Have the elite civil services become training schools for politicians?
It is a fashion of the times that officers of the elite Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and Indian Foreign Service join political parties and get elected to public office.
The civil service conduct rules, which require an officer to be a-political, no longer apply once (s)he leaves government service. This approach is congruent with the view that once a government servant becomes a private citizen (s)he enjoys all the fundamental rights, including the right to political activism.
However reasonable restrictions on fundamental rights are judicially acceptable if they are statutorily imposed and serve public interest. Can public servants be restrained from joining politics after leaving? The case from doing so is particularly strong for the elite services because their “electability” is enhanced by virtue of the high public office they occupy. Conversely, future “electability” can be enhanced via arbitrary and biased political decisions by an officer. Consider how politicisation of the civil service, post the 1970s under former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, degraded the quality of fair and dispassionate public service.
Today, politicisation has become a norm, not least because of high profile civil servants seamlessly become politicians on leaving. Possibly the desperation of officials today to establish a public persona, even whilst they are wet behind the ears, with barely four to six years of active service, using selfies and Instagram to tout their achievements, springs from keeping an eye out for a future political career.
It is particularly obnoxious when the elite services (IAS, IPS and the IFS) indulge in this charade. These services are meant to be “gold standard role models”. Their charisma is derived not from individual accomplishments. It is the institutional structure which exceptionalises them. Accelerated promotions without any qualifying tests; a disproportionate number of high-level positions reserved for them; qualitatively higher levels of executive experience and training pull them above others. Like Harvard, these services are difficult to get into but once there it is a lark. Some of this is necessary to inculcate esprit de corps and a commitment to work in public interest.
The problem arises when officers misuse the high profile persona, bestowed on them by the government, as a stepping stone into politics. You could argue that both an IAS officer and a politician are rendering “public service”. Yes, some politicians do render public service as members of parliament or as ministers but only for the limited period they are in position. Once out of office they simply become members of their political party whereby they subscribe to the particular ideology of that party.
In India, we wrongly equate actions of the state with actions of the government in power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Erasing the distinction between the party and the state would make us a single party democracy, like China. There you can vote to choose between multiple candidates but they will all belong to the same party.
In contrast, an apolitical public servant should implement the programs of any government as diligently per the rule of law. It matters little whether she votes for that party or not – this being a personal choice. The average public servant must, therefore, keep his/her two identities – citizen voter and public servant completely independent. In the event of a severe conflict of conscience, (s)he is free to resign and follow her convictions – as many have done.
But should this option to leave and become politically active be freely available, as today? Should not the option of becoming a politician be closed at senior decision-making levels so that prior to leaving there is no incentive to become politicised? Should not an official’s performance metrics show on the official records, not on Instagram?
Officials who seek to publicise their work, like NGOs or politicians, are breaking from the mould of public service which is, by definition, a support service. It is the politician who must always remain the public face of the government because (s)he is the one who takes the rap in Parliament for snafus. The public servant, even the highest – the cabinet secretary – is merely in support and not in command.
There are many reasons why our public service cadres are unravelling – inconsistent political leadership; inability to specialise; frequent transfers; poor selection processes which emphasize scholastics by rote rather than commitment to public service or aptitude for a specific cadre and institutional barriers like artificial asymmetric benefits – not linked to merit – for the three elite services. The latest trend – the last straw- is for officers to leave midway using the voluntary retirement route, after 20 years of service, to join a political party with full post-retirement benefits.
It is time to draw a red line and change the All India and Central Services conduct rules. For five years after retirement/voluntary retirement, an officer should be ineligible to become a party member, an office bearer or seek elected office. To avoid a legal challenge to this change, a statutory “civil reserve” – as in the army- should be created. Each ex-officer would become a part of the reserve for five years.
Civil reservists could be called up for appropriate public service like elections, disasters, emergencies, instead of disturbing those holding current positions, as is the case today. They would draw an ex-gratia for being on reserve and full salary and benefits whilst rendering active service as reservists. In return, they would preserve their political neutrality and not seek political affiliations or office.
To further guard against a legal challenge, those civil servants who prefer to leave and join a political party immediately would be free to do so but only at the cost of forfeiting their pension and other benefits available post-retirement.
Political activism, funded by a handsome government pension, is unseemly. One can either be in government or out. Presently a tiny fraction of government servants, who join politics, have the cake and eat it too.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.