Bureaucracy and Democracy – Paradoxical or Complimentary?

There exists a general lingering stereotype that comes to mind when one hears the term ‘Bureaucracy’. Some of the terms usually associated with a bureaucratic set up are inefficiency, corruption, and unaccountability. It appears to be the antithetical approach to ‘Democracy’. While Bureaucracy stands for a system of government in which most important decisions are taken by the state officials, rather than the elected representatives, a Democracy is a system of government wherein the citizens of a nation exercise power through elections.

The nature of the relationship between bureaucracy and democracy is simultaneously paradoxical and complementary in nature.

While the two may sound fundamentally different in approaches, together they constitute essential elements of every society. In India, politicians are the democratically elected representatives, they are primarily responsible for the ‘law-making’ functions, while Bureaucrats are primarily responsible for the execution of policies. Thus, every effective democracy requires an efficient bureaucracy.

Bureaucrats, while not democratically elected by the people of a State, are instead appointed to effectively administer and execute public policy. Thus, unlike your average politicians, they are not directly responsible to the people.

The Indian Context

The Indian Bureaucratic system largely remains the model adopted by the Colonial British model of administration. This was however, largely catered at the time, to work in the favour of the British. Why then, did India choose to continue with the system? India’s Home Minister, Vallabhai Patel, strongly advocated for a civil service, wherein political interventions of any form are reduced to a minimum. Although several members of the Constituent Assembly opposed this, Patel’s will emerged victorious. Thus, the Bureaucratic set up was meant to be, “the steel frame” of the Indian Government.
Over the years, however, this Colonial frame grew to become highly politicised, inefficient and corrupt. The bureaucrats in India, are commonly referred to as “Babus”. They are largely unaccountable, unresponsive and generally walled off from the society they promised to serve. They enjoy essentially ‘guaranteed’ promotions and are not really liable to penalties. This has largely given them the reputation being lethargic and inefficient in their functioning. In fact, the state of their performance is so ill-reputed that they are often credited for holding back the Indian economy, crushing the entrepreneurial spirit.

What is Bureaucratic Elitism?

Bureaucracies are essentially hierarchies, that are not subject to market discipline. There exists a phenomenon of Bureaucratic elitism. The “Babus”, were many a time accused of being part of a non-representative system, despite laws to change these old fashioned ways. They were well aware of their power and unaccountability, some even compared them as being similar to the British Officials. However, there are some upcoming changes in this aspect in the form of ‘lateral entries’. This essentially allows external experts from the private sector to come in with fresh ideas and skills in order to improve efficiency and also to create a healthy amount of internal competition.

The Politicisation of Bureaucracy

The Constitution of India laid down certain laws and clauses to keep bureaucracy independent from the political area. Despite this, there exists a political-bureaucratic nexus. This has led to the creation of further and deeper levels of corruption and inefficiency. In the current scenario, not a single bureaucratic posting can be made without a certain amount of political lobbying. Thus, the result is that corrupt politicians, choose corrupt officers.

There is an increased intensity of politicisation of bureaucracy. Honest officers who do not want to partake in the corrupt ways of the politicians are quickly transferred and replaced by those that are willing to work in the favour of the interest of the ‘democratically elected’ politicians. For example, in 2003-04, Uma Bharati, the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh is said to have transferred 240 of the 296 IAS officers in the state. The current Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath, is said to have transferred 138 IAS and IPS officers within a month of taking charge. As a result, a large percentage of bureaucrats become involved in some of the biggest corruption scandals in the country.

Although the media remains focused on politicians, it is a common knowledge that none of the scams would have been made possible without the efforts of the bureaucrats working in the shadows; the Rs 900 fodder scam in Bihar was largely focused on Politician Lalu Prasad Yadav, but there were 6 IAS officers who were convicted and sentenced along with them.

Finding the Middle Path

Bureaucratic corruption and elitism, their non-representative nature, makes them appear to be anti-development or anti-democracy. However, there are also ways in which the two systems are complementary to one another.

Although the bureaucratic set up is widely viewed to be inefficient, it does promote a sense of equality in terms of its universalisation of principles, leading to a form of equal treatment for all. In this sense, it can be said to be ‘democratic’ in its functioning. Another perspective through which a bureaucratic set up can be viewed to be democratic in nature is through its interactions with the public. It is certainly true that the politicians are the ones that are ‘democratically elected’ by the people of a state or country, however, rarely do they interact with the people that elected them. It is the bureaucrats, the public servants, that interact with the common people on a regular basis. In this manner, it may even be argued that they are in a sense ‘more democratic’, than your elected politicians.

Although we usually hear the negatives of a bureaucratic setup and how it is detrimental to a democracy, a well-functioning bureaucracy could rather be an ideal situation, complementing the existing democratic set-up. There are examples of honest and hardworking Bureaucrats, like E. Shreedharan, popularly known as the Metro Man of India, who continue to inspire millions of young Indians to be part of the bureaucratic set up and serve their nation. What we need is a reformed bureaucracy, free from the shackles of politicisation.

The essence of a bureaucratic set-up is to ensure minimisation of arbitrary government decisions, through their impartial and uniform principles. Thus, democratic and bureaucratic forms of government must work hand in hand as they are both necessary for good governance.

Picture: 2016 Batch IAS Officers with the Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi

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