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India’s smug civil service officers can learn lot from politicians during Covid: IRS officer

Bureaucrats often take pride in appearing cold, distant and unapproachable. Such traits don’t work in a pandemic.

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India’s civil service has been confronted with unique challenges in light of the ghastly coronavirus pandemic, making the existing structures and processes insipid and ineffective. The Covid emergency has reiterated the need for a bureaucracy that is prescient, purposeful and proactive. And while this may surprise many, there are valuable lessons that us civil servants can learn from politicians while attempting to reinvent ourselves.

Back in 1967, the chief minister of Bihar’s first non-Congress government, Mahamaya Prasad Sinha, had a heated argument with Yashwant Sinha, then collector of Santhal Parganas at the Circuit House, and asked the young IAS officer to look for another job. Unexpectedly, the DM hit back: “I can become a CM someday, but you can never become an IAS officer.” Sinha later resigned from the IAS, joined politics, and went on to become leader of Opposition in the Bihar assembly, and India’s finance and external affairs minister, but could never become Bihar’s CM. While this story is oft quoted in civil service circles, little did that officer know that Mahamaya had actually successfully competed for the coveted Indian Civil Service (ICS), predecessor to the IAS, but chose not to join. As this fascinating story illustrates, one must never underestimate a politician – neither her background and struggles, nor her intelligence, and least of all, her capabilities.

As Rwitwika Bhattacharya argues in What Makes a Politician, successful politicians, far from being ignorant, are actually ‘intellectual adventurers’ – “those who have thought about, learned about and reflected on various issues…constantly seeking to learn new things.”

Unfortunately, a cynical view of politics results from how many perceive it as a Machiavellian saga of unabashed power struggle. But politics is not all about this mindless power game. It is and ought to be, the pursuit of commonality through public deliberations, where collective power – yes, power – is used to bridge the fault lines than fracturing them further to promote the well-being of the collective. It is this pursuit of politics that Max Weber in his classic Politics as a Vocation had called “a passionate devotion to a cause”.

Also read: Modi govt is in denial & India is back to being a flailing state

Learning from politicians 

Civil servants, smug about their academic triumphs and suffering from deeply ingrained superiority complexes, often talk about how they “teach” and “advise” politicians, and claim to be actually running the country. Instead, they also have a lot to learn from public representatives.

First and foremost is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. In 1996, Sushma Swaraj delivered a sterling speech in Lok Sabha while opposing the government’s confidence motion, which as a 12-year-old, I happened to see by chance. So powerful was her oratory that I recall that experience as the genesis of my interest in politics.

While strong communication skill is an asset for anyone aspiring to reach the pinnacle of her respective profession, for politicians and civil servants alike it is a part of their job profile. Be it elucidating the vision of the government of the day, or explaining the benefits of a policy decision like the Swachh Bharat Mission, or engaging with the citizenry on issues of mass involvement like voting or vaccination – both politicians and bureaucrats frequently grapple with such tasks. Yet, the ability of a politician to do this more convincingly vis-à-vis a bureaucrat is pronounced.

It takes a politician to convert a government programme into a mass movement, it is said. Whether it is deciding the core content of the message, framing its underlying story, or choosing the medium of delivery, the neta, is able to hit the right chords with the audience, communicating not just through words but also body language. This stems from an innate ability to have a macro vision and a holistic perspective, and not getting bogged down with nitty-gritty, which though important for execution of policy, is not essential to communicating the merits of it. The bureaucrat, instead, often “sweats the small stuff”, thus failing to convey the big picture. A wider and continued exposure to ground realities enables the politician to understand the pulse of the people, thus enabling her to speak passionately and connect better with the masses. Politicians are also better listeners, which is an art, and can listen for hours. For the ordinary citizen, just being heard is a hugely empowering experience, and bureaucrats must practice this art. It is these markedly superior communication skills that allow successful politicians to transform themselves into leaders, statesmen and visionaries.

Second, the ability to simplify complex ideas, while never losing touch with its core, is another skill successful politicians have mastered. This allows them to get to the root of the problem, propose simple yet grounded solutions, make profound observations and suggest out-of-the-box initiatives. Narendra Modi’s brilliant speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in 2013, or Lalu Yadav’s masterful defence of the Indo-US Nuclear deal in the Lok Sabha, are laced with simple yet insightful observations, and stand out for clarity of thought. That it took a rustic and grounded politician like Raghuvansh Prasad Singh to conceptualise and execute a landmark scheme such as MGNREGA is testimony to this argument.

