BABU-isation of India

My learning and experience makes me believe that the officers from the Indian Administrative Services do not have the wisdom it takes to make India succeed. IAS personnel are good at rationalising and articulating any and every point-of-view or governmental action, but they do not know how things work which would make India great.

I have nothing against bureaucratic administrative machinery. However, induction into the IAS itself does not automatically give the wisdom to be an effective leader. Their training and experience makes IAS very familiar with “how things work and have worked in the government.” They however have no idea about “how things ought to work instead of how they have worked in the government” to unshackle Indian potential.  IAS often parachute into formulating a policy and implementing it without knowing “how to change the work ethics and work-culture.” By training and grooming, most IAS lack innovation skills and risk-appetite. People in the top echelons of Indian government are predominantly IAS, who do not spend enough time on process-improvement and fail to give citizens what they really want and deserve. They spend more time on attending and chairing meetings or protecting the steel frame of bureaucratic processes; but much less time in connecting with the citizens, whom they govern.

Right from the selection and training to job-rotation, IAS are well trained into all sorts of things necessary to preserve and protect the structure and the system. In 16-years since their induction into the IAS, when they are empanelled for being Joint-secretaries in the Government, most of them have been through eight different experiences of about 2-years each. Such experiences do not provide any domain experience except training them in ways to protect and preserve the systemic and structural frameworks of varying designs. Their superb training is no substitute for knowledge, acumen and wisdom, which is so essential for paving and leading on strategic paths for change.

The IAS has long had its critics. Most politicians have criticised IAS in the past but when in government, they have found IAS to be their biggest support systems. Governing for nation building requires competencies in envisioning, planning, executing and controlling. IAS are competent in executing and controlling within the boundaries of the existing frameworks and thus make up the essential half of governance. When it comes to envisioning and planning, the competencies are about disrupting the status-quo and the IAS are uncomfortable there. While accelerating the growth is not possible without envisioning and planning that is different from the past, IAS can provide the necessary counterweight to the politicians forcing dangerously radical policies upon us. If the counterweight were to exceed the extent of departure from the benign paths followed in the past, there will be no new growth trajectories. Those would be circumstances of growth in spite of governance and despite of governance, as if there were no governance.

PM Modi, recently, while speaking in the Parliament, had remarked, “Sab kuch BABU hi karenege. IAS ban gaye matlab woh fertilizer ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega. Yeh kaun si badi takat bana kar rakh di humne? BABUon ke haath mein desh de karke hum kya karne waale hain?”

Was PM Modi insulting the IAS? I do not think so.  I think he was sharing his impression and experience. Modi is very balanced in his outpourings even when he is angry. PM Modi has worked with the IAS for 20-years now and surely he has seen and worked with not just a few but many of them.  It was no outburst in the Parliament and his use of the expression ‘BABU’ for the IAS was not to belittle the IAS but to present them on a more real plank rather than ‘on-a-pedestal’ projection, which the IAS have been making of themselves. Some in the IAS will surely be feeling hurt thinking that ‘BABU’ is a derogatory expression.

Let us keep the emotions aside and examine the statement is terms of reality. Bureaucratic structures are like a nest in which the future progeny is protected and nurtured. IAS are only the twigs. The twigs that make up the nest have to hold together so that the nest holds and protects the eggs and the young ones from vagaries of nature. The twigs themselves cannot decide the design of the nest or the place of perching the nest or fight the predators. IAS are like twigs of nest to home and nurture progeny of nation called India.  BABU has been a historical nomenclature for jobs of custodians of organisational memory and customs.

Wisdom is not restricted to IAS. In fact, politicians, especially those in power, are wiser and more experienced than the IAS, in guiding the course of national growth while keeping a finger on the pulse of the citizens. PM Modi has been selective in his use of IAS for “doing the job” necessary for implementing his strategy for India. He has had unsupportive experts who were in “positions of doing” due to political patronage and such experts were unable to overcome their sense of subservience to their political benefactors. When he found that the expert with international credibility and from across the Atlantic as RBI governor was unable to deliver, he replaced him with a homeland expert. Seeing this expert also faltering, he brought in an IAS BABU as RBI Governor, not so much for strategic direction but for protecting the steel frame. Similar things happened when he had to replace an expert, experienced in the insurance sector by an IAS BABU as Chairman, Insurance Regulatory Development Authority (IRDA). Former IAS succeed in such roles because others from their fraternity in the government would not let them fail.

IAS are better than most non-IAS in “doing the job” but exceptions apart, most IAS are not competent at “designing the job.” Reciprocal exceptions exist among non-IAS. Like any generalisation, exceptions exist to this one too.

When PM Modi says, “Country has been handed over to BABUs” he is saying that the BABUs are in jobs where they need not be and that people should fit the boots rather than “any IAS would do in any boot” approach.

IAS (rather ICS) used to be something that really helped the British crown stand out. The British had no illusions of building India. Now that elite clique is more like a small crowd utterly for self-preservation by maintaining the legacy systems and structures. When it comes to success in any vision for nation building, an IAS is optional.

We do not see a lot of IAS as Governmental Leaders. The IAS tend to be hired for the Governmental Leaders and by the Governmental Leaders.


First published 16 March 2021


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Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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