For many decades post-independence, the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) was the finest employer brand in India. It stood for prestige, power and sotto voice, a potent source of lateral revenues as officers were the most favoured grooms. Quite remarkably, while the nation is up in arms against the ruling government, the bureaucracy, in true Yes Minister fashion, seems to have got away rather conveniently.
In case you are still wondering, let me recap the fundamental tenets of our democracy system, as inspired by the United Kingdom. The bureaucracy is designed to be the continuous adhesive that runs the nation, the government in power an influencer of policy but not of process. As a sparkling aside, I must also confess that the administrators are super-sharp individuals, blessed with intellect and perspective that would surpass by far the average corporate calibre. I have experienced this first hand in my days at Contract Advertising and can vouch for their enviable blend of education and grassroots wisdom. As an evolutionary aside, modern day diktats also ensure that bureaucrats who are collaborative with politicians, in implementation, do get the nod for the big jobs.
Now do please note that health infrastructure is a continuous process and not a time-bound agenda, so the role of the IAS is fundamental, not adjunct. What comes across now, rather frankly, is a colossal lack of planning by folks who are trained in glorious tradition to be master planners. The only logical alternative narrative is that this elite cadre has become completely subservient to politicians and their profession acumen has been rendered terminally impotent. In either scenario, there is a problem and this must be addressed blatantly in public forums because it is our hard-earned money that pays for bureaucrat wages and we are certainly deserving of an answer.
What does add to this overall air of disenchantment is the culture of anecdotal achievements, especially on social media. Just yesterday, I read about this IAS officer who has set up oxygen plants in his home district, possibly in Kerala, and why he must be a role model. Quite frankly this is the equivalent of a doctor stocking his home with oxygen cylinders and concentrators, while the world at large lies grossly unattended. The role of a bureaucracy is to ensure smooth universal governance and please do not blame me if I blame them equally for the vaccination and treatment crises that we are facing at the present time. If perchance, they are not worthy of the blame, then they are not worthy of the gains as well and all the munificent privileges that higher-order bureaucrats gloriously enjoy.
So, there are two clear reasons why the IAS is an impotent organisation in India today, particularly in the context of the virus imbroglio. The first possibility is that the members have simply not planned adequately, in terms of mobilising the infrastructure and resources to ensure public-private collaboration in tackling the situation. The second possibility is that they have indeed planned but the decision-making powers rest unquestionably on the politicians and the views of the career officer is useless. In either scenario, there is a major problem and a very good reason why we must revalidate the worth of brand IAS, a stalwart of yore now simply a file peddler. While there is certainly a defined role for the IFS, IPS and IRS as there are certain domain specialisations and unambiguous tasks that are clearly defined.
Fans of the iconic Yes Minister series will be well familiar with the desired equilibrium between the politician and the bureaucrat. In India today, the exceptional might of the IAS cadre seems to have been systematically eroded by new-age politicians and emerging power equations. Perhaps the IAS of the future will be a much diminished institution, staffed largely by operational lateral hires and not inspirational careerists. That would indeed be a sad day but do we really have an option.
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