When “Yes Minister ” was shown in England it was huge hit and when it arrived in India in its original version and subsequently in its “desi” adaptation, it was a big hit in India as well. Both the original and the “desi” versions were hilarious as they did portray certain delectable and not-sodelectable attributes of a bureaucrat. The original version depicted a British civil servant as witty, intelligent, articulate and, at least ostensibly, competent. On the flip side, he appeared to be supercilious, haughty, indifferent to public needs, derisive and contemptuous of what the political masters had to convey and highly suspicious of the intent behind the directives given by the politician. However, all in all, the British civil servant almost always appeared to be in control. The “desi” adaptation of the serial did away with the subtleties and the presentation was more slapstick to suit the Indian audiences.
A lot of water has flown in the Yamuna since these serials made respective appearances. Hence, one felt the need to take a fresh look at the attributes of a modern-day civil servant. Criminalisation of Politics, politicization of bureaucracy, caste emerging a dominant factor in politics, political instability in the states and all pervasive sense of insecurity is vitiating the environment beyond recognition. All these have impacted the present day civil servant though he may himself be partly responsible for the state of affairs.
It would be wrong to generalize the attributes of a civil servant. In fact, they come in all hues, shapes and sizes and should be left to the judgement of an individual to select some of these attributes and assign it to a particular civil servant. Each civil servant can be seen as a bundle of some of the attributes mentioned below.
In public perception, by and large, a typical bureaucrat is seen as inefficient because he does not perform. Though there are indeed great performers but these performers are, more often than not, part of the invisible lot.
“Dikhayee kam diya karte hain buniyaad ke patthar
Zamin mein dub gaye jo imarat unhip e kayam hai”
Phenomenal work being done by civil servants goes unnoticed and they come to be associated with ‘red tape’ as nothing is perceived to move in government offices. Many believe that most of the civil servants are dishonest. A number of bureaucrats themselves believe that, apart from their own self, the rest of the bureaucracy is corrupt. You now have another breed of ‘honest crusaders’ who believe that all except them are dishonest. They stop just at being honest, as if honesty is an end in itself.
Unlike their British counterparts, a number of civil servants are not very articulate, more so when it comes to expressing their opinion to the powersthat-be. They would rather first know the opinion of the political master and then endorse the same view. There are, however, a number of bureaucrats who are forthright and believe in expressing their opinion on file as well as verbally even if it means a transfer or some other form of humiliation.
Some bureaucrats do behave as if they are not civil servants but the true servant of the ‘master’ they serve. Their commitment to the master and servile behaviour is indeed an embarrassment to the rest of the bureaucracy. But then the ‘master’ expects a similar servility and pliability from other civil servants and when it is not forthcoming, the civil servant is shown the door.
Haughtiness and supercilious behaviour were attributes of ‘brown sahibs’ but with the total domination of the political master and almost a total annihilation of self respect amongst some of the bureaucrats, these ‘virtues’ are a preserve of only such bureaucrats who appear totally spineless before the powers-that-be but choose to roar and bite spitefully when they interact with the lesser mortals. Their contemptuous derision and occasional megalomaniacal tendencies are seen to be believed. This continues despite the fact that some have them bitten the dust. However, they make hay while the sun shines. Fortunately, such specimens are few and far between though unfortunately they are highly visible giving a bad name to the entire civil service.
There are a large number of civil servants that are extremely competent, decisive, disciplined and helpful. However, when the market demand is for pliable and corrupt, they prefer to remain in hibernation. Some of them even have tremendous sense of humour as one such civil servant presented a book titled “1001 Ways to Humiliate Yourself”. Though, considering the humiliations that are on occasions heaped on the civil servants not toeing the line, one wonders whether there is a scope for some more humiliation.
There is another small set of bureaucrats which makes one doubt the selection process itself. Or, perhaps, the years in the service has led to dissipation of all the related faculties. They find it difficult to hide their incompetence behind the three letters, the I.A.S. However, they do a tremendous disservice to the service as a whole. They become convenient tools to be used by the ‘smarter’ ones to sign on the dotted line as they do not have the capability to question. Thus, you have instances of bureaucrats being brought to replace an inconvenient bureaucrat to sign a report.
Apart from the moversand-shakers, there are those that are withdrawn and reticent, irrespective of the set of circumstances. Perhaps this indifference enables them to lead a blissful existence. Some of them are laid-back to an extent that they remind you of some extinct species. As against these, there are those that are always alert, optimistic and looking for opportunities even in the gloomiest set of circumstances. It is indeed a pleasure interacting with such bureaucrats.
They, therefore, come in all hues, shapes and sizes. It would be extremely difficult to define what a typical civil servant would look like though we tend to draw our own images and look for civil servants who fit those images. It is, however, true that a civil servant is a tool and, therefore, it is essential to employ the right tool. It would be totally wrong to say that the right tools are not available. The key issue is whether we want the right tool for the right job. Performance of the civil servant depends largely on the signals given by the government. It depends upon who is being rewarded. It depends upon whether the performers and those with integrity are seen as ‘victors’ or those who shamelessly display their ‘allegiance’ are displayed on the podium. The choice rests with the decision maker.
Anil Swarup has served as the head of the Project Monitoring Group, which is currently under the Prime Minister’s Office. He has also served as Secretary, Ministry of Coal and Secretary, Ministry of School Education.