Babus: Not so bad after all


The gap between the Civil Servants and the Judiciary has narrowed considerably but the former continues to be at the top. The Politician and the media seem to have lost all credibility. Ironically, some amongst them continue to refer civil servants as “Babus”.

Babus: Not so bad after all
I had written an article that was published on this platform on the 5th of December 2020. The article was based on the findings of a survey that I had conducted on Twitter. The question asked was, “According to you, which of the following institutions is carrying out its responsibilities in the best possible manner?”
1. Civil Servants
2. Judiciary
3. Politicians
4. Media
Of more than 3000 participants, 65 percent voted in favor of Civil Servants, 22 percent for Judiciary, Politicians 9 percent and Media was last with 5 percent.
I conducted a similar survey now on Twitter and Linkedin to ascertain whether there was consistency in the findings. The question was tweaked a bit. I now asked, “With which of the following institutions are you comparatively most satisfied or comparatively least dissatisfied in terms of carrying out the tasks expected of them”.
Of more than 1500 that participated in the Twitter poll (admittedly the sample size is a small one), the Civil Servants were at the top (39 percent) yet again. They were closely followed by Judiciary (34 percent). Politicians were way below at 15 percent and the Media lowest at 13 percent.
In the Linked Survey too, the Civil Servants led with 44 percent of the votes polled, followed by Judiciary at 22 percent. Media were marginally ahead of Politicians (17 percent) at 18 percent.
The gap between the Civil Servants and the Judiciary has narrowed considerably but the former continues to be at the top. The Politician and the media seem to have lost all credibility. Ironically, some amongst them continue to refer civil servants as “Babus”. Even the Prime Minister chose Parliament to express his angst against the IAS. This was even more surprising because his own PMO is run by IAS officers. He even chose an IAS officer to replace a world-renowned economist to head the RBI. All quite inexplicable.
Certain part of the social elite still dislikes (some even hates) the civil service in general and the IAS in particular even though the common man perhaps does not. Why is it so?
The quintessential civil servant doesn’t protest even when “barbs” are thrown at him. And, if the person is the Prime Minister himself, he has no option but to keep quiet, bound by the Code of Conduct. (A large number did express their dismay privately and appeared quite demoralized at this unwarranted outburst but it was all in private). Not very surprisingly, most of the retired officers too didn’t protest publicly. As one of my senior colleagues put it, we are all “Durbaris”. He was referring to the period when we were in service but I thought many of us remain “Durbaris” even after retirement on account of our servility over the years or indifference, or fear or perhaps still expecting some rewards. So, when no one is contesting, an ex-parte judgement gets given by the social elite. The term “Babu” has now the stamp of the Prime Minister himself.
When Gurcharan Das wrote, “Today, our bureaucracy has become the single biggest obstacle to the country’s development. Indians think of the bureaucrats as self-servers, rent seekers, obstructive and corrupt”, he was reflecting perhaps not the view of all “Indians” but the social elite. And, as is evident in his book, his personal experience with a Joint Secretary was not a pleasant one. As often happens, we tend to generalize our personal experience instead of using scientific and data- based analyses to prove our point. This is not to say that all is well with the bureaucracy. There are indeed huge problems. However, such generalized condemnation doesn’t help except that it would resonate with those that dislike bureaucracy. We all love to criticize and only criticize without suggesting a credible way forward. Perhaps the easiest thing to do
Like Gurcharan Das there are a number of those amongst the social elite that have had a bad experience with civil servants (there are indeed some who put the entire civil service to shame but, as they say, it takes all types to make this world) and they tend to generalize their experience. Very rarely do you see public display of a pleasant experience though many do praise a large number of civil servants in private. This has had devastating consequences. Mr H C Gupta, an honest and efficient IAS officer, was caught in political cross-fire and was hounded. Everyone I spoke to had absolutely no doubt about his credentials but hardly anyone spoke about it in public. Some amongst the social elite who did not know him professionally or personally, even felt that he must have done some wrong. Mr Gupta suffered.
We all love “masala” so long as we are not part of it. Hence, we are presented with negative stories, including those relating to civil servants. If we look at Twitter, the negative stories trend much more than positive ones (that are in any case few and far between). This also creates a negative image of the civil servant.
The civil servants themselves are responsible for the image they carry. The irresponsible behaviour of some of them and that too in public glare is deplorable. The visibility of such incidents has increased on account of an increasingly aware public and the social media wherein everything gets magnified quickly.
Despite the image that the civil service carries, lakhs of students aspire to become civil servants. If the civil services were as bad as they are made out to be why should so many want to join the “bad company”? And, perhaps for some of those that don’t make it, it is not merely a case of sour but bitter grapes. And, a few of them carry this bitterness right through their lives.
All said and done, the civil service is not as bad as it is made out to be but there are, as I mentioned earlier, huge issues that beset it. Mere criticism will not help. Calling them “Babus” will be counter-productive. In no country of the world has bureaucracy withered away. Hence, the need is to bring about improvement, perhaps transformation. The debate should centre around this transformation. Criticism is fine and should be welcome. Condemnation doesn’t help anyone.
Anil Swarup is former Secretary, Government of India and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal.