Sanjeev Sabhlok joined the IAS in 1982 but resigned after 18 years upon concluding that India's corrupt socialist governance system cannot be reformed from within. He concluded that the IAS itself is a major cause of India’s misery. Since then he has attempted to build a liberal party for India even as he earns his living as an economist in the Treasury in the Victorian government in Australia. In 2013 he was instrumental in forming Swarna Bharat Party (SBP) which takes inspiration from Rajaji’s Swatantra Party and stands for comprehensive political, social and economic liberty. Sanjeev holds the pen on SBP’s manifesto and believes the document now contains all the essential reforms to transform India into a First World nation. He is author of Breaking Free of Nehru (2008, Anthem Press), and manuscripts such as The Discovery of Freedom and Seeing the Invisible (economics for children). He sometimes writes about SBP and its policies in the Times of India editorial page and in other outlets.
June 1, 2019,
I’m simplifying things quite a bit when I say that our elected politicians are puppets of the bureaucracy, but as I will show presently, this is a fair comment given our institutional arrangements. Our bureaucracy – taken as a whole – is not only more powerful than any elected chief minister, it is more powerful than the Prime Minister.
This situation is a complete violation of the principles of liberal political theory. In a democracy, the executive should be checked and balanced by the judiciary and parliament. The idea that the unelected machine of government (the bureaucracy) will itself check the executive by exercising independent power was never intended by any theorist of political science.
This huge power of the bureaucracy in India – much greater than the power that even the British Indian bureaucracy wielded – came about during the haste of the 1947 partition and Constitution drafting. Sardar Patel made a strong case in the Constituent Assembly to continue with the colonial bureaucracy. There was no time to think about alternative models. He asked: “Is there any Premier in any province who is prepared to work without the services? He will immediately resign. He cannot manage.”
This panic led to not only the Constitutional inclusion of the all-India services (India is unique in having the public services form part of its Constitution) but the way Part 14 of the Constitution was drafted, enormous restrictions were imposed on the sovereignty of the executive and the People of India. In all democracies, the executive is supreme, with almost unlimited discretionary powers to hire and fire public servants. Not so in India. Article 311 massively dilutes this power and makes it virtually impossible for the executive to remove public servants.
As a result over the past 70 years, even the PMs of India haven’t been able to easily remove corrupt IAS officers, leave alone the incompetent ones. A PM’s entire tenure can go by in chasing up a single case through the courts. There are cases in the Modi government where even compulsory retirement has been insufficient to get rid of bad officers. Our bureaucracy thus sits on a pedestal well above elected representatives. Effectively, it is the IAS that is sovereign in India, not the People.
There is a widely cited but spurious argument that has enabled the IAS to hold on to their powers: that Indians trust their politicians less than they trust IAS officers. The people perceive the IAS to be incompetent, self-interested and arrogant but they trust their political leaders even less. Further, many honest IAS officers, in their genuine concern for India, want the IAS to continue so it can block corrupt politicians. But their remedy does not address the cause of the problem. Fixing the problem of corrupt politicians requires a different approach (which I’ve elaborated elsewhere) and we should not use the existence of bad politicians to justify the world’s most powerful but incompetent bureaucracy.
The main puppet-master in the IAS is the Establishment Officer (EO) in the Ministry of Personnel, about whom most people do not the slightest clue. The EO’s sole purpose is to defend (and expand – to the extent possible) the powers that Patel gave to the IAS. The EO operates behind the scenes, manipulating and controlling (mainly frustrating) the elected government. He dramatically reduces options for the elected representatives on almost all major appointments. And of course, the Cabinet Secretary plays a crucial role in defending the IAS empire directly at the Cabinet. This itself is a huge anomaly. In genuine democracies, a bureaucrat must not have a seat at the political table. In Victoria, an elected MP serves as Cabinet Secretary.
Such is the clout of the EO and Cabinet Secretary that Ministers and Chief Ministers need to send their emissary to the lowly EO to try to influence his decisions. This clearly shows where power lies in India. Our elected politicians have no real powers to deliver their election commitments. Our democracy is thus being choked from within – by the unaccountable and ultra-powerful IAS.
The IAS is unfit for the task of taking India from the Third World to the First World. From my personal experience (and I continue to have good friends within the IAS), no IAS officer comes even remotely close to the competence of middle-level managers in the Australian government. If the pool of administrative leaders in India is so poor, how can India possibly succeed? We need to urgently broaden the talent pool for each job and ensure the right incentives and systems of accountability. The function of EO might have worked for the colonial British government but it simply can’t work in a modern democracy.
This hugely powerful Indian bureaucracy (of which I was once a member) contrasts with the situation in Victoria where the Premier (Chief Minister) of Victoria is the unquestionable boss. He appoints Secretaries, who then appoint other officers down the line. No one can tell the Premier that he can appoint officials only from a “shortlist” prepared by a petty bureaucrat. And if a Secretary doesn’t perform, he is fired without notice. The Premier is fully empowered to get the job done. The link between the voter, his taxes and the performance of the government is direct and unambiguous. No EO sits behind the scenes, stymying the elected executive.
The saving grace for India is that the PM does have a few powers to shop outside the IAS. The recent lateral entry program has been one such rare instance. Some people have questioned the Constitutional power of the PM to do so, but I believe the Constitution allows such limited powers.
The State governments, on the other hand, are in really bad shape. Their freedom to appoint outside the IAS is almost completely circumscribed. In particular, all important posts in the states have been captured by the IAS through IAS cadre rules. These include senior positions in local government bodies, such as municipal corporations. While the IAS system doesn’t, of course, control precisely who is appointed, it ensures that only one of them can hold these posts. In that sense, the Chief Ministers of the States have even less flexibility than the PM.
As a result, IAS officers are able to thumb their nose at State governments. They can go to the EO and get themselves posted to another state or to the Government of India or even abroad. Everything depends on the officer’s relationship with the EO and Cabinet Secretary. That’s why the IAS is such a cosy and exclusive club.
It is high time to bring this dysfunctional and undemocratic system to an end. Within two years the BJP government will have the opportunity to amend the Constitution. IAS is the first thing that must go.