The great Mughals found it more difficult to manage their extended zenanas than to conquer fractious Hindustani kingdoms. The insidious politicking and power struggles of the women in purdah are well known. Less well appreciated are the strength, stability and support that the zenana afforded to the emperor, as a secure haven of peace and a source of experienced, sound, well-meaning advice. Ira Mukhoty exquisitely documents this aspect of the zenana in her new book Daughters of the Sun.
What the zenana was to the Great Mughals, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is to our political leaders at the Centre and in the states. Curiously, even the numbers match. Both the IAS and Emperor Akbar’s zenana — the largest — are around 5000 strong.
The only difference is that, unlike the zenana, the IAS is predominantly male. But this is changing. Like the zenana it is recruited on merit through intense competition. Once recruited, a minimum basic standard of life and respect is assured. But progress onto meaningful positions of power depends on both merit and political convenience. Bad political choices can end careers prematurely. Good ones can lead to a rapid rise.
Expectedly, disruptions to the existing architecture initiated by the emperor caused great trauma then, with fervent attempts made to subvert the change, as now. Not all disruptions end well either. But that is no argument for not trying to imbue knowledge competition into the workplace, as the Narendra Modi government proposes via the lateral entry of 10 joint secretaries.
Modern workplaces have specific needs. Of these, IAS officers have only two characteristics which others may lack. First, they are the culled outcome of the UPSC exam which selects just 0.1 per cent of those who apply. This ensures that genetically they have the required level of raw intellect. Second, they have an accelerated and time-bound promotion career path. This ensures that they will always be ahead of those in other cadres. Even seniority, within a cohort of officers, is based on their score in the UPSC exam and the Mussoorie training academy. These embedded entitlements bestow upon an IAS officer ritual status, attracts respect, and often abject compliance.
The impartial, permanent civil service as a source for leadership level advice is an anachronism, for three reasons.
First, politicians today need bureaucratic advisers who have “skin in the game” — they prosper with the politician — zenana style — and go down with the politician they support. The need for “trust” and “faith” in the support staff around a minister is poorly aligned with the old civil service architecture of impartiality, seniority and permanence.
Second, the explosive force of the knowledge economy and the range of new sovereign interventions call for total immersion for extended periods in a chosen area of work. This is alien to the way the IAS is managed and trained for general management purposes. To head an engineering department, it is not enough to have an engineering degree before joining the IAS. Most useful skills are non-academic and acquired on the job. Only a practising engineer can credibly navigate a politician through the likely cost-benefit of options. Our achievements in space technology, missiles and atomic energy are out of sync with the quality of our roads or public medical care. Both of the latter work areas are managed by an IAS officer at the top. And it shows.
Third, skilled help does not come cheap. The pervasive private sector provides the demand for top-level skills where the government can never hope to compete for talent. Only saints would give up private sector options and choose to work in the government, except for short periods, such as to round off one’s CV, enlarge networks and gain face time at the leadership levels. Facilitating short-term contracts in the government for skilled professionals is a good way of achieving the required skill infusion into the administration.
Expectedly, the contractual top-level hires will be selected only where both ideologies and objectives match. This makes sense for both sides. The entrants and the government know that without an inside track with the political leadership, they would simply run out of time before achieving anything. In public policy, academic credentials have to burnish with zenana brownie points like loyalty and a complete alignment of objectives.
This flags BSP supremo Mayawati’s point of how to ensure that brilliant Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates do get a fair chance. At present, there is no caste quota for promotions in the Government of India for the elite services. The quota applies only at the time of recruitment. Currently, only two per cent of all joint secretary-level positions have been advertised for lateral entry. But in future, if lateral entries increase to, say, 25 per cent of all positions, the caste quota issue will need to be managed head on.
Would the UPSC be a safer choice than an in-house government selection committee? Not necessarily. We have seen in the case of the appointment of judges, compromised selection is not the preserve of the government alone. But there should be a permanent selection committee comprising the secretary of the requesting department; two private sector or NGO subject specialists, and the secretaries of the UPSC and the department of personnel and training.
Lastly, the process adopted for lateral contractual positions must be differentiated from the existing process for internal appointments. Advertisements for contractual positions must specify the required mix of minimum educational requirements and particular work experience, along with the exact job description. Transfer from one specific position to another, during the contract, must not be allowed, to avoid gaming and to protect the incumbent.
The Narendra Modi government’s move to open the doors for external, top-level skills is extremely welcome. But, as in the case of Air India’s disinvestment, its timing, at the fag end of the government’s tenure, loads the dice against persons of outstanding talent applying for this opportunity. Even the best house help is risk averse and abhors untimely disruptions.