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Civil servants will not forget AAP's rule in a hurry

January 13, 2014 11:20 IST

Arvind Kejriwal's brand of decentralised decision-making and committed bureaucracy means that civil servants are in for a rough ride, says A K Bhattacharya

From participative democracy to participative governance -- that seems to be the long journey the Aam Aadmi Party has traversed in the space of the last few weeks. The implications of this journey are huge for India's civil servants.

It all began with the formation of the party about a year ago. The leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal, had then talked about decentralisation of decision-making, which meant a variation of participative democracy with which a few western countries are still experimenting.

The people play a greater role in the government's decision-making process in a participative democracy. So, Kejriwal wanted decisions at the local level to be taken in consultation with the people who would be directly affected by them.

For instance, a decision on constructing roads in a residential colony should be taken after involving the residents of the area who will be best qualified to judge and comment on how that project should be conceived and implemented.

This is unlike the past when civil servants in their air-conditioned offices in a government building would plan the roads project and get that approved by the political executive or the people's elected representatives. This idea was seen as a major departure from the way India's democratic leaders have taken decisions after being elected to rule the people.

This also meant a big change for India's steel frame or the civil servants who were trained to serve the administration in another mould with an obviously different mindset. The civil service could no longer see itself as a powerful agent for conceiving and executing plans for the people with a top-down approach.

This attitude was partly the outcome of the manner in which elected representatives gave the civil servants the power and flexibility to use taxpayers' money. And it was partly to do with the kind of training the civil servants received during their early stints in service, encouraged them to play the role of an adjunct to the ruling classes.

Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party and his brand of decentralised decision-making or participative democracy meant India's civil servants will have to change that approach to their work fundamentally.

By December, Kejriwal had formed the government in Delhi and civil servants posted in the state government realised the urgency of a changed approach. But even before they could adjust themselves to the demands of the new rulers in Delhi, they were taken aback by a big surprise from Kejriwal.

This was conveyed in one of his first statements after being invited to form the government in Delhi. He invited all honest civil servants to send him a message to indicate their desire to work honestly, so that the new government in Delhi could seek their services.

It is not known how many "honest" officers in the Delhi government or the Centre sent Kejriwal or his lieutenants any message about their honesty and integrity. But civil servants realised that they had to gear up for a new phase where "committed bureaucrats" of a completely new variety are likely to be encouraged by the new administration.

What does committed bureaucracy imply for governance? Independent India has so far seen a very limited form of committed bureaucracy. Barring officers in some key positions, primarily in the Prime Minister's Office, civil servants are by and large chosen on the basis of merit and their track record.

Their political or ideological commitments do not have much of a say in their appointment to most secretarial positions in the government. With Kejriwal asking civil servants to come out in the open to profess their honesty to him, the idea of a committed bureaucracy was given a new dimension and a fresh lease of life.

Whatever doubts on this score were also dispelled when Kejriwal made a subsequent announcement that he was aware that not all officers in the government were corrupt!

And last week, the Kejriwal government took the next big plunge in its experiments with governance. In an apparently honest bid to root out corruption, it set up a phone helpline to assist individuals who wanted to expose dishonest or corrupt officers. This was all right.

But Kejriwal went much beyond that by encouraging individuals to use devices to secretly record conversations or capture their meetings with officers on their cameras to establish the latter's corrupt practices. In other words, "sting" operations were allowed to be conducted by ordinary citizens to root out corruption.

Three consequences of this move are likely. One, most government officers, irrespective of their credentials, would refuse to meet visitors or discuss any proposals with anybody they do not know. What this might mean for the government's decision-making ability or efficiency is anybody's guess.

Two, several officers may be encouraged to implement orders coming from the Aam Aadmi Party leadership just because they have come from the political executive without bothering to check if there is any legal sanction for the decision.

Three, a new system of participative governance will be born, where, instead of the law enforcers, ordinary citizens will take the law into their own hands and decide to bring to book officers who may be dishonest or corrupt.

It is too early to say what this might mean for India's civil service or whether this is legally tenable. But one thing is sure. Civil servants are now going through a period that they will not easily forget.

Image Courtesy:

A K Bhattacharya In Delhi