The Self Perpetuating Power Elite 


The Indian Express report recently about a government-owned stadium being used by an IAS Officer to walk his dog after athletes practicing there were asked to vacate early, attracted so much public ire that the man and his wife, a fellow bureaucrat were transferred out with great rapidity. Obviously, the media coverage had a role to play in bringing to public attention a small instance of the power and privilege of being a part of the elite class of civil servants in independent India.

The incident reminded me of the book “ The Postmaster”  by the Pakistani Novelist  Saad Ashraf.  The book traces the life of one Rasool Ghulam, born shortly after the death of Queen Victoria in Delhi, and ends with his experiences as a now-retired officer and a citizen in the new state of Pakistan. Through his life story, the author also compares the state of governance in colonial India – exploitative as per the colonial government’s policies; but for the individual citizen, a civil service that was manned by people who were humane, approachable, and incorruptible. The book ends with Ghulam,  now a retired man with health problems being asked to pay a petty bribe for the free medicines that he was entitled to as part of his retirement benefits in independent Pakistan. Of course, the novel happens to be set in Pakistan,  the experiences could well be that of an Indian in India too.

According to Percival Spear, a British historian who taught in the famous St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, the greatest contribution of the British Raj to the Indian sub-continent was the creation of a professional civil service- the Indian civil service (ICS). For a large part of its history, it was White, British, and Christian, and in its composition, largely homogenous.

After independence when IAS, a national civil service was created it was a conglomeration of war service recruits, emergency recruits, and direct recruits. In course of years, promotion from State civil service took place. Further, there was special recruitment into the service in the mid-fifties of the last century consisting of people slightly higher in the age group. From the mid-sixties, those repatriated from the armed forces also joined IAS. Now there is also lateral entry coming from different disciplines.

The Constitution provided for reservation for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe. In addition, it consisted of people drawn from different linguistic groups, religions, sects, and castes. From the above, it would be clear as to how heterogenous the composition was in the service which was considered as the successor service of ICS. All these factors meant that the spirit de corps and the unwritten honour code of the original civil service gradually eroded.

The civil services have been imbued with a sense of mystique, right from the time of the examinations and the preparations and the coaching that usually goes into it.  Every year, the toppers are announced with great fanfare and coaching classes, some of which have a reputation that is decades old begin advertising their classes months ahead. In fact, in several places, a whole ecosystem survives around the civil service exam drama… teachers, centres, paying guest accommodations, cafes and canteens, photocopy shops, and many others. Not just ordinary people but even the aspirants themselves think that those who manage to ‘crack’ these exams are the crème de la crème of the country, and begin to believe in their ‘inherent superiority’

A question the needs to ask is what the civil service, based on a competitive examination-based selection, has delivered in 165 years of its existence, which could be delivered only by them and not by others, say promoted officers, academicians, or just common citizens? The answer is shocking nil.  Indian companies, CEOs, managers, and innovators who have made a mark globally have never possibly even attempted civil services. In essence, the Indian administration still functions very much the same way it functioned when the British set it up. Its resources have changed; its mind and spirit remain the same. Not long ago, we had proper feudal lords who got their positions and titles through birth or sheer force of arms; the civil services have replaced them with ‘feudalism through exam’.

The anti-elite rhetoric expressed in such phrases as “Lutyens’ Delhi gang” or “Khan Market gang is disliked by many but the fact is that there is such a power elite who lived with a sense of entitlement whether or not they live in Lutyens’s Delhi or not or whether their favourite restaurant is at Khan Market. They are movers and shakers and a loose inorganic vote bank, and what they say, write, and think matters. Undoubtedly the reason why different regimes over the decades of whatever affiliation cultivate and try to win the approval of these elites in overt or covert ways.

In traditional and feudal societies, elite groups wield power based on social dominance characterised by caste, lands, religious discrimination, and other forms of socio-economic hierarchies. Such higher caste groups continue to take a large share of the political, administrative, and security sectors despite long exercises in “democratic governance”. The continuity of the caste structure is also related to class divisions as the upper castes who have had access to power and social status continue to be the beneficiaries of power and privileges.

Our civil servants have functioned (obviously there are honourable and wonderful exceptions) without any significant accountability or the need to justify their exalted positions. Why do those who have so much want more? Why do they behave so badly towards their fellow human beings, and why is their behaviour so widely accepted as ‘natural’? The ferocious sense of entitlement that the rich carry with them at all times has also helped to legitimise so many inequalities in India.

Every year, when the results of the civil services examination are announced, there is much rejoicing when the child of a rickshaw puller or someone who studied in government schools and did their homework by candlelight gets selected. While these achievements are definitely praiseworthy, decades of affirmative action policy do seem to have done much to dilute the inherent elitism; rather those selected seem to be sucked into the power elite and perpetuate the status quo.

Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.


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