The way out is a clear division of labour between the political authority and the bureaucracy -- the former’s job is to decide what public interest demands and the bureaucrat’s job is to carry out the task as efficiently as possible
The large-scale reshuffle in the federal and Punjab secretariats by the new governments is the latest demonstration of bureaucracy’s politicisation. The senior-level civil servants believed to have been close to the previous governments are being replaced by officers who are trusted by the new authorities or are at least not suspected of sympathising with the parties previously in power.
This has been happening with increasing regularity after each regime change. Dr Ishrat Husain states that it was during the 1990s that "the replacement of one political party by another in the corridors of power was followed by changes in the higher bureaucracy." The practice has quite a long history. Most probably it began in the early 1950s when civil servants were employed to ensure the election of chief ministers’ favourites in the provincial elections, especially crudely in Punjab and the then NWFP.
The purges of civil servants carried out by Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Ziaul Haq were not objectively justifiable in all individual cases. For example, during the Zia period, two senior bureaucrats had the same name. When the file pertaining to action against one of them came to Gen Zia for final orders he innocently queried, "Which one is he? One of us or from the other camp?" He was not ‘one of us’ and dismissal was ordered.
But why do political leaders want to surround themselves with likeminded, pliable and unscrupulous bureaucrats?
The use of civil servants to manipulate elections that began in 1951 has never ceased. The Ayub regime used state functionaries to herd the voters in his 1965 presidential contest with Miss Jinnah in his pens.
Bhutto relied on bureaucrats in the 1977 polls more than on party cadres and they (the bureaucrats) had their revenge. Special cells in the presidency tried to manipulate almost all the elections held during 1988-2013.A truly independent probe into the latest general election might reveal considerable interference by state functionaries. Thus, electoral politics has played a significant part in politicising the bureaucracy and the latter has never hesitated to recover its charges -- with compound interest.
The second important factor contributing to the political exploitation of bureaucracy is boundless corruption in political life. There was a time when to be admitted into an elective body or to be inducted into a ministry was considered a reward in itself and also an adequate return on election expenses. This tradition was abandoned long ago. The cost of winning an election -- any election -- has been raised so high by the vested interest that only a few can comfortably afford it. The tendency to recover election expenditure and also acquire resources for the next election in the shortest possible time is quite common. In great demand are bureaucrats who can help politicians make money in such a manner that they cannot be caught.
Of course, neither all politicians nor all bureaucrats are corrupt. There should be many in both groups who wish to discharge their responsibilities honestly. But in a corrupt environment honest persons are at the sufferance of the unclean majority. The honest ones are lucky if they survive in politics or service and do not end up as mentally challenged wrecks.
The bureaucracy received a raw deal in the 1970s when it was deprived of the security of tenure the colonial masters had designed for them and which enabled them to assert themselves against unreasonable political masters without coming to grief. Over the last four decades, laws have been made and refined periodically to empower political authorities to throw out any bureaucrat on the flimsiest of grounds.
The colonial system of protecting holders of covenanted posts had some problems, especially those caused by the transfer policy. The punishment for a bad bureaucrat was transfer from one place to another. A civil servant found committing excesses in one district was transferred to another district to gratify his sadistic instincts there, what was needed was creation of firm and just accountability mechanisms while retaining security of tenure for civil servants. That can still be done.
The need for administrative reforms has been felt more than once. In the 1960s the Section Officers replaced clerks and superintendents as the initial note writers on files. And in 1970s, unified pay scales for various cadres and a lateral entry scheme were introduced.
That there can be more than one approach to bureaucracy’s role in governance within a political party was proved while N-League was in power during 2013-2018. At the federal level, Nawaz Sharif continued his policy of allowing a trusted super-bureaucrat to control and command the secretariat. He had adopted this model in 1988,when he became the first chief minister of Punjab in the post-Ziaul Haq era. He relied heavily on Anwar Zahid, the quiet and efficient CSP officer who had gained prominence during the 1970s.
On becoming prime minister in 1990, Nawaz Sharif took him to Islamabad where he served the regime till his death. During his last stint as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif chose Fawad Hasan Fawad as the major domo to the extent that the latter came to be known as the de facto head of government.
Shahbaz Sharif in Punjab didn’t break completely with his brother’s strategy but he made daring experiments with a view to attracting talented persons, from the services and outside, to spruce up the administration, including the creation of limited companies for the higher-rated bureaucrats. This immensely impressed Dr Ishrat Husain: "he (Shahbaz Sharif) brought about Innovation in the public sector. His ministers, political supporters, and allies didn’t pull much weight in his assessments and decision-making. He also became a role model for the chief ministers of other provinces, a hard act to follow."
Many other factors, such as the declining standards of education, that affects the quality of human resources available for recruitment, and unsatisfactory training, as compared to the facilities available some decades ago, have diluted the bureaucracy’s ability to hold its own against ambitious politicians or resist the temptation to tutor the innocent among them.
Politicisation of bureaucracy or conflict between political authorities and bureaucrats not only harms the state, it also deprives the people of their right to a fair and just dispensation. Irresponsible conduct by politicians in power and civil servants can divert the people from their duties as citizens and sap their capacity to oversee whatever goes on in the republic.
The way out is a clear division of labour between the political authority and the bureaucracy. The former’s job is to decide what public interest demands, construction of a hospital or a library, or a school, and the bureaucrat’s job is to carry out the task as efficiently and as economically as possible. If this division of labour can be enforced it should be possible for honest politicians and competent bureaucrats to coexist peacefully for public god.
*All observations by Dr Ishrat Husain are from his book, Governing the Ungovernable, Oxford University Press, 2018