Have you heard of Simon McDonald? I hadn’t either until the other day when that narcissistic serial liar – the now caretaker British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – was knocked off his perch over the Chris Pincher scandal, the sordid tale of a lawmaker and chief whip of the Tory party who, it seems, spent his free time “feeling up” men in bars, in his office and God knows where else. On June 30, Pincher resigned, finally acknowledging that he had groped two men in a bar at the Carlton Club in a drunken state in 2019, but Johnson denied any previous knowledge of his colleague’s deviant sexual proclivities.
This is when Simon McDonald, a former civil servant, stepped in, armed with explosive evidence that triggered the swift resignation of three senior ministers of Johnson’s Cabinet, who felt that, coming on the heels of the infamous “Party gate”, this scandal and the PM’s disingenuous claims had eroded their faith in the government. McDonald’s bombshell and the spate of resignations in its wake left Johnson with only one option – to resign and bring down the curtain on an inglorious, scandal-ridden tenure. And to mention another collateral albeit trifling outcome, McDonald’s high-principled intervention got me musing about our bureaucracy in a stream of consciousness kind of way, which makes him a tad culpable for instigating this essay.
McDonald, the most senior civil servant in the UK Foreign office between 2015 and 2020, testified that the claims made by the Prime Minister’s office of being unaware of Pincher’s sexual delinquency, were false. If you think that McDonald’s revelations are no big deal as they were made after demitting office, you should also know that in 2019 when Pincher was minister of state and McDonald’s boss at the Foreign Office, McDonald received similar sexual misdemeanour complaints about the minister from his officials. Most unlike the normal pussyfooted bureaucrat who dares not confront a senior, let alone a minister, he instituted an internal inquiry that proved the charge of sexual misconduct, thereby obliging the delinquent minister to apologize and promise not to repeat such unacceptable behaviour.
The Prime Minister had been briefed about this episode which he shrugged off, but the McDonald expose has shown him up once again for the congenital fibber that he is. Yes, the same slippery, unscrupulous Johnson who recently visited our country and, in exchange for a few bear hugs, photo-ops atop a JCB (our instrument for oppressing the poor and minorities) and a one-on-one meeting with Adani, walked away with a bagful of commercial contracts that have further depleted our exchequer. Back home, though, his truculent bluster amid the scandals didn’t help him ride out the storm swirling around him.
In this tawdry saga, McDonald not only upheld the highest traditions of the civil service while in office, but in speaking up after retirement, he held the government to account like any public-spirited citizen should. By his admirable intervention on a major national issue, he has underlined the simple truth that being a civil servant does not mean surrender of one’s rights as a citizen or sacrificing the liberty to express an opinion on issues that do not impinge on national security or public order. He reminded us that the salary paid to the public servant from the national exchequer is not hush money that denies him the basic freedoms available to everyone as a democratic right.
Let’s admit it, such rectitude and public spiritedness as displayed by McDonald are unthinkable among bureaucrats in this country, which is a calamity, especially in this fraught time for democracy and freedom when we most need the civil servant to act with courage and integrity.
No one had a greater understanding of how to run an effective administration than Sardar Patel. He was unequivocal that the political executive had a moral responsibility to ensure that the civil servant expressed his views fearlessly as not doing so not only sullied the process of decision-making but also tampered with the intellectual integrity of the civil servant. On his part, the civil servant was duty-bound to express his views with assiduity and without fear.
Expatiating on the foundational principles of a good administration, this is what the Iron Man told the Constituent Assembly in October 1949: “If you want an efficient all-India service, I advise you to allow the services to open their mouth freely. If you are a premier, it would be your duty to allow your secretary, or your chief secretary, or other services working under you to express their opinion without fear or favour. But I see a tendency today that in several provinces, the services are set upon and told: ‘No, you are servicemen, you must carry out our orders’…Today my secretary can write a note opposed to my views, I have given that freedom to all my secretaries. I have told them; ‘If you do not give your honest opinion for fear that it will displease your minister, please then you had better go. I will bring another secretary.’ I will never be displeased over a frank ex
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had envisioned the civil services to be the “steel frame” of good governance of newly independent India. In his interaction with the first batch of IAS officers in 1947, he cautioned them: “Your predecessors were brought up in traditions which kept them aloof from the common run of people. It will be your bounden duty to treat the common man as your own.”
I was reminded of the great man’s words on reading the recent news that a senior IAS officer had got young sportspersons evicted from a stadium in Delhi so that he and his spouse could have their evening stroll undisturbed. Sadly, this unsavoury incident has captured the colonial mindset that still prevails among civil servants in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy. Totally self-absorbed, their only other real concern is pleasing their political masters. I’ve used harsh words indeed but that comes from knowing what it’s like, having spent my working life as an undistinguished government servant. Even my dear spouse seems aware of our professional inadequacies, evident from the fact that in her quiver of insults directed at me, the most hurtful is: “You are behaving like a typical bureaucrat.”
