The code of conduct telling bureaucrats how to behave with MPs and MLAs will drag democracy back towards pure feudalism
The best solution to bureaucratic anarchy in West Bengal could be something as simple as good manners. It sounds like a charming idea, and quite revolutionary, until one takes a closer look at what sort of manners are considered good in the code of conduct resurrected by the state parliamentary affairs minister. This is a circular which had been issued by the Centre for all government officers, a sort of etiquette manual telling them how to behave properly with legislators and parliamentarians. Nobody seemed to bother very much about it, until it was circulated again recently — presumably after the mayor of Calcutta lost his temper when a hospital superintendent failed to show him the deference he naturally expects.
There are two shameful things about this code. First, it shows the extent to which West Bengal’s political and bureaucratic culture unabashedly fosters a feudal hierarchy that undermines the basic principles of a mature and modern democracy. The second is a less political point. It appears from the tone and contents of this code that Indian bureaucrats have to be forced into a regime of civilized behaviour through punitive means founded on the idea of deference to their seniors. Such a regime reduces the behaviour that should come naturally to all educated adults to forms of obsequiousness which go against the very notion of human dignity. Rising from one’s seat to greet a visitor, or seeing him off to the door when he is leaving ought to be an unthinking part of professional good manners practised by all. When the same gestures become part of what a bureaucrat ought to “show” a legislator or member of parliament, then normal respectfulness becomes fearful servility, and the whole interaction gets implicated in an unsavoury nexus of power and privilege. This could lead to nothing but the debasement of civility, to rancour, corruption and the abuse of power. It is a mentality — unequal, discriminatory and illiberal to the core — that crops up everywhere in Indian society: in the family, the classroom and the workplace. It fosters bullying, envy and secrecy, rather than cooperation and transparency.
The code of conduct also asks government officials to give MPs and legislators priority as visitors, their letters have to be answered more promptly, they have to be invited to all events organized by government offices where they must be seated “properly” and “comfortably”. This is precisely the ethos which produces a vengeful and leonine mayor, representing not the “people” but an unscrupulous political class which battens on privilege and abjection. It is this ethos which creates indiscipline and unruliness during formal sessions of state assemblies and Parliament, turning whips and speakers into absurd figures in a theatre of unfunny chaos. This code’s attempt to make politics more decorous will only drag democracy back through colonial servility towards pure feudalism.