The key question is: Why should a civil servant become ethical in his behaviour?
There is a lot of dismay amongst the officers of the Audit and Account Service at the appointment of G C Murmu as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. The government was well within its rights to appoint such an officer under the law but the issue is whether it was ethical to appoint such a junior officer to the post. What is the message being conveyed? Similarly, incidents occurring in the domain of judiciary during the past couple of years may not be strictly applicable to civil servants who are not as well “protected” as Judges of the Supreme Court but there is an underlying message.
The values that a civil servant imbibes “depends upon the nature of signalling by the government. Who is the government rewarding? Whether the performers or those with integrity are seen as ‘victors’ or those who shamelessly display their ‘allegiance’” (Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant). If efficiency and integrity are the criteria to select officers, they are likely to perform. However, if the choice is for a convenient and pliable officer, the civil servants will be perceived as those that bend backward and are spineless. Unfortunately, that indeed is the perception of the bureaucracy. The problem got compounded in states like UP and Bihar where at some point in time, the corrupt bureaucrat-political nexus had emerged as a major threat to the system where the majority of the fence-sitters amongst the bureaucrats were wilting.
The tragedy is that “for a politician, civil servants are like tools to be used, misused and, on occasions, abused.” There have been a number of instances where the political bosses have disowned decisions that subsequently become inconvenient and get away with it. Dr. Manmohan Singh, known to be honest, did that in the case of coal block allocations that were questioned subsequently. The civil servants have had to fend for themselves.
Honest officers often get caught in the political cross-fire. Such officers feel betrayed and frustrated. The fence-sitters in the civil service start having second thoughts about whether honesty is, in reality, the best policy. And the dishonest feel mighty justified about their conduct. This cross-fire leads to distrust. Decisions get taken for dishonest purposes or they don’t get taken at all or they get inordinately delayed due to procrastinating officers.
What makes matters worse is that the culprits get away because the enforcement machinery is busy chasing the ‘inconvenient’ honest and does not have time and energy, apart from the disinclination (sometimes politically inspired) to pursue cases against the real ones. The real culprits are not only well connected, but they are also well endowed as well. Hence, it is much more difficult to nail those who have the capacity to flee, often right out of the country.
Be that as it may, the civil servant cannot be absolved of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. It takes two to tango. If the civil servant does not allow himself to be used, then he cannot be misused or abused. More often than not there is a quid-pro-quo. It is the expectation of a reward from the politicians that makes the civil servant weak. There is a price to be paid either way. Some civil servants choose immediate rewards. They usually end up paying a price subsequently. There are indeed a number of officers available who will go any distance to provide the necessary comfort to the political decision-maker. Unfortunately, they suit the politics of the politician.
What needs to be understood and highlighted is the fact that “while honest bureaucrats have suffered on account of being harassed and transferred, so have the dishonest ones as the law seems to have caught up with them sooner or later.” The Supreme Court Judges may be enjoying an unwritten ‘immunity’, but the long hands of law have brought errant civil servants to book.
Two former Chief Secretaries were put behind the bars. There have been a number of other instances where the high and mighty in the bureaucracy have paid a heavy price for being dishonest. It can safely be said that “an honest and efficient bureaucrat can be put to inconvenience (especially in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy) but the dishonest one is more likely to suffer in the long run (with increasing access of sincere media professionals to official misdeeds and an ever-increasing number of the well-informed public)”
The key question, therefore, is: Why should a civil servant become ethical in his behaviour? The first step towards finding an answer to that would be to appreciate the fact that being ethical is the best option in the context of morality as an idealistic or altruistic concept.
In fact, it is also the best option in the context of the officer’s career prospects. After all, the reputation of an officer is progressively built on the basis of his ethical conduct and that usually stands him in good stead in the future. Moreover, ethical behaviour also imparts an enormous amount of moral authority to the concerned officer. His team will follow him wholeheartedly and not just because he is the boss. All of this, eventually, will get reflected in his performance and outcomes.
It is, therefore, beneficial for a civil servant to be ethical. It pays to be ethical.
—Anil Swarup is former Secretary, Government of India and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal
First Published: IST