Two months ago, Neera Yadav, former Chief Secretary of U.P. and once its most powerful bureaucrat was convicted and sent to jail. Soon thereafter, BS Lalli, CEO of Prasar Bharati, was suspended on allegations of corruption. Both were my batchmates in the IAS and my memories of them as probationers are so completely at variance with the reputations they acquired later in their careers that it becomes both sad and difficult to reconcile the two.
Do social origins and the cultural milieu in which one has grown up have a role to play in the kind of IAS officer one eventually becomes?
At one level, all bureaucrats have been corrupt in some way or another -- favouring friends or kinsmen or persons of a particular region, using the perks and freebies offered by PSUs, accepting free ‘companion’ tickets offered by Air India, and so on. Worse, many readily condoned or not resisted the corrupt behaviour of those in power and often, while keeping their own noses clean, allowed their masters to get away with murder. A few, however, become known for the voraciousness of their appetite for material acquisitions and their tyrannical behaviour, especially in dealing with the subaltern classes. They stand out both because of the awesome scale of their greed and because of their complete disregard for what this greed does to their reputations in civil society or even their peer group. What makes for this change in behaviour? Were the symptoms, or the ‘Lakshanas’ of such behaviour always there?
When we joined the IAS in 1971, the entrants could be broadly grouped into three distinct, occasionally overlapping, categories.There were those of us whose parents had been/ were in the higher echelons of civil service or senior management positions in the boxwalla companies. Most of us had been to public schools and our undergraduate years had been spent in the elite colleges and universities of India. We cultivated intellectual airs. We thought, or at least pretended to be, well read; were passionate about books, classical music and the arts. We had little understanding of caste and community relations, except in academic terms. The only world we knew was the world of the metropolis and gender distinctions were absent from our world. It amused us that many found us to be insufferably snobbish, English-speaking minority in an India that was then still predominantly rural and provincial.
The second social group in the IAS was also from an urban middle class background but with a strong non metro, medium sized city bias. Belonging to cities like Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Kanpur, Nagpur, Sagar, Baroda or Mysore, their parents were mostly from professional, technical backgrounds working in the middle rungs of their organisations. They were deeply rooted in the emerging Indian middle class and the IAS was a very significant part of their aspirational growth. Their fluency in English, to them a second language, was acquired with a fair degree of effort.
The third group had closer links with the rural and provincial than the second. They were deeply and integrally connected to land and land relations. They accepted, even venerated, feudal style hierarchical relations between ‘master’ and ‘servant’. The IAS of their imagination was still rooted in a semi feudal, patriarchal order. Their most distinguishing feature was their unease with the English language. Their lack of familiarity with Western literature, with the Arts was almost a badge of their being rooted in the vernacular. A strand of anti-intellectualism ran through their normal discourse, as they believed that intellectuals did not make good administrators.
This threefold varna is probably sharper in retrospect than it was at that time and many of us fell in between these groups. Nor was this division based primarily on class or caste or income although these dimensions did exist. The distinctions were primarily cultural and the English language the main dividing line. Many in the first category came from families whose incomes were much lower than those in the second or third categories and many in the third category belonged to the higher castes.
Many of us in the first group were half ashamed of our elitist origins. While we were most comfortable with our own blood group we took pains to cultivate friends from the other groups. To our social guilt tainted eyes a person like Neera appeared a shining example of someone who had fought her way out of a male chauvinist, patriarchal social order and stood her own ground in an elitist milieu. The fact that she was completely unselfconscious about her ordinariness made her even more striking to us.
To understand what changed, tracing the career trajectories of the three groups can offer interesting sociological insights. Those of the third group rarely sought careers in the Central Government, saw little benefit in acquiring specialised technical and professional skills, had very close relationships with provincial political satraps and local traders and contractors (forests, mines, liquour, cement, kerosene, civil works) and most of their corrupt dealings dealt with land and real estate related transactions, mining leases, excise licences etc . All of them displayed a tremendous appetite for acquiring landed property. The economic profiles of most changed dramatically between the beginning and the end of their careers. Very few remained free from the taint of corruption.
Those of the second group, while not averse to Central Government careers, focused on jobs traditionally associated with power and status -- Ministries of Home, Defence, Industry, cultivated low profile politicians powerful in the backrooms of party politics to secure posts in such Ministries and Departments, gave great importance to following rules and procedures and paperwork and avoided getting into controversial situations. For the majority of them wielding authority, being treated deferentially, ensuring protocol proprieties was more important than making money. They never took a bold, unconventional stand and never questioned the status quo. They managed political masters deftly showing sufficient elasticity to bend when required without getting into ugly confrontations. Most of them had their children take up careers in finance, or consultancy or Government and they saw to it that their educational progress was geared towards such careers.The corrupt among them concentrated on opportunities in Government procurements, industrial licences and approvals, grant of concessions, food procurements and trading in essential commodities etc. Unlike the third group, their accumulation was relatively discreet and modest in scale. Corruption was practised more by showing flexibility in the application of Rules and procedures and the calibrated exercise of discretionary powers to favour identified parties than through brute domination and control of resources and powers to grant concessions. The incorruptible among this group suffered from intense ‘bouts of integrity’ with a strong sense of self righteousness and sanctimony.
