We may wonder what is it in our collective makeup that triggers such a compulsive itch to pull down institutions founded by our Constitution makers, and founded with such care and meticulous attention. These institutions were set up to endure the ravages of time, gain in strength, and remain relevant to successive generations.
In the guise of reform, systematic efforts have been made to corrode the strength of Parliament, the Cabinet system and the Supreme Court, rather than strengthen these institutions.
The one institution that has been assaulted most from every possible quarter is the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). In the sixty four years of its existence (It came into existence in 1951 by an Act of the Parliament under Article 312 of the Constitution), there have been more than fifty Commissions, Committees, Task Forces et al, which have questioned and investigated different aspects of its architecture and functioning, tinkered with its design and made changes in its recruitment system, its social composition, even age-profile. The intention – probably positive – to bring about substantial changes in the character of the service – has however brought little benefit to it.
The latest attempt to further undermine the IAS comes from the recommendation of the 7th Pay Commission, which has suggested eliminating the current edge the IAS has over the Indian Police Service (IPS) and other Group A Central Services, in terms of differential pay grades and promotion. The basic argument being made is that providing an ‘edge’ to the IAS whose recruitment process for its cadres is the same as that of cadres from other services, is not justified. Fortunately, in a dissenting note, one of the Commission members has argued out a strong case for retaining the ‘edge’ of the IAS cadres. It seems that the dissenting note could well find considerable support among those who are processing the report for implementation, and this could lead to a scrapping of the controversial recommendation.
It is important to understand why the IAS, more than any other institution of the government, has always attracted so much hostility. It is true that this service still holds extraordinary aspirational value for middle class youths in the country, and therefore, no one is going to be willing to take the political risk of actually disbanding it. All that the critics succeed in doing is whittling down the character of the IAS to an extent where eventually just the shell would remain sans substantive content. Enough damage has already been done in this direction.
As a former insider, I have been a sharp critic of the IAS in the past.
My critique has been based on what I have perceived to be an inherent design flaw in the service. The architecture of the IAS, consciously drawn from the ICS, was premised on a social and cultural distance between the administration and civil society on the one hand, and between the political executive and the civil servant on the other. It was self consciously elitist, and relied on creating a kind of Brahmanical mandarinate, which was specifically groomed for the task of governance and wielding power in a way in which even outsiders could be appropriately culturally moulded. The critical mass consisted of people who shared a certain cultural ethos, subscribing to an ‘Esprit de Corps’, and genuinely believing in what is cricket and what is not cricket.
It is perfectly arguable (and I have so argued) that such a design is at complete variance with the rough and tumble of Indian politics in which ‘Realpolitik’ has increasingly become the only ‘Real’ politics, and therefore the IAS, as it was originally designed, has been reduced to an anachronism.
However, the problem here lies with the very architecture of the Indian State and the kind of power relations in society that have been spawned by the Indian State. Any major political reform or transformational change has to be based on rethinking and redesigning the architecture of the state in order to make it infinitely more devolved, decentralized and democratic.
In a bold new architecture, the IAS, will have to make way for a completely different kind of bureaucracy — the possible shape of which is impossible to contemplate at this stage. In any case, the subject would call for a different discussion.
The point of mentioning the above argument is simply that as long as the architecture of the Indian State remains as it is, the IAS performs a role which no other service can, and its uniqueness needs not just to be preserved and nurtured, but enhanced as well.
Conceptually, notwithstanding its asymmetry with existing power structures, the IAS remains one of the most elegantly designed professional government services anywhere in the world — provided that one adheres to the fundamentals of that design.
One of these fundamentals requires a careful selection of a meritocratic elite which is then groomed in the exercise of wielding power through a structured process of ‘learning by doing’, of gaining experience by acquiring a diversity of experiences and developing leadership skills in managing such diversity of requirements; above all, to learn how to integrate and synthesize the diverse experiences. Adhering to a rigorous self-imposed standard of performance is an essential part of this ‘elitism’.
Self motivation is critical to retaining this sense of elitism, and such ‘elitism’ deserves to be nurtured, not negated.
A critical component of the IAS experience that distinguishes it from the other services is that it treats synthesis and the ability to synthesize as the most important aspect of governance — be it in policy making, planning, laying down programmes and projects, promoting integration, synthesis, multi sectoral/ multi disciplinary coordination.
These are as much a ‘knowledge domain’ as any other specific branch of knowledge, and acquiring this knowledge was what gave the IAS its position of primacy. In a hierarchical system, this primacy of the role of the synthesizer can only be suggested by treating it as a service which ranks above others; which is why it has an ‘edge’ over other services.
It is regrettable that the Pay Commission has not really appreciated the reasons why this ‘edge’ has been maintained over decades, and why their attempts to remove it amount to tampering with the fundamentals. It can only be hoped that better sense will prevail with the political decision makers, and that they will desist from paring down the status of the IAS.
The writer is a former member of the Indian Administrative Service.
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