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decemBER 29, 2018

Do We Need a Neutral Bureaucracy?

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

he open letter written by more than 80 retired bureau- political or ideological mediation. It does not have to relate
crats to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) is signifi- itself, for example, to the constitutional principle of justice, poli-
cant for more than one reason. First, it is written keeping tics or ideology. If this is the case, the Constitution serves as the
in view the normative principles of the Indian Constitution as standard by which one can measure the capacity of a bureau-
the reference point. It is committed to receive the command cracy to remain committed to peace, harmony and justice.
from the Constitution. It shows that public officials are not Bureaucracy serves as the third and neutral term that can be
slaves to either the politicians or any other authority other than socially effective without the aid of politics or ideology. The
the moral authority of the Constitution. Second, it shows that onus is on those public officials who have either joined or are
the principle of neutrality implies a measure of independence planning to join parties with shaky records on gender and social
both from the partisan interests of the government of the day and pluralism, to seek public validity for their entry into such par-
the exogenous agenda that prompts certain social groups to cow ties. They are supposed to give an account of how much their
others down to humiliating vulnerability. The spirit of the letter in-service performance favoured the constitutional ideal. This
shows that there is a need for public officials to play an active role becomes a moral need in a context where political parties with
in at least voicing their concerns through interrogating the erring a shaky social record do not ask for such an account while in-
government—in the present case, the UP government. Such a ducting these officials in formal politics. This account-giving
role is crucial not only to bring in relief to its very credibility, becomes important in a context where some of our public
but it also suggests the role particularly for a socially sympathetic officials have not been able to keep their caste/patriarchy and
bureaucracy to adopt administrative practices so as to give some the acute consciousness of hatred outside the office premises.
relief to those social groups who continue to reel under the Arguably, a bureaucratic structure in India is saddled with the
constant fear of mob lynching. caste of a bureaucratic mind. In the administrative transition,
The growing menace of monocracy makes the constitution- the caste of a person reaches faster than their transfer papers.
ally committed bureaucracy as ever relevant. Third, the letter One regularly comes across the narratives of discrimination
also suggests that failure of the government, which by implication based on caste, gender, region, religion and language.
promotes the emergence of the hydra-headed mob lynching Public officials have two interrelated moral functions. First, to
mentality, makes the discussion on post-bureaucratic society protect the very state of which it is a part from being disrupted
irrelevant. In India, we do require constitutionally committed or being undermined by the disquieting elements from civil
bureaucracy. Do we not? Bureaucracy is neutral in terms of society. Second, to prevent the disruptive efforts of a society that is
ideology and politics. Finally, and most importantly, it also sug- ridden with caste and patriarchal consciousness. Bureaucracy
gests that even in the post-retirement period, public officials has to intervene in public life to see that such a society does not
could make significant interventions for more noble purposes degenerate into aggressive obscurantism. On the one hand, the
underlying the good society even without joining a particular formative conditions to perform these twin tasks involve public
brand of formal politics that has scant regard for constitutional officials’ moral capacity to resist anti-constitutional interests
principles such as freedom from fear and human dignity. To put that the government of the day may try to push. And, on the other,
it differently, this letter shows the mirror to those retired public they, through their active intervention, need to translate these
officials who have joined political parties which are yet to prove constitutional principles to understand everyday forms of people’s
in practice their normative credentials that stand firmly against problematic social practice. It is in this sense that such officials
the attitude of hatred and humiliation. form part of a universal class because the end of their activities
It is needless to mention that, for a genuine public official, is to realise the universal interest of contributing to the efforts
commitment to constitutional principles is not only a lifelong in establishing a decent and peaceful society. Members of such a
project, but, more importantly, it can be carried out without any class are not interested in perpetuating bureaucratic domination
Economic & Political Weekly EPW decEMBER 29, 2018 vol lIii no 51 7

for its own sake, but are committed to playing a wider role in The universality of such a class is contrasted with the pursuit of
altering the grotesque basis of social relations, reorganising them a particular interest. Thus, the neutrality principle as suggested
in a more decent way. It has the capacity to de-antagonise social in their letter has a moral function to prevent public officials
relations through peaceful mediation, persuasion, and deliberation. from becoming slaves to the government of the day.

8 decEMBER 29, 2018 vol lIii no 51 EPW Economic & Political Weekly