India is not just a democracy, but a constitutional democracy, governed by the rule of law and guided by principles enshrined in our Constitution. For any constitutional democracy to survive and thrive, it is critical that the institutions of governance work in a manner which is in sync with our constitutional principles.
The civil services play a critical role as a non-representative and non-elected institution in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of any political democracy. The role of the civil servants in the task of nation and character building cannot be overstated. Sardar Patel, who is often regarded as the father of the Indian civil services was of the firm view that an independent, apolitical civil services, which could provide objective and fearless advice to ministers, were necessary for India’s future.
There can be no two views on the fact that unless there is a collective spirit of public administration, inculcated both by the bureaucracy and the political executive, we cannot hope to achieve true progress, which is only possible with the convergence of political and administrative will. The progress and development of our nation hinge on this critical balance.
While we do have codes of conduct governing both civil servants and elected representatives, there is a crucial void in respect to defining the relationship between the two. The Code of Conduct for Ministers issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2013 on the recommendations of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, 2007, incorporated a clause mandating ministers to uphold the political impartiality of the civil services. While the code of conduct governing the civil servants does take into account the behaviour of a civil servant when dealing with ministers/MPs/MLAs, there is no such provision with respect to the behaviour and demeanour of ministers in their conduct with civil servants.
The relationship of the bureaucracy and elected representatives is one of trust, collective responsibility and, most importantly, mutual respect. Various nations across the globe such as the United Kingdom, Singapore and Australia, amongst many others, have realised this and have enacted various codes and guidelines to bridge and define the relationship between civil servants and elected representatives.
In my view, to bridge the gap in the critical relationship between the two, there is an urgent need to enact a code of conduct specifically governing the relationship between the political executive and civil servants. Not only would this go a long way in incorporating and instilling mutual respect between the institutions of governance, but would also bring about transparency, probity, honesty and integrity in governance. Such a code must reinstate the values enshrined in the Preamble of our Constitution and should be based on Lord Nolan’s seven Principles of Public Life, which are, selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
Civil servants are forced to take decisions at the behest of the political executive, and are often targeted when there is a change in government, leading to harassment through investigations/departmental actions and so on. This, of course, is in addition to the scrutiny by the relentless press, Parliament, state Assemblies and its various committees monitoring the actions and decisions of the civil servants. The lack of a specific code, governing the relationship of the political executive and civil servants results in a deep disconnect between the understanding and functioning of each other.
However, the biggest threat to iron steel frame of the civil services lies within; due to the lack of courage and fraternity among the civil servants in following established rules and regulations established by our predecessors. As and when the political representative does not find a civil servant compliant and convenient, he is transferred. But what does his own colleague do? More often than not, he succumbs to the political master. In doing so, they forget the oath they took to uphold the Constitution and its values. Civil servants often become pawns in the set-up, in forging an unholy partnership with politicians and business interests in not only bending, but often breaking the rules. It is this moral and ethical surrender of principles that have resulted in the rusting of the iron frame over the years. There can be no doubt that the civil services need a wake-up call, a wake-up call that can only come from within.
The issue of the relationship between civil servants and the political executive has always been relevant, but has acquired criticality today in view of the ongoing standoff between the elected government and the civil servants in the Government of Delhi following the alleged midnight assault on the Chief Secretary.
Who is suffering in the consequent fallout? The elected representatives as well as the civil servants can take care of themselves. It is worth remembering that Delhi administration has been run before without a political mantle. But what happens to the people of Delhi, the so called aam aadmi? We must remember that a healthy and harmonious relationship between political executives and civil servants is a must for effective public administration and for public good. However, is the elected government of Delhi not concerned about the public? If they do, how come we see no sign whatever, of a truce, between the two sides? With the bureaucracy continuing to observe their silent protest, how long will this stalemate continue? If India and Pakistan at the diplomatic level can resolve to revisit the 1992 code of conduct between them to facilitate their diplomats to do their work in the two countries, why can’t we at home work on a similar code of conduct, facilitating the sadly deteriorating relationship between the countries’ political executive and its civil services, starting with Delhi?
Mahesh is the District Magistrate, Shahadra & North East Delhi and the Honorary President, Delhi Administration Officers’ Academic Forum. The views are purely personal.