– Dr C.K. Mathew, IAS (Retd)
It is heartening to know that in 1558, when Queen Elizabeth I appointed Sir William Cecil as her Secretary, she understood perfectly the role of the senior civil servant better than most do now. She exhorted him thus:
“This judgment I have of you, that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gifts, that you will be faithful to the State and that without respect to my private will, you will give me that counsel that you think best.”
This is as accurate a summation of the role of a senior bureaucrat as any. It made me sit up and think a little more of the roles played today by senior bureaucrats. I remember, in the summer of 1979, with my brand new wife in tow, I landed up at Udaipur in Rajasthan to join as Sub-Divisional Officer there. Coming from Kerala as I did, I found that Hindi stuck in my throat and just wouldn’t come out. I promised myself that I’d rather be silent than look stupid. It took a good dictionary and almost six months of painful effort for the babel of voices around me to start making sense. SDO, Additional Collector, District Collector, Head of Department; these were the signboards on the journey I undertook.
It was work, work and more work. It was tough and exhilarating and back-breaking and wonderful. There was no time to think, cogitate, even observe. And then finally, I slipped into the Secretariate. Clearly, as one grows old, and gracefully I hope, we must allow the youngsters to do the doing, while one observes, and advices. But by then, you have mostly lost touch with the dust and grime of the field. Now with more than three and a half decades of experience under the belt, I can see I have become a wise elder who knows how to preach, but, I shudder to think, can barely act in a crisis. Certainly, I am no longer a doer. It is a little disconcerting to think that one may have lost that sharp edge in the rough and tumble of the passing years.
For, surely, when a crisis looms, and emergency meetings are held in the Secretariate, there is much satisfaction amongst the elders to know that there are tireless, energetic younger officers in the field, most notably the District Collectors and the Superintendents of Police, who do the running around and maintain civil law and order. And perform the million and one things that keep the machinery ticking. While they of the grey hair smile, and enjoy the luxury to look on, or shake one’s head, or nod in agreement.
I used to think until recently -but not now- that all this nodding and smiling could be but an elaborate camouflage to hide incompetence; to pretend that a civil servant is performing the functions of the wise elder, when all that they really have become are bureaucrats who have outlived their utility. Not merely that, they also have the capacity to gently insert the spokes into the wheel and make the huge rumbling edifice come to a halt. After all, policy is in the hands of the elders, in the Secretariate, and policy formulated with no reference to the field conditions is not policy, but well-disguised obstacles, hidden speed-breakers.
But now I know better. Reading Queen Bess’s advice cleared my vision. Advice that senior civil servants can render, is the very essence of good governance. Let no one devalue that. One cannot possibly say it better than the Queen did. Indeed, the articulation of sound counsel is the essence of the role of senior elders in the civil service. To give that counsel that they think best. If they can render sound advice without fear or favour, affection of malice, without respect to what may be expected of them, then they are indeed doing the work they were meant to do.
The real question is, therefore, have they been doing it as conscientiously as they should? Do they truly have the strength to follow that advice, now just a little over four hundred and fifty years old? Or do personal interest and the greed of money slip in like a dark shadow when they speak? It is for each one of the senior civil servants to examine themselves: do they pass the test? It requires enormous courage, fearless vision and impeccable integrity to do just that. Once they have rendered that advice, the job is mostly done. It is now for others, especially their political masters, to accept, reject or modify that advice. But the rendering of that advice, “that counsel that you think best” and “without respect to private will”, that is the key to administration at the highest levels.
And only when they have done just that, can they, like Sir Galahad, Knight par excellence of Arthur’s Round Table, speak these words: “My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.”