x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

‘No, minister’: the phrase you might start hearing in India

India's Supreme Court tells civil servants they need no longer fear arbitrary transfer if they block ministerial corruption.

Indian civil servants need no longer be the flunkies of their political masters. In a ruling last Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered that civil servants – known as “babus” – must be given minimum tenure in their postings, to prevent politicians from using the threat of unwanted and abrupt transfers to make them toe the line. The ruling applies to central and state governments alike.

Decades ago, the relationship between civil servants and ministers in India degenerated into a nakedly unequal one between superiors and subordinates. That is not what it used to be: the minister is supposed to make the policy; the bureaucrat’s role is to implement it.

The British television comedy series Yes Minister, about an elected minister who is perpetually thwarted by his wily, status-quo-loving senior civil servant, could never have been made in India.

Ministers in India call the shots. If the elected politician is corrupt, the civil servant is usually too servile to oppose illegalities. This is what has allowed politicians to get away so often with flagrant corruption and to escape accountability.

“We notice that much of the deterioration of the standards of probity and accountability with civil servants is due to political influence,” the Supreme Court justices said in their ruling.

Thanks to this decision, any member of the Indian Administrative Service will henceforth be able to act in the public interest whenever he or she detects a crime, without fear of being punished by being unceremoniously shunted off to some other post. 

Under India’s constitution, politicians cannot sack civil servants. So honest bureaucrats who disobey a corrupt minister find themselves transferred, sometimes repeatedly. This creates havoc in their private lives, stress in their marriages and disruption of their children’s education.

And this process is often worse that simply the chores of packing, moving house, and finding new schools: a vindictive minister may make sure that an unco-operative underling is posted to some rural backwater where simply finding a decent cup of coffee, never mind other amenities, is impossible.

In other cases, honest officers may be lucky enough to escape nasty transfers or suspensions, but are punished another way: by missing out on promotions they were entitled to expect.

One case that came to light recently involves Ashok Khemka, who has been transferred 40 times in 20 years. His latest “offence” was cancelling an allegedly illegal land deal involving Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of the Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi.

Other officials have been suspended for exposing the various criminal groups that enjoy political patronage. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, a civil servant named Durga Shakti Nagpal was suspended this year after she took on a cabal involved in illegal sand mining in the state.

A media campaign supporting her eventually forced the government to reinstate her, but few cases draw that much attention.

The fear of being victimised has turned many civil servants into serfs. You need a strong stomach to watch an officer in the presence of a minister.

The cringing body language, glance averted to avoid the “insolence” of making eye contact, the yes-sirring, the scurrying to open the door, the briefcase-carrying, water-pouring and endless bowing and scraping, taken together, constitute a masterclass in obsequiousness.

Some civil servants even back out of a room, unwilling to walk out normally because doing so would mean turning their backs on their masters.  

It has become very difficult for a civil service officer to display independence or to argue against a minister’s decision without running the risk of being humiliated or penalised. Some people speak of a state of “fear psychosis” borne of years of being steamrollered by politicians.

As well as requiring a minimum tenure for each official posting, the Supreme Court went even further in empowering the bureaucracy to stand up to dishonest politicians who, when confronted with their wrongdoing, claim to have given no such orders.

These rogues deliberately give only verbal instructions to their officers on touchy matters, to avoid leaving incriminating evidence of their schemes.

The Court said that civil servants should refrain from acting on verbal orders alone, and must make a written note of any order from a minister. This change too will help ensure greater accountability.

Taken together, the two reforms will not eliminate corruption but they can certainly reduce it and improve the quality of governance in India.

Of course, not all civil servants are saintly souls terrorised by their political masters. Many are in cahoots with them, and equally corrupt.

Let’s not forget the bureaucrat couple in Madhya Pradesh, Arvind and Tinoo Joshi, who were found to own assets worth billions of rupees, and had so much cash at home that it was spilling out of jars, pillowcases and suitcases.

But the ruling will put iron in the souls of honest officials; saying the words “no, minister” is no longer a fantasy.

There are still many honest civil servants to be found. In fact, the Supreme Court’s ruling came in response to a public-interest petition filed by 83 retired bureaucrats, many of whom were known for their integrity and fearlessness.

As one of them said after the ruling: “Public servants are not private servants.”

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi