The King and his courtiers

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Anuradha Bhasin

Bureaucracy in India has never been free from the culture of sycophancy. To the detriment of administrative functioning and governance, many bureaucrats and hierarchically junior officers have prioritised favour of the political rulers to their jobs and become ‘His/Her Masters voice’. This has been an accepted norm but not a legal one.

It is for the first time that loyalty to the ruling party is being demanded through an official order. Recently, a circular was issued by the Department of Revenue under the Ministry of Finance on the nomination of bureaucrats as “rath prabharis” “showcasing/celebration of achievements of the last nine years of government of India through the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra… ” . As per this order, officers of the rank of joint secretaries, directors, and deputy secretaries in all the 765 districts of the country will be deployed as “district rath prabharis (special officers) between November 20, 2023 and January 25, 2024.

The government has a full-fledged publicity department as well as broadcast institutions, like Doordarshan and All India Radio, under its control to propagate the government’s policies. The idea is to disseminate information and make the public aware so that the latter can benefit. The idea is certainly not to “showcase” and “celebrate” as the order mentions. Thus, the circular is unnecessary.

“Blurring the lines between civil servants and defence personnel on the one side and political workers on the other is a great disservice to Indian democracy and it will cause irreparable damage with long-term repercussions.”

That the officers will be required to blow the trumpet of the government’s achievements in the last nine years can easily be read as ‘nine years of BJP rule’ – an indication that the bureaucratic machinery is being used in flagrant violation of the civil services rules which require civil servants to remain neutral and not be aligned with any political party. That it comes at a time when the Moral Code of Conduct was announced ahead of elections to five states – Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan and Mizoram -, it is obvious that such misuse of the official machinery will benefit one party – the BJP. In that sense, the order is both unethical and illegitimate. It is also morally wrong, especially as it comes in polarized times when the neutrality of state’s institutions and functionaries is increasingly under strain.  

As part of their job, civil servants are supposed to reach out to the grassroots to ensure the effective delivery of public schemes. But two pertinent questions arise. Should bureaucrats be burdened with this task when there are institutions existing to perform the same task? Why should officers be designated as ‘rath prabharis’, which can be literally translated as ‘chariot in-charge’, to sing paeans in praise of the government under BJP rule? Though, in the face of opposition, the government later changed the nomenclature of ‘rath prabharis’ to ‘nodal officers’, the perniciousness of the circular remains indisputable.

The Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964 explicitly state that government servants cannot be asked to promote the achievements of an elected dispensation. It is an established convention that while the political party in power frames laws and policies, the civil servants execute that for the good of the nation, not for amplifying the political slogans of the party in power. Has the BJP crossed the important line that separates bureaucracy, whose job is to implement the policies of the government and ensure stability to governance, and politics? Is it making an attempt to use the government machinery for vote bank politics and government employees as its foot-soldiers for election campaigning?

For now, the good thing is that the Election Commission has applied brakes to BJP’s mission by directing the cabinet secretary to ensure that the Viksit Sankalp Yatra does not make any stops in the poll-bound states. This may help to ensure a more level playing field for all political contestants in the forthcoming assembly elections to five states.

However, to ensure that bureaucracy is clearly separated from politization, the circular in question needs to be withdrawn in its entirety. Sight cannot be lost of the fact that by the time the civil servants have performed the nationwide task of eulogizing the BJP government, the country will be bracing for the general elections. The dividends of this unjustifiable exercise would still be reaped by the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha elections to a great extent. Needless to point out that an uneven playfield is being created ahead of the elections with the co-option of media and blatant misuse of institutions like CBI and Enforcement Directorate to target political opponents.   

The ‘rath prabhari’ order (now modified) may not be the first attempt to politicise government offices and institutions, and assign tasks to government employees as if they are part of BJP’s personal enterprise. It comes close on the heels of a similar order by the ministry of defence, asking soldiers on annual leave to spend time in their villages and localities promoting government schemes and filing action taken reports.

The over-burdening of soldiers with additional tasks that their job profiles do not demand and the politicization of the defence forces is fraught with dangers. There are ample lessons to be learnt from countries around the globe, including one in the neighbourhood. Blurring the lines between civil servants and defence personnel on the one side and political workers on the other is a great disservice to Indian democracy and it will cause irreparable damage with long-term repercussions.

The ruler may deem himself to be a king but let not the king reduce government employees, much less defence personnel, into his band of courtiers.