Talk by the Union Cabinet Secretary of India on Bureaucrats and Politicians

I had written about today’s talk to a good friend expressing it’s relevance in educating us all admist all this change happening around us. In his reply he mentioned something struck me that struck me and had not occured to me during the entire sitting until I was going through his mail to me on the subject of the relationship between Bureaucrats and Politians. Their relationship need not always be that of confrontion, nor that of master and servant. Collusion between the two was just as possible and a big threat and it makes sense to think then that Bureaucrats questioning their leaders may not entirely be irrelevant. What is important is that there exist a mechanism for genuine concerns of Bureaucrats to be expressed and heard. One may argue that the responsibility of a bureaucrat is only to serve and perhaps, give advise when sought. This does not eliminate the desire of an official to contribute but cognizance of political committments to the populace is critically important, given that in order for a Government to continue doing it’s duty of making lives of it’s citizen’s better, it also needs to think about returning to power to continue with it’s policies. There needs to be a compromise as far as Political leadership goes, definitely not at the cost of democracy and other invoilable codes. This being said, one can now comprehend that while bureacrats may feel obliged to contribute, it could also lead to overly supportive attitude causing collusive behaviours which could cause damage again. This may sound hypothetical but is a possibility, however, I do not intend to discourage the bureaucratuc support which is not what I am getting at in the first place. Collusive behavior and behaviour out of genuine concern and domain experience are two separate things.

I will try and share a few questions shared by participants during the talk. They ranged from “how appointment (cabinet)of secretary in India happened” to “how the heads of the constitutional bodies interacted with the Political Executive”. The reply to the former question was that the entailed body would give a panel list from which the concerned authority would make the pick. A second panel list, if the first one did not succeed in a successful appointment which had to result in an appointment. An interesting remark by the Cabinet Secretary on seniority and how it did not necessarily translate into appointments. Looking back into our own system, it’s important how events in the past have happened and continue to happen today. This is especially relevant given that the civil service bill is due for deliberation and passage in the Parliament. In the reply to the latter question, a remark about the CEC of India never having visited the President of India’s Office was interesting. The usage of the word “Independent” there did prompt me to raise a question whether “Independence” could also mean decisions while discharging their duties and not necessarily independence that we so often dream to demand for respective agencies. A look at how the Three Arms of State and how the Constitutions clearly states that there would be a clear distinction and separation of power. If so, it does become the power of the Executive to give the resources for governance and since Budget is key to all this and the Legislature and the Judiciary also get apportioned budgets through the Ministry of Finance (representing the Executive). Given that for any other agency to interpret “Independence” as anything more than the power to make independent decisions while carrying out mandated responsibility would be asking for more than intended (intent of law). This still remains a largely unanswered question and perhaps, it would take a while before we can truly say we are clear about it. The outcome of the civil service legislation may be the determining factor as far as the practical interpretation goes. So until then all these questions will have to rest.

A question was also raised about senior bureaucrats’ disagreement over decisions by their Political leaders and in the reply to which the Indian experience came as only limited to sharing their concerns and offering advises. The need for enforcing the accountability of the Government to the Parliament and therefore, to the People does give one an idea why it is the way it is. This again as I said earlier, is really establishing a mechanism, a system if you will, to allow for genuine concerns to be raised and shared with the highest authority.

A question was also raised regarding the much debated CDG viz-a-viz intervention and authority of the Electoral body.  It has not been the practise in India for the electoral authority to intervene. We know this is very different from our own experience, however, it is important to note that not every democracy functions the same way and therefore, functionaries may operate differently. More often than not, our practise in many fields as been the case of being driven by personalities. An office simply runs the way it does because of it’s leadership and this could change any time a change in leadership occurs. This definitely is not good in the long term as an institution is left vulnerable as it becomes dependent solely on the leadership. A genuine attempt should be that of developing institutional legacy and system which would not be so dependent on the leadership as it is the case today. This has perhaps led to many questions of trust.

It is probably too premature to close but we may have a sence of distrust between top bureaucrats and their leaders from a new political system. Our culture of bureaucrats being involved at policy and decision-making for a long time has probably in my opinion (I maybe wrong) is transition a little more hazy. Ministers in our earlier political set up were part of the bureaucracy and therefore, involvement and engagement of other senior level bureaucrats could have been much deeper. Today’s scenario is however different. The Ministers come in with committed promises to which, the senior bureaucrats would probably not feel ownership and therefore, differences in priority could emerge. Although, it may appear as a small problem, it could eventually ruin the system of civil service, upon whom rests the herculean task of delivery. An unhealthy relationship between the top bureaucrats and the leadership could send the wrong signals and cause confusion and dismay in the system and result in very harmful shock waves. It is critical for the top bureaucrats to step out of their conventional role of making decisions at the policy level as earlier and instead focus more on delivery which today takes up the biggest of resources as the single largest employer and put to use those resources.

Sheirg Lynpo chaired the talk. Other dignitaries included Ngulsti Lynpo, Dokchog Gothrip, Cabinet Secretary of the Union Cabinet of India and delegates, Members of Parliament (Bhutan), Government Secretaries, civil servants, media and others.

This is a small attempt on my own part by sharing my thoughts and workings at the office to bring in a sense of more transparent however small it may be. The Right to Information legislation allows for greater transparency and accountability and hence, good governance practices. In the end it allows for the Populace to hold accountable responsible agents. Even before such a legislation is passed, the wanting and the desire for such an intervention of instituting accountability in addition to other modus operandi is vital.


About Sangay Khandu

Elected to Parliament of Bhutan twice. Previously worked with the Central Bank, the largest SoE (power utility) and international organization.
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2 Responses to Talk by the Union Cabinet Secretary of India on Bureaucrats and Politicians

  1. Awfully well written post!

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