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Copying neighbours

June 14, 2018


THOSE Indians who forget Pakistan’s history are condemned to relive it.

On Sept 25, 1972, readers of the morning dailies were startled to see two advertisements placed by Mr Z.A. Bhutto’s PPP government: one invited applications to senior posts from the level of deputy secretary to secretary in the Central Secretariat; the second, for comparable positions from third secretary to minister in Pakistan’s Foreign Service. In time, these inductees were branded by those recruited through the fiercely competitive Civil Service exam condescendingly as ‘lateral entrants’. 

On June 11, this year, Narendra Modi’s BJP government placed an advertisement in Indian newspapers, asking “talented and motivated Indian nationals” to apply for 10 posts of the level of joint secretary in the Indian Union Government. Mr Bhutto’s trawl in 1972 was generic, regardless of specialty. Mr Bhutto’s motive had been to weaken the iron grip of the Civil Service of Pakistan. Mr Modi wants one joint secretary apiece with expertise in “revenue, financial services, economic affairs, agriculture, road transport, shipping, environment and forest, civil aviation and commerce”’. He is suspected by his opponents of inoculating Jan Sanghis into India’s administrative structure.

There’s no country that hasn’t tried to reform its civil service.

There’s no country in the world, from the US to Russia, that has not attempted to reform its civil service, and there’s no leader from George Washington to Vladimir Putin who hasn’t craved a competent, selfless, pliant bureaucracy. Washington declared he would hire only “the best qualified”, and then stuffed the service with likeminded Federalists. Putin scoffed at his Russian bureaucracy, deriding it as “large and clumsy”.

Jawaharlal Nehru famously mocked the Indian Civil Service as “Neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”. Lord Samuel wittily lauded the British bureaucracy’s faultless ability to “provide a difficulty to every solution”. Mrs Margaret Thatcher, soon after becoming prime minister, thought she should make an informed assessment of the civil servants for herself. In May 1980, she invited 23 permanent secretaries in her government to dinner at 10 Downing Street. She groaned afterwards: “This was one of the most dismal occasions of my entire time in government.”

She too like most leaders thought that a solution lay in injecting fresh talent incubated in the private sector and then pay them their market worth. She discovered, like most leaders do to their nation’s cost, that while such a transfusion may improve the blood count, it destroys the grey cells of the civil service.

Mr Bhutto, having attempted the experiment once, was never tempted to repeat it. Later governments, elected or self-appointed, have tried variants of it: for example, by hiring professionals on contract for a specific period. The higher salary given to them was deemed to compensate for the lack of security of tenure. Military governments have used this ploy to place their uniformed retirees in public-sector organisations. Civilian governments tinkered with their own version. The most recent has been the dispensation of largesse by a recent chief minister of Punjab who, like King Edward II of England, will be renowned for being “prodigal in giving”.

During his tenure, the chief minister, an aspirant for a higher post in Islamabad, appointed numerous cooperative bureaucrats on their retirement to senior positions in 56 companies established by the Punjab government. Those appointees, regardless of their qualifications for the post, are now being ordered by the Supreme Court to refund their chief minister’s state-funded liberality, or face a jail sentence.

It would not be unfair to say that bureaucrats in Pakistan suffer from a debilitating disease diagnosed as ‘institutionalised inertia’. Like Asian flu, it exhibits similar symptoms in different continents. In the UK, according to Mrs Thatcher, a former head of her civil service beli­eved that bur­eaucracy’s function was essentially “the orderly management of decline”. It is natural for every government to expect cooperation from its civil service. How else could it function? But who is the bureaucracy loyal to — the government, the party in power, or itself?

Many in Pakistan suspect that ever since Mr Bhutto’s body-blow in 1972, the bureaucracy has degenerated from its ideal of being a specialist capable of curing all ailments to one more adept at pain management.

Across the border, a report on the Indian bureaucracy by a US think tank concluded that “corrupt bureaucrats are despised but thrive; the honest are respected but do not rise; and idealists end up nowhere”. Perhaps Indians and Pakistanis are closer to each other than they realise.

There is another similarity. The president of India is not holding an iftar party at Rashtrapati Bhavan for minority Muslim Indians. He is taking a cue perhaps from our president. None of our minorities — Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Parsi — has ever been invited to our Aiwan-i-Sadar to celebrate their religious holidays. Has communalism finally overpowered nationalism?

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2018