Lessons of 2010

The relations between civil servants and politicians in a parliamentary system of democracy has been the subject of many articles and books in India ever since Independence. After the spate of scams last year many issues relevant to the relations between civil servants and politicians and particularly between the civil servants and their ministers have come up for public discussion through the media. I propose to deal with some of these issues in this article.
Taking the general question of laying down guidelines on relations between the civil servants and the ministers, I should point out the example of Britain where such relations are mostly governed by certain unwritten rules and conventions, which have worked satisfactorily without any hitch for several years now. The parliamentary system of government works on the principle that the final decision on all matters in a particular ministry is that of the minister and where there is difference of opinion between one ministry and another on any issue it is settled at the level of Prime Minister and if found necessary, in the Cabinet. Unfortunately, in the 2G spectrum case this has not been followed and the minister concerned chose to take all decisions himself.
The secretary of the ministry had brought to the notice of the minister through a note the errors and dangers involved in implementing the minister’s proposal regarding allocation of 2G spectrum and the price. But he was overruled. His retirement from service was due a few days later and his successor as secretary chose not to express any reservations, on those proposals. He is reported to have told the Public Accounts Committee that all decisions were taken by the minister and he just carried out orders. This was undoubtedly a clear case of gross dereliction of duty on the part of the new secretary. Even if he knew that the minister would stand firm by his proposals it was his duty to place his views before the minister for his consideration.
It appears the new secretary had worked with the minister in the latter’s previous assignment as minister for environment and forests. A golden principle followed by Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister was that posting of secretaries in various ministries should be done according to the suitability of the candidate for the ministry and that requests for the services of particular persons as secretary from the minister should not be entertained. It would be advisable if this principle is revived now and the ministers make a choice of secretaries for the ministry strictly from the panel of three names submitted to them by the Cabinet secretary from the list of persons eligible for appointment as secretaries.
As regards, totally disregarding the views of the previous secretary by the minister it should be accepted beyond any doubt that the final say in decision-making is that of the political executive and the civil servant cannot complain if his opinion is overruled by the minister. However, a wise minister always carefully assesses the merits of the opinions of the civil servant before deciding to over rule him.
In a parliamentary system of democracy a minister is selected for his job by the Prime Minister not necessarily because he is an expert on the subject assigned to his charge, but because he possesses the required political background and qualities of sound judgment. In this context, the famous and often repeated words of Sydney Low is worth quoting. He said that while an aspirant for a clerk’s job may have to pass an examination in arithmetic, the Chancellor of Exchequer can be one who may not even understand the place of decimals in a Budget document. Edward Carson expressed similar sentiments when he was appointed as the first Lord of the Admiralty in England in 1916. He told the senior officers in a half joking, half serious tone that his only qualification to head the ministry of navy was that he was very much at sea.
Both Carson and Low were indulging in exaggeration to make a point, but their presumption was that a person selected for appointment as a minister is intelligent and industrious enough to acquire in-depth knowledge of the subject in his ministry even after his taking charge of the minister. The will and humility to learn from others is an essential qualification for a successful minister.
A civil servant newly appointed to a ministry has to acquire knowledge and expertise in the subject handled by him by his own personal efforts. A secretary who says that he did not give any advice to the minister but just carried out his orders is certainly unfit to hold this high office.
The suggestion to draw a line of division between policy formulation and its implementation has often been made by people who do not understand fully the intricacies of policymaking at top levels. Such clear-cut division never existed in India before, neither is such a formal division possible in our system of government. From the early years of Independence, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet ministers had never kept civil servants out of the responsibility for framing policies. Of course, it is the duty of the minister to pilot the bills through Parliament, but policy formulation has always been the joint effort of the political executive and the civil servant.
There have been instances where the civil servants have been “helpful and cooperative” to the corrupt ministers by “cooking up” the notes on the file, though they may not get a share of the benefits of corruption. But such cooperation is as bad as direct act of corruption by the officer. In the scam on the Adarsh Cooperative Housing project in Maharashtra, preliminary investigations have shown that some senior civil servants have connived with politicians for changing the rules regarding allotment of houses to permit certain categories who were not entitled for such allotment to get houses in this complex. A senior officer who had been a party to this venture has been suspended as he has reportedly gained personal advantages in the allotment of houses.
In the scam about allotment of land in Karnataka under the discretionary powers of the chief minister, no information is available whether the civil servants had, at any levels, advised the chief minister that his discretionary powers cannot be used by him to benefit himself or his relatives. If this has not been pointed out by the civil servant, he is as much to blame as the chief minister for dishonesty.
One can only hope that the investigations about the 2010 scams would lead to a clearer understanding of the relative responsibilities of the civil servants and the ministers and that the interests of the nation would always be kept strictly in view in exercising their power.

P.C. Alexander is a former governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra

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