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  Opinion   Columnists  17 Sep 2022  Pavan K. Varma | Risk, amorality and a rusting steel frame

Pavan K. Varma | Risk, amorality and a rusting steel frame

The writer, an author, former diplomat and is in politics.
Published : Sep 18, 2022, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Sep 18, 2022, 12:05 am IST

Bureaucrats ave become yes men, willing to do whatever is required to win approbation, so that their careers are not jeopardised


These days one often sees groups of retired bureaucrats writing letters in protest of policies which they believe are inimical to the national interest. This is a good thing. But I often wonder why, with a few honourable exceptions, the bureaucracy as a class when in service acquiesces so effortlessly with decisions of politicians which are blatantly illegal or undesirable. 

There was a time when bureaucrats could fearlessly give their political masters impartial advice on what is the correct thing to do, and senior politicians would appreciate them for this, even if that advice was not to their liking. No longer. A new atmosphere of sycophancy has possessed us, where bureaucrats appear to be more concerned about the dividends of loyalty, than doing their duty.  They have become yes men, willing to do whatever is required to win approbation, so that their careers are not jeopardised.

It is difficult to say who is more to blame: politicians or bureaucrats. Certainly, a certain breed of politicians, who respected officers for their integrity and courage of conviction, is fast becoming extinct. Equally, officers have been willing to kneel when they were asked only to bend. This has resulted in a convenient condominium where both politicians and bureaucrats are happy: one gets the unconditional servitude they believe is their due, the other gets rewards such as lucrative postings and a ‘successful’ career. Officers who don’t play this game — and they are by far a miniscule minority — are made to suffer the consequences: frequent transfers, enquiries, delay in promotion, and sidelining to unimportant posts where they can languish in anonymity. 

This proclivity to blindly venerate power and the powerful at the small price of compromising one’s own principles has made sycophancy into a fine art. The words chamcha and maska are understood all over India. Those who seek to benefit by enhancing their proximity to power must outdo competitors in the ability to say the right thing, at the right time, with the right degree of exaggeration and deference so as to leave no doubt about their abject loyalty and the unquestioned primacy of the benefactor. 

The body language of the chamcha, and that of the patron, have become part of a carefully choreographed and well-established code of behaviour, that is determined by the differences in the status of people within the hierarchical order. Chamchagiri is not expected to be subtle. It must be obvious and excessive. The benefactor will not be embarrassed to hear it. The supplicant will not be uncomfortable in voicing it. Sycophants justify this as a necessity, for have not our Vedic poets said, even the gods cannot resist praise? As usual, Tulsidas puts his finger on the pulse: Samrathakarnahin dosha gusain, ravipaavaksursari ki nahin: The powerful can have no faults; they remain as pure as the sun, the fire and the Ganga. One has only to see the behaviour of most bureaucrats in the presence of a minister, or senior executives in the private sector with the boss, or people in general in ‘superior-subordinate’ relationships, to realise how true this is. 

As a child I remember hearing a popular story about a king and a wazir. The king was tired of eating baingan, eggplant. One day he told his wazir that eggplant was an absolutely useless vegetable. The wazir agreed wholeheartedly, emphatically decrying the poor vegetable, and fully supporting the king’s view. A few days later, the raj vaid met the king and spoke about the excellent health benefits of eggplant. Now the king recommended the vegetable to his wazir.  The wazir couldn’t agree more. The eggplant was veritably the king of vegetables and extremely good for one’s health, he said. Suddenly, the king remembered that on the last occasion the wazir had roundly condemned the vegetable. With anger he asked how he could maintain two absolutely contradictory points of view. The wazir’s answer came from generations of distilled wisdom. He said: “My Lord, I work for you, not for the eggplant. What good would it do to me if I disagree with you and agree with the eggplant?”

Sometimes folk tales can elucidate the truth far more convincingly than carefully-worded theories. The wazir did not think he was doing something morally wrong by changing his views to agree with the king. His amorality was based on the expedient but pragmatic perception that the power of his position was more important than the strength of his convictions. This clarity is based on the fact that to most Indians private knowledge is never expected to come in the way of public posturing. In such a milieu, only an error of cognition, avidya, is culpable. And failing to cultivate an obvious focus of power, such as the king, would be avidya of a very high order. 

Alas, such an approach makes most of us prostrate before any edifice of higher authority. The edifice must be visible. The power it radiates must be manifest. The benefits it bestows must be self-evident. If these conditions are met, principles are easily sacrificed on the altar of personal benefit.

Politicians expect their bureaucrats to be suitably servile, but themselves are unbelievable servile before their political superiors. Their future depends on the approval of the leader. Like the wazir, they change like chameleons to endorse what the leader thinks is right. It is a stifling sycophantic milieu where unquestioned and embarrassingly emphatic praise of the leader, even giving him divine status, has become the norm.

For a democracy, the dominance of unprincipled yes men is a very worrying situation. It leads to unchecked power, wrong decision making, and venality and corruption. Ultimately, the common citizen suffers. It is for this reason, that in the Arthashastra, Kautilya repeatedly stresses that the senior advisers guiding the king must be people of the highest integrity, chosen for their merit and capable of stating their views fearlessly. Such wisdoms seem to have become irrelevant today, conveniently forgotten in favour of an amoral ‘worldly wisdom’. It is time to seriously introspect and restore the moral fibre of our nation. Unfortunately, the political class has to take the lead, and that is unlikely to happen. 

Tags: eggplant, arthashastra, kautilya’s arthashastra, india