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Anand Vardhan

‘Rath prabhari’ row: The ambiguity facing India’s civil servants, and why it’s time to settle it

Last week, a controversy raged after the centre’s move to deploy government officials to conduct a Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra, a roadshow aimed to communicate its programmes and highlight its achievements. 

Since then, the anger has calmed. But the contentions raised during the row pose larger questions, most of which have been ambiguous even 76 years after independence.

In the immediate context, the government’s directive meant that officials – ranging from high echelons like the joint secretary rank down to the village level – will be assigned roles for public outreach programmes showcasing the current government’s work. The decision was subject to scathing criticism from various sections of political opinion. The Congress-led opposition saw it as an attempt to politicise the essentially neutral ethos of bureaucracy. At the same time, sections of media commentary slammed it as a case of crossing the delicate line separating the functions of government apparatus from the political activity of the incumbent regime.

In response, the government issued a clarification that did away with naming senior officers nominated to administer the two-month roadshow as ‘rath prabharis’. Instead, they would be called nodal officers, thus restoring a bureaucratic formalism to the role. With the new nomenclature, the government essentially delinked the role from the theme of the programme, giving it a more generic ring.

Moreover, the Election Commission issued a directive to the cabinet secretary saying the roadshow must not stop in any of the five poll-bound states in November. This uses the body’s constitutional authority to preclude any irritant or deviation from the conduct of fair polls.

In its immediacy, the episode is only a reminder of unattended questions on the nature of the professional bureaucracy’s working within a polity and with the political executive, and its neutrality while performing administrative roles as civil servants vis-à-vis the politics of the government of the day. 

Some of these aspects have got scarce attention, thus adding to the ambiguity.

First, there is the vexed question of where the government servant, in carrying out the decisions of his superiors in the bureaucracy or the elected political executive, should draw a line between discharging a professional duty and entering the sphere of political activity.

This is not easy to segregate and clarity is often the first casualty. But it’s crucial nonetheless, especially in the Indian context, where the civil service as an institution is seen as a permanent executive as compared to the tenure-based changes of elected governments.

For instance, take the conduct rulebook for the All India Services, comprising the IAS, IPS and IFoS. Rule 3 mentions maintaining political neutrality as one of the essentials for a career in the service. The rule to disengage from political power competitions and participation in electoral contests (except voting) is further elaborated in rule 5. The ethos of neutrality has been part of bureaucratic systems in the modern state, even that of the British-era Indian Civil Services set up by Lord Cornwallis in 1793.

That, however, is just one side of the complex exercise of administrative power and responsibilities. Rule 3(3)(i) requires obedience to the official superior which, in many situations, may have the political executive at the apex. So, this may present political contexts in which neutrality and hierarchical obedience are in a trade-off equation.

More significantly, rule 5 mentions non-participation in political activity but does not further define it. As part of the government machinery, many acts of civil servants could have elements of political appropriation. Take a policy or programme for which a bureaucrat is credited for its formulation and implementation. The same policy or programme could be used by the governing party for a poll campaign, claiming it as an achievement. 

Or a district magistrate, for instance, may consider it part of his duty to inform people about the government’s schemes and work. But it can very well be used for political campaigns by the party in power too.

The second aspect is an extension of the first. How and when should a government servant decide that his actions go beyond acting as an agent of the government, straying into the realm of political activity? 

As the work of the party in power and the government can sometimes appear coterminous, this is an important assessment to make. One obvious distinction is that while programmes, policy and work done are the output of the government’s efforts, the ideological underpinnings of such work belong to the political party and its outlook. While civil servants are part of the government’s work, they have no business in being the ideological frame of the party claiming it.

But even this distinction is being blurred as competitive politics push parties to claim credit for even routine government work.

Third, the alignment of bureaucratic decision-making with that of the government of the day often triggers memories, even bogeys, of issues in the past. 

As this writer wrote in a previous piece:

“Even in the early 1970s, when the Indira Gandhi regime floated the vague idea of committed bureaucracy, the government had to qualify it by saying that such an idea doesn’t imply sacrifice, or contradict the value of political neutrality of the civil services. Instead, the Indira Gandhi government clarified that what it meant was that the bureaucracy had to dedicate itself to attaining the objectives and implementing the policies of the incumbent government of the day. Similarly, it would serve successive governments headed by different political parties.”

The dehyphenation of party and government is key to decoding this proposal. Even if the idea was shelved and not formally accepted, it should be remembered that the bureaucracy is an influential lobbying group in itself. Forms of committed bureaucracy were seen in strong governments in many states and sometimes in the centre (1971-76 and 2014 to present, for instance).

Fourth, there is a need to have some conversations on clearing the ambiguity that often challenges attempts to separate administrative functions of civil servants from the sphere of political activity, where government work may be identified with the efforts of a political party. In this regard, a judicial consideration of different aspects may settle some questions for less political bickering on the issue. Though the apex court isn’t hearing the matter as of now, some guidelines may offer settled points for reference in the future. As concepts, the distinctions may continue to be tricky and highly contextual. But some parameters may filter out irrelevant points in the debate.

Although the diatribe around the issue has cooled for now, it’s unlikely that we’ve heard the last of it. In the meantime, conversations around addressing ambiguity could stand the polity in good stead.

Newslaundry is a reader-supported, ad-free, independent news outlet based out of New Delhi. Support their journalism, here.

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