An amazing proclivity for multi-tasking and time management is the third great quality of a successful politician, who spends 16-18 hours a day catering to her constituents, party workers, party leadership, executive functions (ministers) and parliamentary works (MPs). Yet, she still finds time to read, write, attend TV debates, give interviews, and grace social gatherings. Politicians sweat out such a routine day-in, day-out. Needless to say, bureaucrats work hard and long hours too. They have punishing schedules and are fire-fighting on multiple fronts, but often this bogs them down, leading to civil servants doing little for their overall personality growth. But, whether it results from pure passion for being in public life, or the stimulation that comes with being a public figure, politicians end up conditioning their body and mind for spending long hours in the field. Remaining physically fit, thus, is becoming common practice amongst new-age politicians, but this fad is yet to gain traction amongst civil servants fully.

Also read: It’s 2021 and the Indian bureaucracy remains the greatest impediment to progress

Fourth, having a razor-sharp didactic memory greatly aids the politician. Former President Pranab Mukherjee was much admired and sought after in his party for having the memory of an elephant, and several bureaucrats vouch that he could recollect what happened in a particular meeting held decades ago. The ability to remember names of ordinary citizens especially helps politicians win an immediate connect. But more importantly, a fine memory enables her to fix accountability and track critical tasks forensically. While those like Mukherjee are born gifted, having a strong memory comes from years of conscious practice and auto-suggestion, which bureaucrats must resort to.

The vagaries associated with practicing politics as a full-time profession bring us to the fifth great trait – risk-taking ability. Politics and risk-taking are synonymous; the very decision to join politics is fraught with risks. Unlike other professions, there is no clear direction of growth, and hardly any visibility of what lies in store 5-10 years down the line. Thus, successful politicians are ones who have the temperament and the emotional strength to survive. This approach spills over into their decision-making while holding responsible positions, allowing them to take risky but potentially transformational decisions. With bureaucrats, tales of policy paralysis, and passing the buck, are common. The scale of impact of their decisions, especially ones with financial implications, and the resultant accountability and possible adverse action by enforcement agencies, bogs the bureaucrat down to the extent that no decision is often considered the best decision. Like politicians, bureaucrats must improve their emotional quotient, and take bonafide decisions that can successfully be tested against the touchstone of legality without a sense of fear or favour.

The sixth great distinguishing feature of a public representative is her decisively superior interpersonal skills and the ability to provide a human touch, especially to the underprivileged and the marginalised. While officers must maintain a certain distance and introduce some element of stoicism in their behaviour in order to appear neutral and fair, eventually they are also public servants, and thus must inculcate the ability to empathise with the problems of the people. Bureaucrats often take pride in appearing cold, distanced and unapproachable. Politicians, instead, at least give the perception that they are empathetic, which is often what matters. For example, Indira Gandhi’s ability to mingle with the poor as one of her own, despite hailing from the most privileged of backgrounds, is the stuff of legends.

And finally, there was an earlier generation of civil servants who joined the bureaucracy driven by notions of idealism and romanticism, and a sense of righteousness and élan. Unfortunately, the current crop treats civil service as a career, as a profession, and as a stepping stone. It may not come across easily, but it is politics and politicians who still provide a semblance of romanticism and exhibit passionate commitment to the right cause (the CPI-ML being a case in point). Driven by notions of public good, the ideal politician seeks to bring about transformative changes. Fulfiling the aspirations of an increasingly restless society demands an ever greater devotion to duty. Bureaucrats, therefore, must restore their collective belief in the fact that civil services continue to be a beacon of change and a powerful medium for bringing about positive transformation.

Also read: Easy to blame bureaucrats when Modi centralised all. India needs process-driven Covid response

Working in tandem for societal transformation

If civil service has to resurrect itself akin to the mythological phoenix from the ashes, it is imperative for civil servants to imbibe and inculcate these sterling qualities of head and heart. How and why politicians, even if only a handful, make substantial sacrifices putting their life and career at stake, to serve society by manifesting State power as a transformational tool, begs a deeper understanding.

The BBC classic Yes Minister is a humorous, yet remarkably realistic portrayal of how the civil service generally sees politicians in poor light, and often ties them in knots through the use of bureaucratic rigmarole, in steadfast defence of the status quo. Sir Humphrey Appleby, the quintessential bureaucrat, says in an episode: “In my experience, Ministers don’t think. They never stopped to think, even if they possessed the basic intelligence necessary for thought — which several of them did not.”

However, while Sir Humphrey’s superior intellect and profound sophistication may appear to overwhelm Minister Hacker in every episode, it is eventually Hacker who has the last laugh. Needless to say, the destiny of our nation shall be written by a collective pursuit of bringing about social transformation by both the Hackers and the Humphreys of our public life.

The writer is an Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer. He studied Economics at the London School of Economics and worked previously as an investment banker in London. Views are personal.

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