The Supercrats

P N Haksar
P.N. Haksar

B K Nehru

B.K. Nehru

By N N Vohra

They helped run the country through its initail years, set the pace for the bureaucracy and the tone for the debate with politicians.

For years now there has been serious discontent about the progressing decline in the governance of the country, and about the widespread corruption that permeates the functioning of the elected representatives and the bureaucracy. Today, the public believes that political influence and bribes can get virtually anything done, notwithstanding the law or the laid-down policies.

The responsibility for delivering good governance rests on the performance of the executive. The bureaucracy is required to function under political direction. However, whenever failures take place politicians tend to attribute them only to the lapses of the bureaucracy.

As we look back at the course of the outgoing century, it would be of interest to reflect upon the approaches of two distinguished civil servants: the late P.N. Haksar -- he passed away in 1998 -- and B.K. Nehru (both Kashmiris; both born on September 4, in 1913 and 1909, respectively). Both attended Allahabad University, London School of Economics and the Inns of Law and were influenced by Harold Laski's political thought.

Haksar, who had already made his mark as a brilliant lawyer, was inducted into the ifs in 1947. After two decades of outstanding diplomatic service he was recalled to serve as secretary, and later as principal secretary, to the prime minister. Till he fell out with Indira Gandhi's approaches and left her (1973) he exercised potent influence on the shaping of domestic and foreign policies.

On issues of maladministration, Haksar refused to consider piecemeal approaches. A political thinker and social scientist, he was more concerned with systemic changes. Convinced that "old thought structures will not do" he sought to delineate how India could become "cohesive and coherent" and be able to carry out the "historic task of our country's political, economic, social and cultural transformation". On the minister-civil service relationship Haksar held the view that "ministers must have the skill, the will and sense of direction for riding the bureaucratic horse ... this will require not merely ability but character and integrity".

Nehru, a Punjab civilian, joined the ICS in 1934 and enjoyed a distinguished career: as an expert in financial and economic affairs, a successful diplomat and an outstanding governor of the north-eastern states, Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat.

Convinced about the vital role of the bureaucracy, Nehru holds that a modern civil service is linked with democracy and the rule of law which is one of its prime functional features. He concedes that over the years the position of the all-India services has changed significantly. Today, the politicians value only those functionaries who unquestioningly carry out their orders and marginalise those who work according to the law and rules. The ministers have limited experience of administration and fail to realise that good governance can be delivered only by a competent and honest civil service; and good laws passed by the legislatures cannot automatically enforce themselves.

Our Constitution is based on ideas of western origin whereas for thousands of years the Indian tradition of governance has been that of "raja and praja". The powers of the ruler are absolute. In this ethos the civil servant's duty to enforce the law is viewed by the politician as an unacceptable check on his power. Hence, Nehru explains, the continuous strife between ministers and civil servants, resulting in repeated transfers and harassments. He laments that while there is no shortage of good laws the means of implementing them stand destroyed; there is no political will to reform the governmental machine; valuable recommendations of earlier reform commissions have remained unimplemented for decades.

The onset of coalition governments at the Centre has seen the enhanced role of regional and sub-regional political parties and, consequently, increasing importance attaching to their demands. Many states have often complained that they need to provide larger opportunities for the sons of the soil who man the state civil services and, therefore, do not require any more IAS and IPS officers. Vallabhbhai Patel's vision of the key positions in the states and the Centre being manned by competent officers of apolitical all-India services, selected from among the best talent available in the country, seems to have become defunct.

If the Centre proceeds with its intention to establish a Constitutional Reforms Commission, it would be important that this body redefines the future role, if any, of all-India services in the administrative apparatus.

Former home secretary N.N. Vohra is director, India International Centre, Delhi.



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