General elections 2024: Lessons for Indian civil servants

The civil servant has now to re-assess his role. Subservience and servility to his master can no longer win him laurels and plum positions.

ByK M Chandrasekhar

Published Jun 10, 2024 | 12:00 PM Updated Jun 10, 2024 | 12:00 PM

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Many of us are very happy with how the elections panned out. They showed the strength of Indian democracy and the voters’ ability to separate the grain from the chaff. They revealed in full glory their resentment of injustice and cruelty in the name of development and infrastructure. And the elections showed their fear of creeping dictatorship.

I was a bureaucrat for almost half a century in various capacities. From the beginning, I, and many of our generation, learnt the value of maintaining dignity and self-respect. We were always equally respectful to political leaders of the ruling front and the Opposition. I went out of the way to seriously address the problems brought to me by opposition politicians because I knew they had no political support. This was less difficult for Kerala because we had real democracy here for many decades, with governments changing every five years.

When the pandemic struck, the Prime Minister closed the country for several weeks. He started by saying that he would get on top of the situation in three weeks, but as it happened, it stretched for many more. It was also imposed with a harshness never before seen on such a large scale in the country. As the lockdown was suddenly imposed in the PM’s usual impulsive fashion, millions of stranded labourers were left stranded in their workplaces without any work or means of living. Trains and buses were shut down, and people were forced to trek across the country without food and water for hundreds of miles. Some state governments, bureaucrats and civil society organisations came to the rescue of some of them. Most of them were left to fend on their own, walking and cycling under the remorseless sun, many dying on the way.

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Matter of loyalty versus duty

This tragic situation was an opportunity for civil servants to provide some assistance to these hapless poor. Some did rise to the occasion and created support facilities in their areas of jurisdiction. Most did nothing. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi came up with another bright idea. He asked people to come to their doorsteps at five in the evening and clap, clang tins and vessels, generally making a great deal of noise.

This, too, happened, but it surprised me to see one district magistrate, more loyal than the king, lead a procession on the roads, himself hammering away at a tin drum, with the SP, looking uncomfortable, walking a few steps behind him. It never struck the DM not to do it during the lockdown. He saw it as an occasion to flaunt his loyalty.

I saw another sight of a district magistrate slapping someone on a public road. And there was another officer in a northeastern state, breaking up a party of decent people, threatening them coarsely with punishment under various legal provisions. When this picture was conveyed in a WhatsApp group, one retired officer applauded the action, saying this is how officers should act.

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Power with discretion

These incidents are relevant because civil servants must recognise that democracy involves changes in government. They can exercise power arrogantly or act with discretion when they have power. We have seen how officers of the Enforcement Directorate, the CBI and the NIA have been throwing their weight about during the last few years. In my time as Revenue Secretary, rules came into being under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in 2004 and 2005.

We ensured the Act’s usage with restraint as we knew fully well the great scope for misuse by the lower bureaucracy. Then came amendment after amendment, strengthening penal provisions excessively and allowing the ED to use their powers against opposition leaders and many others because the lower bureaucracy saw an excellent opportunity to enrich themselves and to ingratiate themselves with their political masters.

Now, the government has changed. The same Modi will lead it, but the people of India have clipped his wings. His party has less than a majority, and he has to depend on Nitish Kumar and Chandrababu Naidu to run his government. Naidu, in particular, has suffered the pain of being in the Opposition. Nitish Kumar is fully aware of Tejashwi Yadav’s rising challenge. The relatively poor States desire treatment as special-status states.

Of course, the BJP is adept at buying legislators, but the voters have shown that they expect integrity at political levels. It is no longer business as usual for Narendra Modi and his henchmen. The people have proved that they will not swallow everything fed to them without question. The singularity of this election is that it has ended the Era of Bluff and Bluster.

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Work for the people

The civil servant has now to re-assess his role. Complete subservience and servility to his master can no longer win him laurels and plum positions. He cannot use his bulldozers indiscriminately to pull down houses and shops. Indeed, this happened in Faizabad, which stands out as the symbol of the return of democracy and the end of the creeping dictatorship. At the inauguration of the new Ram temple with great fanfare in January, the Prime Minister strangely acted as the Yajaman.

The construction of the temple reportedly involved the destruction of hundreds of houses and shops without adequate compensation. The people’s anger emanated in the defeat of the BJP candidate. The same happened in Varanasi, where the Prime Minister won his seat with a lower margin than ever before, thanks to the crass disregard of poor people and the loss of their houses and means of living through bulldozers.

Therefore, this election could be a return to normalcy for civil servants, particularly district officers and officers of regulatory and investigative agencies. It could be a reassertion of the fact that civil servants work for the people. They can expect the judiciary, which went out of line, particularly at lower levels, to feel less oppressed, less anxious, and hence more just in their rulings.

Above all, division of society and creating divisions among people, as Hitler did with the Jews, is a thing of the past, as Naidu and Nitish, considering the composition of their support base, cannot accept hate towards communities as a tenet of government policy. There could be a certain degree of instability in the months and years to come, but learning to navigate uncertainty is essential to a civil servant’s life and work.

(KM Chandrasekhar is former Union Cabinet Secretary and author of As Good As My Word: A Memoir. Views are personal.)