Those of the first group made a beeline for careers in the Central Government as far as possible in Finance, Commerce, Industry or the Infrastructure Ministries -- jobs that offered the maximum potential for international careers and foreign postings. Many managed careers in the International/multi Lateral bureaucracy eventually getting absorbed by them. Most jobs required dealing with International treaties and protocols and therefore superior skills in communication in English gave them a natural advantage. Those with an Economics and Finance background leveraged that to considerable benefit in career terms with organisations like the World Bank and the IMF or the poorer cousins in the Asian and African Development Banks. Relations with political masters tended to be awkward until the Rajiv Gandhi regime brought in the generation of politicians with very similar cultural backgrounds. The corrupt among them brought high levels of sophistication to corruption itself, making it knowledge- and skill-based either to bring about policy changes conducive to favourite corporates or interpreting policies and regulations to facilitate favoured transactions. While some may have salted away fortunes in tax havens, most corruption was a kind of lifestyle corruption rather than crass accumulation of property.
Several generalisations can to be made from this descriptive account. One, that the differences in the internalised image of the IAS between the three socio cultural groups were substantial and determined future behaviour. In the construction of these images their lingual/cultural origins played a significant role. Two, the language of discourse which persons like Neera and Lalli were used to, being steeped in provincialism, showed a very high degree of acceptance bordering on reverence for existing socio-cultural hierarchies. The purpose of getting into the IAS was not to reduce hierarchies but to be on top of them and perpetuate them. A tyrannical style of functioning was appropriate and expected. The Public School/ St Stephen’s lingual environment, on the other hand, encouraged irreverence and reflected a less socially iniquitous culture. Three, each of these language based categories occupies its own distinct cultural and moral universe in which standards of what is acceptable behaviour differ substantively and qualitatively. In the universe of those with a pronounced provincial background acquisition of wealth by using the privileges of office is natural and legitimate. Rent does not have to be sought but should flow as a natural consequence of the position one has made strenuous efforts to get to. In the same way as politicians from a similar social background join politics in order to acquire wealth and power and see nothing wrong with that as a purpose, entering the IAS with similar objectives carries cultural legitimacy. Being oblivious to the social consequences of their reputations outside their own universe is probably why many of them could be so blatant in their styles of corruption.
For those of us from elitist backgrounds the cultural gap between the Officer and the Politician was enormous. They literally spoke completely different languages that made it easy to caricature the Politician as a crass and greasy low life creature with an unspeakable accent and the Officer as an impeccable, upright (steel frame), genteel and ‘honorable schoolboy’. This cultural gap made it difficult to work out a convergence of interests between the two for the optimal exploitation of rent seeking opportunities. This gap has now substantially disappeared and since achieving success in corruption requires complicity and very close collaborative relationships between the Officer and the Politician the narrowing of the cultural, lingual gap has facilitated the process. At the same time, the induction into politics of the new breed of public school educated politicians has meant the emergence of a new kind of nexus especially when it comes to subtler and more sophisticated forms of knowledge based corruption (corruption related to policy design, design of bidding systems, selection of consultants and experts, designing forms of public/private partnerships etc).
A major part of the problem in the IAS stems from an inherent design flaw. The architecture of the IAS was consciously drawn from the ICS and it was premised on a social and cultural distance between administration and civil society on the one hand and between the political executive and the civil servant on the other. It was self consciously elitist and relied on creating a kind of Brahminical mandarinate which was specifically groomed for the task of governance and wielding power in a way in which even outsiders could be put into an appropriate cultural mould. The critical mass had to consist of people who shared a certain cultural ethos, who subscribed to an ‘Esprit de Corps’, who genuinely believed in what is cricket and what is not.
Such a design was obviously at variance with the rough and tumble of the Indian democracy where the Realpolitik was increasingly emerging as the only ‘Real’ Politics. Instead of redesigning the architecture more appropriate to the changing socio-political context, the IAS was sought to be retrofitted by tinkering with its basic design. Obviously uncomfortable with the bias in favour of the westernised, deracinated and seemingly effete elite the policy makers gradually sought to broaden the recruitment zone to include more and more of those with a vernacular background. This was done in the naive hope that by inducting persons of more vernacular social origins and giving them the same elite status the system could be made more sensitive to the underprivileged.
What has happened is the opposite. A new, more aggressive vernacular elite has replaced the earlier one that has brought in a whole new culture where pragmatism, expediency and moral elasticity are the presiding virtues and the exercise of petty tyranny and corruption a legitimate practice. The flaw in the design is in the idea of the elite in a democratic system not in the social composition of that elite. The concept of the IAS itself is an anachronism in a democratic framework and tinkering with its design makes it prone to ‘corruption’ in a very fundamental way. To think that one can actually engineer an elite force which is trained into social conscientiousness and good governance and which remains immune to changes in the socio-political environment is not just naive, it is dangerous. Just think of the number of new, techno savvy, culturally sub-educated, petty tyrants who get added on to the monstrous apparatus that is the Indian State and tremble with fear! What is the alternative? As that contemporary of the Bard said: ‘Another time another place... Besides, the wench is dead...’.