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Should a civil servant join politics?

While there may be a couple of exceptions, as a thumb rule, the roles of a civil servant and a politician are radically different and should be kept separate


HURTLING towards the watershed Lok Sabha elections, the country is witnessing a growing trend of retired civil servants joining the ranks of political parties. While it should not be difficult to guess their intentions as they know what power is all about, the question is whether it is appropriate for civil servants to join politics.

There are obvious arguments in support of civil servants entering the political arena after going through a prolonged period of policymaking and implementation of policies. It seems logical that they can use their knowledge and experience for more robust policymaking and advising the government as an insider, rather than an impartial slave. In doing so, they would be able to demonstrate their loyalties to a political ideology without any reserves and express their commitment to something they had been debarred from doing by conduct rules. It may, therefore, be argued that with knowledge acquired during their service period, and educational endowments, civil servants are well-equipped for political jobs.

However, it is the rare civil servant who, despite possessing the necessary intellectual competence, becomes an effective political leader. I cannot think of a single civil servant rising to the level of a national leader in our country in recent times. Going by intellectual calibre, he can perhaps contribute to nation-building. But, as a politician, I am not too sure.

The empirical account of retired civil servants joining politics does not inspire confidence. They have not added any value either to policymaking, or to efficient implementation of policies

The civil servant is trained to be politically indifferent in his work. After living a life of political neutrality, it may be extremely difficult for him to adhere to the discipline of a political party. The acknowledged principle of the Weberian bureaucracy is objectivity unsullied by any political ideology. Of course, he, like any other citizen, is fully entitled to hold personal views on politics and to exercise his right to vote. But, he is debarred from expressing his political views either in his work or publicly. More important, a civil servant is obliged to transfer his expertise and loyalty from one elected government to the next one, irrespective of its colour.

Admittedly, there cannot be a caveat about civil servants staying away from active politics. There may be some who were born to be politicians, but who strayed into civil services. And, even while in government service, they played politics of some sort. But, as a general rule, an experienced bureaucrat is not trained to adapt to the mould of a political leader.

My hypothesis is that a quintessential civil servant is not adequately equipped to serve as a legislator, or a minister. I would say that the reverse is also true. A politician, should he be laterally brought into the civil service, would be a complete failure.

I believe that the roles of a civil servant and a politician are radically different and should be kept separate. It beats my understanding as to how one is expected to jump roles. A civil servant, in his entire working career, acts according to the laws of the land and his conscience. As a member of a political party, he would not be able to hold his views against the party line. In our country, internal democracy does not exist in political parties. In case he enters Parliament or a State legislature, he would be toeing the party line and voting according to the whip of the party leadership.

Would former civil servants add value to decision-making in government by being a part of the ruling political coalition? I have serious doubts. Are they adept in consulting people on important public issues? I do not think so. Have they engaged diverse stakeholders, either in policy formulation or policy implementation? Definitely not. In my opinion, as a rule, civil servants do not fit into the role of a politician other than out of selfish motives. They do not possess the requisite endowments for translating people’s wishes into reality, nor to buck the trend of unscrupulous abuse of power by political leaders.

The empirical account of retired civil servants joining politics does not inspire confidence. They have not added any value either to policy making, or to efficient implementation of policies. Almost all of them are motivated by promoting their personal fortunes. And, recently, we have also come across former civil servants changing their loyalties to parties with better electoral prospects. Besides, it cannot be said that all civil servants maintain the highest standards of public service while in government. There are also instances of bureaucrats with dubious service records seeking refuge in politics.

Endpoint: there are those rare individuals, who quit the security and comforts of civil service early in their careers with a positive political mission. Two recent examples are Jayaprakash Narayan and Arvind Kejriwal. I salute them for their courage and conviction even if their political success is doubtful.

(The writer was the Cabinet Secretary and the first Governor of Jharkhand. He can be reached at pkumar1511@hotmail.com)

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