ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
Reader Mode
-A A +A

Do We Need a Neutral Bureaucracy?

Neutrality helps enlightened public officials escape the honeycomb-like structure of a partisan government.


The open letter written by more than 80 retired bureaucrats to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) is significant for more than one reason. First, it is written keeping in view the normative principles of the Indian Constitution as the reference point. It is committed to receive the command from the Constitution. It shows that public officials are not slaves to either the politicians or any other authority other than the moral authority of the Constitution. Second, it shows that the principle of neutrality implies a measure of independence both from the partisan interests of the government of the day and the exogenous agenda that prompts certain social groups to cow others down to humiliating vulnerability. The spirit of the letter shows that there is a need for public officials to play an active role in at least voicing their concerns through interrogating the erring government—in the present case, the UP government. Such a role is crucial not only to bring in relief to its very credibility, but it also suggests the role particularly for a socially sympathetic bureaucracy to adopt administrative practices so as to give some relief to those social groups who continue to reel under the constant fear of mob lynching.

The growing menace of monocracy makes the constitutionally committed bureaucracy as ever relevant. Third, the letter also suggests that failure of the government, which by implication promotes the emergence of the hydra-headed mob lynching mentality, makes the discussion on post-bureaucratic society ­irrelevant. In India, we do require constitutionally committed bureaucracy. Do we not? Bureaucracy is neutral in terms of ideology and politics. Finally, and most importantly, it also suggests that even in the post-retirement period, public officials could make significant interventions for more noble purposes underlying the good society even without joining a particular brand of formal politics that has scant regard for constitutional principles such as freedom from fear and human dignity. To put it differently, this letter shows the mirror to those retired public officials who have joined political parties which are yet to prove in practice their normative credentials that stand firmly against the attitude of hatred and humiliation.

It is needless to mention that, for a genuine public official, commitment to constitutional principles is not only a lifelong project, but, more importantly, it can be carried out without any political or ideological mediation. It does not have to relate itself, for example, to the constitutional principle of justice, politics or ideology. If this is the case, the Constitution serves as the standard by which one can measure the capacity of a bureaucracy to remain committed to peace, harmony and justice. Bureaucracy serves as the third and neutral term that can be socially effective without the aid of politics or ideology. The onus is on those public officials who have either joined or are planning to join parties with shaky records on gender and social pluralism, to seek public validity for their entry into such parties. They are supposed to give an account of how much their in-service performance favoured the constitutional ideal. This becomes a moral need in a context where political parties with a shaky social record do not ask for such an account while inducting these officials in formal politics. This account-giving becomes important in a context where some of our public ­officials have not been able to keep their caste/patriarchy and the acute consciousness of hatred outside the office premises. Arguably, a bureaucratic structure in India is saddled with the caste of a bureaucratic mind. In the administrative transition, the caste of a person reaches faster than their transfer papers. One regularly comes across the narratives of discrimination based on caste, gender, region, religion and language.

Public officials have two interrelated moral functions. First, to protect the very state of which it is a part from being ­disrupted or being undermined by the disquieting elements from civil society. Second, to prevent the disruptive efforts of a society that is ridden with caste and patriarchal consciousness. Bureaucracy has to intervene in public life to see that such a society does not degenerate into aggressive obscurantism. On the one hand, the formative conditions to perform these twin tasks involve public officials’ moral capacity to resist anti-constitutional interests that the government of the day may try to push. And, on the other, they, through their active intervention, need to translate these constitutional principles to understand everyday forms of people’s problematic social practice. It is in this sense that such ­officials form part of a universal class because the end of their activities is to realise the universal interest of contributing to the efforts in establishing a decent and peaceful society. Members of such a class are not interested in perpetuating bureaucratic domination for its own sake, but are committed to playing a wider role in altering the grotesque basis of social relations, reorganising them in a more decent way. It has the capacity to de-antagonise social relations through peaceful mediation, persuasion, and deliberation. The universality of such a class is contrasted with the pursuit of a particular interest. Thus, the neutrality principle as suggested in their letter has a moral function to prevent public officials from becoming slaves to the government of the day.

Updated On : 11th Jan, 2019


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top