The guiding principle of the IAS Plus must change from the belief that control by them of all key sectors of national endeavour is essential for the future of India.

 

During the time when the Nehru family was in control of both the Congress Party as well as the Government of India, which was four decades (or five if the UPA period is included), the civil service was regarded as an implementor rather than as a driver of policy. This was the situation under Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and substantively, by their successor Sonia Gandhi. While Narasimha Rao introduced reforms that the overwhelmingly Fabian Socialist administrative services were not comfortable with, he was too politically weak to prevent entrusting the implementation of policy to what is far and away the most powerful tribe in India. The Indian Administrative Service Plus (the Plus referring to the Indian Foreign Service and the Indian Police Service) regards itself in the same manner as the ICS did in the past, as the sole “Guardians” of the interests of the state, which is regarded by them as wholly separate from, and superior to, the people. The administrative leadership regard themselves as being ordained by merit and knowledge to know what the people need, even if this be different from what the population itself seeks. The core doctrine of the ICS and afterwards the IAS Plus was the primacy of the state apparatus over all comers, a tilt that led after 1947 to the creation of a gargantuan machinery of governance that swallows up more of the country’s resources than the share of the Pakistan army within that neighbouring state. Members of the IAS Plus often express belief in the “free market”, in “freedom of speech” and in several other desirables. However, their invisible caveat is that it is they who must determine the contours and type of such “freedoms”. Because the civil service (including the IAS Plus) was both deferential as well as attentive to the wishes of the Nehru family, no necessity was seen by the family to make changes in the administrative structure as would reduce the role of the “Guardians” in matters relating to the population. And so in 2018, in almost every sector, members of the IAS have a chokehold on the system such that they can allow matters to either proceed or get blocked, depending on what the Brothers (and as yet, too few Sisters) decide.

Until the guiding principle of the IAS Plus changes from the belief that control by them of all key sectors of national endeavour is essential for the stability and indeed the future of India, actual policy outcomes will not change from the shambles and disappointments that many have been. Policy will continue to get formulated through a process in which outside consultation is absent (save with a few hangers-on whose views are known to the Brotherhood and are non-threatening to the dominance of the IAS Plus). The process is continuing where all gateways are manned by officials, including those gateways that efficiency in operations dictate should be handed over to civil society rather that retained by the civil service, such as (among numerous examples) the RTI infrastructure. There have only been two periods when substantive change looked possible. The first was during the Morarji Desai period and the next after Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister. The Janata Party was expected to chop into firewood legal and regulatory restrictions on the freedom of the citizen. But no consequential reforms took place even in education, much less in the overall governance mechanism, perhaps because Prime Minister Desai had himself been a bureaucrat in his youth, and shared with Sardar Patel an affinity for that tribe. As for his ministers, they were too busy fighting each other (and Desai) to be bothered about the promises JP made to the nation after the 1977 victory. The other Prime Minister who could have effected substantive change was Narendra Modi, but very soon he went the way of both Mahatma Gandhi as well as Sardar Patel, two great sons of Gujarat. Modi followed the Mahatma in seeking to improve the morality of his 1.26 billion fellow citizens through measures such as avoiding the eating of some types of meat or drink, and the banning of pornographic websites. Modi trod the path of the Sardar in entrusting to the civil service the levers of governance. Expectations that the new Prime Minister would enforce “minimum government” were dismissed by insiders such as Swapan Dasgupta, who wrote soon after Modi took office of what he saw as the absurdity of seeking a reduced role for the government in the lives of the people in the name of “minimum government”.

This column is being written from New York, which was reached via Abu Dhabi in order to take advantage of the pre-clearance facility for the US that is available at the airport there. This very facility was offered to India by the US soon after Modi took charge in 2014, but was rejected by the IAS Plus on the grounds that it was an “intolerable infringement on Indian sovereignty” to have US customs and immigration officials functioning from Indian territory. What they meant was that it was intolerable to the “Guardians” to have officials functioning in India who were outside their control, despite the fact that their being there would be of assistance to Indian citizens going to the US or intending to. Prime Minister Modi is indeed interested in reform of the governance mechanism, but has entrusted this task to the IAS Plus, the very group that the country most needs to be reformed. Should Modi get a second term in the job, hopefully Swapan Dasgupta will be proved wrong and those who in May 2014 expected the PM to institute systemic governance reforms will finally find their hopes fulfilled. That is, if the BJP overcomes the Hindi-heartland Grand Alliance of the Rahul-led Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.