The cliché of the boring life of an IAS officer is now getting unimaginably outdated. When IAS officer and Jaisalmer collector Tina Dabi changes her Instagram profile picture, or goes for a walk with her husband, or even wears a bindi, she becomes the news. She is the Bollywood star of bureaucracy. Just like how stars fuel airport fashion with their travel get-ups, her visits to construction sites and government godowns are a whole look by themselves.
Dabi, who is from Delhi, caught the nation’s attention and imagination when she ranked first in the UPSC examination in 2015. It was her first attempt, and she was only 22 years old at the time.
Overnight, she became a celebrity, a household name idolised by lakhs of young aspirants hoping to crack the civil services exam. And since then, the public gaze has not let up.
There’s even a ‘Tina Dabi’s Success Strategy’ video on YouTube. Her second marriage to an IAS officer made headlines, not just in tabloids but in national dailies and magazines as well. ‘Meet the IAS officer who is set to marry UPSC topper Tina Dabi’ (Hindustan Times), ‘IAS exam topper Tina Dabi ready to tie the knot again (India Today)’ were some of the many news headlines on her personal life.
People want to know everything about ‘IAS Tina Dabi Madam’. What she wears, how she walks, how she does her job. Mundane clips of Dabi eating, walking or getting on with the day have inspired content creators and fans on YouTube.
She features on Google search trends. All her information from where she was born, to her caste, marriage and her husband are online. A five-second clip shows her wiping hands on her kurta after a snack. “You should wash your hands after eating or use a napkin,” read a comment on YouTube. Others rose to her defence, commending her work.
An eight-second clip, which shows Dabi getting out of a vehicle, has around two lakh views. She has a sweater over floral print salwar-kameez. “An IAS madam in a very beautiful style,” said a fan. In another reel, a content creator made a slideshow of all her photos using ‘Tum Chhupa na sakogi main vo raaz hoon‘. It has more than 1.5 million views.
Most of the videos of the IAS officer have over a lakh views and thousands of comments.
Since her first posting as assistant collector, Ajmer, Rajasthan in 2017, Dabi has risen the ranks of the Indian bureaucracy. By November 2020, she was joint secretary finance (tax) department in Jaipur and is currently the district collector and magistrate in Jaisalmer.
Journalists keep trying to get Dabi to open up about her personal life. “But she only talks about work. It is so hard to talk to her about anything. She does not entertain the media much,” said a senior journalist based in Jaisalmer who did not want to be named.
Fame brings its fair share of fake news as well. In November, some videos claiming that Dabi was pregnant went viral. What sparked the rumours was a rather innocuous shawl that the IAS officer had draped over herself.
And digital media, which is a slave to clicks, fuels this obsession. Headlines like ‘Kapde theek karti nazar aayi Tina Dabi (Tina was seen fixing her clothes)’ or ‘Tina Dabi drives this car’ and ‘IAS Tina Dabi ne daali romantic photo, hui viral (IAS Tina Dabi posted a romantic photo, went viral)’ guarantee clicks.
Much like A-listers and Bollywood stars, Dabi’s family members often find themselves in the spotlight as well. Her sister Ria Dabi—a newly minted IAS officer who cracked the UPSC in her first attempt in 2020—is also becoming popular. A headline read: ‘Tina Dabi’s sister IAS Ria Dabi drops new pic on social media, netizens say ‘collector ma’am toh…’
IAS and IPS cadre groups are also abuzz with news related to Dabi. More than three officers admitted that there’s a lot of speculation about her within their closed groups. And among her batchmates and juniors, there’s also a bit of jealousy. According to an IAS officer ThePrint spoke to, some in these closed groups continue to pass snide remarks questioning her merit and ability – that she topped benefitting from reservation.
“In the inner circle of IPS and IAS, some praise her work and some raise questions.,” says an IAS officer.
There are even conspiratorial rumours in these circles of bureaucracy that Tina Dabi has a PR team of her own. Journalists in Jaisalmer and a senior IPS officer that ThePrint spoke to said there was no truth to this.
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For Dabi, all this could well be background noise. Work is her priority. During the pandemic, the ‘ruthless containment’ model adopted by the Bhilwara district administration, which she was a part of, was adopted by other districts as well.
At the time, a 26-year-old Dabi had told Hindustan Times that one of the first things she did was to isolate Bhilwara district and take citizens into confidence.
As part of the Vidya Sakhi scheme, Tina Dabi is trying to increase enrollment of girls in school. And under her watch, Jaisalmer was also awarded the second position in the Aspirational Districts Programme of NITI Aayog in November. The programme aims to rapidly improve the socio-economic status of 117 backward districts in India.
“Tina Dabi should be judged on her work. She is very passionate about it and is doing excellently. But sometimes, the news or reels that are seen about her are troubling. Anyone would like to keep their private life private. But social media does not understand boundaries,” says an official from Rajasthan, who did not wish to be named.
A few months ago, when Dabi announced her engagement to IAS officer Pradeep Gawande, 42, on Instagram, she wrote: “I am wearing the smile you gave me.”
Her post was flooded with comments from well-wishers, but a few referred to him as Tina’s father because of the age gap between the two. Dabi maintained her calm.
“We are quite amused by the illogical and immature comments of trollers here. It’s frankly laughable on how they believe their ill-conceived opinions even matter a bit to us,” Dabi wrote in the comments section.
It was one of the rare occasions where she addressed critics online.
Other women IAS officers are also followed closely on social media, though perhaps not with the same intensity as Dabi. IPS officer from Assam, Sanjukta Parashar, has a loyal fan base. IAS officer Shrushti Deshmukh from Bhopal also undergoes intense security — from her marksheet to her marriage. Kerala’s Divya S Iyer has been in the limelight for her old viral dance videos.
“When women join the civil service, they inspire thousands of future aspirants. But the tendency to fawn on IAS/IPS women’s looks or dress is misplaced,” says retired IAS officer Shailaja Chandra.
But even India’s mammoth bureaucracy is not immune to the change that social media has wrought in every sphere of life.
“We were asked to avoid taking credit for work and even when giving a clarification, one had to request the caller to maintain anonymity unless one was a spokesperson. But times have changed now,” Chandra adds.
“These days, everyone loves to take credit for the work done by highlighting achievements on social media – even sharing photos of personal events.”
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)