If he could maintain law and order in a district, running a continuous process fertilizer plant was just a child’s play for him.
It doesn’t take you long to find out that the civil servants eyed the green pastures of the public sector merely to earn 20 per cent deputation allowance. I suggest a fascinating pastime for OD practitioners: visit the chamber of CEO of any of the public sector giants, copy out the names of the incumbents from inception till the day of your visit, note down also the dates of joining and handing over the charge, take an average of the tenure and then take an average of, say, fifty thus-derived averages. The sum thus derived would not be more than one year six months. And during these eighteen months, the incumbent changed the enterprise, giving it a sense of new vision and dynamic direction. Some of them, in fact, hold the office for six odd months, a period fruitfully spent in attending receptions and farewell functions. In all likelihood, they don’t have time enough to know what they were supposed to do. And the only reason of their promotion was to entitle them to pension benefits accruing to higher echelons of bureaucratic hierarchy.
One of the key functions expected of someone heading an organization is to impart it a sense of purpose, build up a strategic vision. And all this requires, reasonable time-frame — by common consensus, a minimum period of five to seven years. The heads of India’s public sector undertakings preside over the destinies of four to five organizations during this period, leaving behind a trail of brazen opportunism.
Any civil servant — fortunately I haven’t been one — must know his Bible by the heart. And that is the Fundamental Rules and Supplementary Rules. This was composed by the Indian apostles of Max Weber over eighty years ago and it governs the all-important financial business of the government. (Don’t forget that in those good old days the business of government was two-fold: revenue collection and maintenance of law and order). Of course, now and then amendments were issued. But the basic holy text of the Rules remained unchanged and, above all, sacrosanct. The Rules became the holy book for the public sector too. That gave rise to the office of the all-powerful Financial Advisor of a PSU who held the purse strings in his hand but had no accountability vis-a-vis results. And this snowballed into the culture of non-accountability at all levels. After all, one thing that government servants get thoroughly trained in is the art and craft of deft blame-shifting.
Most of the laws governing the functioning of our administrative system are hopelessly outdated. The Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860’s when criminals shuddered before committing a crime unlike today when criminals are in most cases certain that their political patrons would ensure that they are out of harm’s way. The Criminal Procedure Code which regulates the administration of criminal law is over a century old. (It was adopted in 1898). How anachronistic has it become in our day, needn’t even be commented upon.
It’s most baffling what prevented Nehru to have a thorough overhaul of a hopelessly outdated system after 1947 and have it replaced by another, attuned to the development needs of the society he was keen to bring into being. His initial zeal to reform and the impatience with the established system exhausted themselves in due course. He settled down — and with him, the country — with hoary customs and weary habits. Nehru did in his later years cavil at “procedures inherited by us from the past”, but didn’t think it was his or his Government’s responsibility to change them to suit a different age and time.
While lamenting this dismal failure of Nehru, we mustn’t overlook the fact the model of bureaucracy developed as per Max Weber’s prescription is indeed suited to orders where prominent social needs are stability, efficiency and, above all, continuity. What we needed in, and after, 1947 was the creation of a new order which, among other things, was required to discard most (if not all) of the accumulated baggage of the past. And when called upon to do so, we needed transformational leadership which knows where it stands, where it wants to reach and which route it must take to get there. These leadership traits weren’t Nehru’s. He was content to speak about a problem — even to forward for consideration his well-crafted written diagnosis — but didn’t have the nerve to see it through. Indeed, we needed stability immediately after the 1947 upheaval. Simultaneously, we needed change — almost immediately after things settled down and certainly after 1951.
Management of change is, today, a well-studied area of administrative practice — as much at the corporate level as at the Government level. The tragedy of Nehru was that while his perceptions were sound, he failed to select suitable administrators to execute his plans and, above all, he lacked the will to persist till his plans were carried through. He did show impatience with the system but, regrettably, settled down in the role of a keeper of the past while he prided himself being thought a dreamer of the future. History will judge him as the betrayer of a cause that he had committed himself to by presiding over the system which he detested and which he knew couldn’t deliver. Bureaucracy and bureaucrats, on their part, had reasons to be very happy with him. As Bertrand Russell said almost a century ago: “The only alteration they (the bureaucrats) are likely to desire in the status quo is an increase of bureaucracy and the power of the bureaucrats”.
This system — however harmful its long-term effect on the organization — suits the incumbents remarkably well. It absolves them almost completely of any accountability other than maintenance of status quo. So, over the years and decades we have travelled up and down from, and to, square one and will perhaps always remain struck there. Nehru saw it happen in his regime and after making inconsequential noises about it, reconciled to it with unabashed nonchalance. There it is to stay, perhaps, forever. But at whose cost? Was Friedrick von Hayek speaking in Road to Serfdom for you and me who have to suffer the humiliating tyrannies of the system day after day?
The power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is much less than that which the smallest functionary who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work.
We are reminded of the mighty “coercive power” of these demigods day in and day out when we apply for an electric connection or a completion certificate or visit a hospital. The treatment meted out to us is reminiscent of the age-old highhandedness of the functionaries of the rulers towards the ruled. Instead of taking steps towards a drastic revision of the system in order to give it a new orientation, Nehru only helped it to be permanently cast in the colonial mould.
After finishing the above piece I ran into this gem by—who else? — KPS Singh, the veteran of two wars — one, against terrorism and the other, against bureaucracy.
“Indeed, even in crisis, security forces face an uphill battle in securing the most basic resources and capacities. The civilian bureaucracy has been one of the most obstructive entities in this regard, and I recall, during the peak of terrorism in Punjab, I was in constant and abrasive confrontation with the secretariat in Chandigarh and New Delhi. Confronted by continuous ambushes and attacks, we repeatedly asked for bulletproof vehicles, but received no response. So we went ahead and improvised. Some old and condemned Ambassadors were recovered and bulletproofed, and were found to be extremely successful. Later, audit objections were raised against our efforts. We were bulletproofing vehicles for less than Rs 2 lakh, but were subsequently forced to buy them for over Rs 6 lakh. This is the genius of the bureaucracy. Significantly, at Dinanagar, the police had to borrow bulletproof vehicles from the army to approach the building under siege.”
Continued to “India’s Soft State - An Albatross Around the Polity’s Neck”