RING FOR THE BUTLER - Ministers and civil servants in India cling to symbols of rank

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By Sunanda k. Datta-Ray sunanda.dattaray@gmail.com
  • Published 3.11.07

George Orwell describes somewhere the bustling arrival at a dak bungalow in Burma of a Burmese official of modest rank. The man stormed and shouted, threw his weight around, and having thereby established his superiority, squatted down to a comfortable smoke and chat with the servants he had hectored a moment ago.

That scene always comes to mind when I see the cars of our ministers and civil servants whiz past self-importantly with red lights swirling above. This column has dwelt before on the phenomenon. Now, Singapore’s austere Lee Kuan Yew has drawn attention to it in a dialogue in Mumbai with legislators, administrators and company chiefs on the strategies that he employed to transform a ramshackle colonial port (Atal Bihari Vajpayee compared it to Calcutta in 1967) into a glittering First World metropolis.

Singapore is especially strict about perquisites that go with jobs. Only the head of state enjoys an official residence, and hardly any president has ever lived in the stately palace called the Istana. The present incumbent, S.R. Nathan, an exceptionally unassuming man, uses the Istana as his office, driving back every evening to his very ordinary bungalow in a middle-class residential area.

The sprawling black-timbered bungalows in which British civil servants lived were put to other use after independence and the new generation of bureaucrats paid enough for them to invest in private homes. That had a twofold effect. It avoided creating a bumptious bureaucratic caste to which the badges of office matter more than responsibilities. And it saved administrators the heartbreak that retirement usually means in India, when a senior man is thrown out of his house and shorn of the chauffeured car and the flunkeys he has become used to. I knew a former accountant-general who for years afterwards would every morning don the ornate braided jacket that was the ceremonial outfit of his position in British times.

Perks create dependence, but Lee cited an additional reason for abolition in Mumbai. He had observed that ruling parties tend to lose elections in their capital cities. Singapore being both capital and country, the contempt born of familiarity would mean a change of government. “So in Singapore no minister goes with the flag, and our cars are not specially numbered. We share the trials and tribulations of the populace.”

Thanks to him, there are not many trials and tribulations to share. But that last sentence must be a sore point with many Indians. One remembers Jyoti Basu countering complaints of pot-holed roads with the astonishing claim that he noticed none on his daily drives to and from the Writers’ Buildings. Officials who linked their enclave’s electricity connection to an essential service similarly wondered ingenuously at the uproar over load-shedding.

The invention of perks made a certain sense in the colonial idiom. At its most innocent, the British administrator on a tour of duty in India had not the means, competence or inclination to invest in property. His memsahib would find it impossibly burdensome to interview and engage servants in each posting. So it was more convenient to attach bungalows and bungalow peons to the job. But, of course, there was a higher design than practical convenience. As the viceroy told the “native subjects of the Empress of India” at the Imperial Assemblage of 1877, “the permanent interests of the Empire demand the supreme supervision and direction of their administration by English officers” who must “continue to form the most important practical channel through which the arts, the sciences and the culture of the West…may flow freely to the East”.

Those “English officers” formed an exalted new caste. They were the Brahmins of the raj, several notches above the grandest company burra sahib who, being trade, was a mere boxwallah in the lingo of the raj. The distinction was enshrined in the old Bengal Club’s eligibility rules. But all that belonged to an age and ethos that are long gone. For us, people of a different race in our own native environment, to cling to any vestige of expatriate privileges is Orwell’s Animal Farm all over again.

Why do we do it? The obvious answer is that the beneficiaries — whether bureaucrats or ministers — are themselves responsible for the decision. It’s like parliamentarians voting to increase their emoluments. But there may be a reason beyond crude self-interest. Conversation with bureaucrats often reveals a startling sense of regret at the loss of the power they imagine civil servants enjoyed in colonial India without having to answer to ministers. That mental comparison and the consequent sense of deprivation gloss over the difference between a small ruling elite of alien stock and indigenous servants of the people in a democracy. The training given, the psychology engendered and the administration’s powerful institutional memory are largely responsible for this stupidity. The outcome is to suborn even the bright young people who join the administration, defeat the purpose of quotas by contributing to the creation of what is called the creamy layer and perpetuate the distance between governed and governor.

One contributory factor is the crassness and corruption of the ministers bureaucrats often have to serve. Another is the perception — one cannot be more definite in the absence of empirical evidence — that colleagues in the excise and customs departments make money hand over fist. The third is the premium attached to special treatment — like boarding a plane without going through the security procedure. I was witness once to the tantrum an Indian ambassador, visiting from his country of posting, threw because the external affairs ministry receptionist did not unroll the red carpet for him. He must have known that his diplomatic privileges disappeared in New Delhi, but being without either special ability or sense of dedication, what else had he to live for but the small comforts of being an Excellency?

That is also so with civil servants, judges and ministers who insist the nation will grind to a halt unless their distinctive cars are allowed to crash through traffic lights. Admittedly, road congestion in most cities makes this sound plausible. But the symbols of rank assume tremendous importance in the absence of quality. A state governor from the north attending a seminar in Hyderabad had his liveried chaprasi stand at attention behind his chair all through the two-day proceedings. Similarly, a high court judge’s chaprasi accompanied the judge to every diplomatic party.

Perhaps the Asian craving for ostentation exists regardless of any practical reason. The British cabinet minister I once saw unobtrusively sitting on the train from Manchester to London, and then in the taxi queue at Euston station, would be unthinkable in India. Lee describes in his memoirs how Sheikh Mujibur Rahman “arrived in style…in his own aircraft” for the 1973 Commonwealth summit in Ottawa. “When I landed, I saw a parked Boeing 707 with ‘Bangladesh’ emblazoned on it. When I left, it was still standing on the same spot, idle for eight days, getting obsolescent without earning anything. As I left the hotel for the airport, two huge vans were being loaded with packages for the Bangladesh aircraft.” Compounding the irony, Mujib made a pitch for aid at the conference. Lee’s observation is that “the poorer the country, the bigger the Cadillacs they hired for their leaders” at the United Nations.

Much can be said about the waste of scarce public funds. What matters more is that there never will be any public funds to speak of if our masters and betters live in a perks-driven bubble. They run the risk then of becoming like the Somerset Maugham character who could never understand why the poor did not ring for the butler when they wanted dinner.