Caught in crossfire

Caught in crossfire

Bureaucrats in Karnataka

The present coalition government in Karnataka is beset with numerous challenges which are multi-dimensional from political to regional to administrative, to name just a few. It is not to say, however, that a single-party government would not face any challenges.

The JD(S)-Congress coalition government is led by a chief minister whose party has half the number of seats of his coalition partner. Besides, there is a coordination committee that is headed by his immediate predecessor, who is also a sitting MLA and who has his own set of followers, many of whom have not been accommodated in the state power structure. Many MLAs from North Karnataka are also unhappy at not getting their due share in the cabinet. Moreover, both coalition parties have strong and assertive high commands who would like to have an effective say in day-to-day matters of governance, besides policy issues.

Another important factor is the many internal power blocs among ministers belonging to the major partner.

A government that has so many centres of power with different and conflicting interests is bound to face a number of serious and complex challenges in governing the state. In fact, some of these are already subjects of public debate.

As for the political challenges, let me just say, these are of utmost importance and urgency for the chief minister to address. He has already expressed his frustration about it publicly a few days ago. He will need all the political maturity and courage to manage them. No political leader would envy his position. We can only wish him well as Karnataka does not deserve frequent change of governments.

I am, however, concerned with the challenges the state bureaucracy will have to face under such a power structure of the ruling coalition. These challenges are going to be numerous.

The immediate challenge will be of large-scale transfers and postings of officers and staff at all levels. It is an open secret that the elected representatives have been playing a decisive role in these matters for over three decades. They want their favourites to be posted in their constituencies.

Quite often, these postings are decided on caste and money basis. This practice has completely paralysed the hierarchical arrangement, which is an important feature of any bureaucracy. Most government employees have direct access to politicians who act as their godfathers and shield them against any administrative action for their misdeeds. This has completely eroded discipline among the employees. It is an open secret that the ‘transfer industry’ is a very lucrative business in the state.

In light of this, the other major challenge will be to make the bureaucracy function as a unified force to carry out the policies and programmes of the government. Senior bureaucrats know fully well that different power centres in the government will have different interests and sometimes they want to pursue these interests even if rules have to be violated. It is here that senior bureaucrats will come under serious pressure.

The corrupt bureaucrats may not have any problems as they may like to become partners with their political masters in such matters. The upright bureaucrats, however, will be able to withstand such pressures, but they may have to pay a price in the form of transfers or being without any posting for some time.

What is most worrying is the likely conduct of a sizeable number of bureaucrats who would ordinarily not like to support any proposal which may be contrary to the rules, but whose conduct under duress is uncertain. It won’t be a surprise if many of them take the easy path and become tools in the hands of corrupt bosses. Given the uncertainty over the longevity of the present arrangement, most politicians are likely to indulge in unfair means to have their way and make hay while the sun shines.

It is well known that many bureaucrats also play politics while enjoying the protection provided to them under the Constitution. Some may do it for immediate promotion, while some may do it for post-retirement sinecures, and some may like to join political parties. This class of bureaucrats will be happy to join unscrupulous politicians and may pose a serious challenge to the government in controlling their conduct.

Deliberate over challenges

Bureaucracy, particularly the IAS, the premier service in the country, has already been put under notice through the recent decisions of the central government to laterally recruit senior officers at the level of joint secretaries and other measures being contemplated to reform the bureaucracy. Most of the senior bureaucrats in Karnataka belong to the IAS. It is, therefore, they who are mainly going to face these challenges under the present dispensation. They will be watched not only by the people of Karnataka and the media but also by the Government of India.

I would strongly recommend that the senior members of the IAS and also the IAS association meet periodically and discuss these challenges and find solutions. They should use this as an opportunity to motivate their members to uphold the values of the service by being fair and honest in their official conduct under all circumstances.

It will help them to become a more cohesive group which, in turn, will have the strength to take principled stands in all official matters. They should remember that it is not the politicians but the Constitution that gives them protection against any arbitrary action against them by the government. They are the trustees of public interest, which can only be served if they conduct themselves in accordance with the law.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)

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