Sardar Patel’s words of wisdom on the basic values in administration should make the current lot of civil servants wince in shame at having regressed so far from the professional standards and ethics that he enjoined on them. In the last eight years they have acted as mere lackeys and lickspittle to the political executive when not being active collaborators. This period has seen the systematic evisceration of institutions, for which vandalism the civil servants are, to a great extent, culpable, as they not only provide the inputs and advice based on which the political leadership takes decisions but are also responsible for their execution.
To give a glaring example of institutional bombing, look what’s happened to the Planning Commission, established in 1950 to oversee the country’s economic and social development, chiefly through the formulation of five-year plans. This premier organization was a priceless heirloom that was shepherded by economists of the stature of P C Mahalanobis, K N Raj and Y K Alagh. Hell-bent on erasing the Nehru legacy of which the Planning Commission was one, the present regime disbanded this body, replacing it with the Niti Aayog, which, if truth be told, is functioning as an outhouse to the Prime Minister’s office, receiving diktats on how to transform India with, one may add, disastrous results. In 2017, the well-known economist, Arvind Panagariya, suddenly quit as chief of Niti Aayog which is now headed by a retired bureaucrat as CEO whose strong suit is that he is the consummate toady.
Or take the Indian Railways (IR), our biggest public sector undertaking and once the nation’s pride along with the Armed Forces, but now reduced to the plebeian level of other government departments by divesting it of financial autonomy and thereby stymieing independence of decision-making. The lifeline of the nation and a bustling world in itself, IR has degenerated into an appendage of the Finance ministry consequent on the ill-thought decision of 2016 to merge the Railway budget with the General budget, abandoning a financial arrangement that had worked well for 92 years. A major consequence of this institutional degradation has been a palpable loss of focus on the Railways’ corporate mission of balancing profitability with social obligations.
With the Railway finances becoming a component of the labyrinthian General Budget, the earlier rigorous monitoring of financial performance is now absent. The snatching away of independent financial control has inevitably resulted in a reduction in commitment. Most of the detailed statistical data that accompanied the Budget documents are no longer available for public scrutiny, so blatant a dereliction that a former CAG had to rap the Railway Ministry for withholding key information. The statistics are being majorly doctored, and the key index of performance i.e., the operating ratio, dressed up to mask the dismal state of Railways’ finances. Truthful data is the bedrock not only of sound decision-making but of democracy itself; people have the right to know the truth about the state of affairs. Regrettably, fudging or withholding of unfavourable statistics is the reigning philosophy of the present regime, be it pandemic deaths, the migrant crisis, farmer suicides and deaths during the farmers’ agitation, vaccine shortage, unemployment figures and for that matter, any data that clashes with the chimeric ‘achche din’ narrative.
The other catastrophic decision that has severely impacted IR is the total revamp of the Railway management structure, a disruptive root and branch shakedown based on half-baked understanding of the complexities of the railway system, which is the reason that long after the Union Cabinet approval of this hairbrained scheme in December 2019, the Railways are still floundering on the rules regarding seniority, management of key positions, fresh induction et al. Analogous to the story of the man who burnt down his house to snuff out a rodent, the Railways’ wholesale management overhaul was done to combat ‘departmentalism’, a term used to describe the turf wars between departments. I suspect that this transmutation of the management structure will entail replacement of the passionate, sometimes narrow loyalty to one’s department by a more deleterious management style that is apathetic and laissez-faire. Passion and loyalty are infinitely more valuable traits in an executive than detached neutrality.
Among the different classes of civil servants, the most egregious has been the role of the IPS fraternity whose members have played hatchet men to an iniquitous regime. There is every reason to believe the widespread allegations that the faceless functionaries of the NIA, the CBI and the ED are functioning as acolytes of the ruling party, misusing the law to terrorize and punish political opponents and dissidents. Meanwhile, the police in some States, in connivance with the political brass, have refashioned the law-and-order machinery into an instrument for oppressing the minorities and the poor.
In trying to rationalize their craven professional comportment, civil servants allude to the government conduct rules that enjoin them to do the government’s bidding as also to keep their own counsel in matters of political controversy. While it is true that ultimately, the political executive has the final say, it does not follow that the civil servants are dutybound to carry out illegitimate orders, for by doing so, they become facilitators in perpetrating injustice. Sadly, in the last few years, like during the Emergency, civil servants have been servile abettors of an authoritarian regime. They, as also the rest of civil society, need to heed James Baldwin’s dire warning: “A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”
(The writer is a former civil servant. Views are personal)