Babudom and Democracy?

Is a comfortable pattern of Civil Services examination a democratic entitlement?


Has the return of the native in parliamentary proceedings ensured that the Agastya Sens of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s world don’t return to bureaucracy in numbers that are significant and “elitist”? Or an equally valid question would be: (to borrow an analogy from the article, Backwoods Babus which appeared on August 6, 2007 in Outlook) are Agastya Sens anything more than an imagined presence now or aren’t they already becoming too small a number (or danger) to be reckoned with in administrative echelons? Wait, recent developments have thrown up more stark questions. The uproar in Parliament and the government’s firefighting decision to put on hold the changes notified by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) for civil services examination entail  another set of questions.

All things being equal (and even affirmative action taken care of), is a comfortable pattern of Civil Services examination a democratic entitlement? Are we stretching the social and political concepts of democratisation in things as professional as the process of hiring human resources for state machinery? Should the UPSC, which has been mandated by the Indian Constitution (Article 315) to make recruitments for the civil services, conform to ideas of egalitarian inclusiveness in ways that go beyond merely extending equality of opportunities to candidates in treating their candidature and applying constitutional devices for social justice (as is being already done through reservations)? And going beyond now implies – should democratic recruitment also mean the democratisation of the examination itself by making the format as convenient for the applicants as that which their comfort zone warrants – what to test and how to test the candidates?

From Hamza Alvi’s “overdeveloped state” to signs of “over-democratic” public space in India

While going through reports on the nature of objections raised in the Parliament about the new pattern introduced by UPSC and the government’s swift response to such objections, you would be tempted to add “over-democratic” to India’s public space and in the process improvise the phrase with which Karachi-born British sociologist Hamza Alvi memorably described post-colonial societies – “overdeveloped states”. What is becoming increasingly visible in institutional debates is that any semblance of governmental office (even non-political and supposedly neutral governmental staff as civil services) has to be democratically contested.

Mapping the shades of democratic arguments with which different political parties protested on the notified changes and how the government decided to block the changes is an intriguing case of stretching the turf wars of democratic point-scoring when it comes to the government’s resources (that’s how government jobs are viewed in this country). Sample this report (The Times of India, March 16, 2013) and you may like to configure the arguments with some reading between the lines, inserting some headings:

Fierce, all-around opposition by political parties to changes in the exam format for the UPSC which give added weight to English and impose certain conditions on candidates appearing in regional languages forced the government to put the measures on hold.

A  Case for Lingual Democracy- The Non- English Babu

Lok Sabha resonated with language war cries after a long interval on Friday with Hindi heartland leaders raising slogans of ‘Angrezi mein kaam na hoga, desh phir ghulam na hoga (No to English, India will not be enslaved again)’.

Interestingly, the order also managed to annoy the non-Hindi lobby as Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Punjab MPs protested changes which bar candidates from taking the exam in their mother tongues if they have not studied in college in that medium of instruction.

The restriction that a minimum of 25 candidates will be needed for an exam centre to conduct tests in a particular regional language also infuriated MPs who said the move will disadvantage students from rural backgrounds.

Responding to angry speeches with some MPs even calling for action against the UPSC chairperson, the Minister for Personnel and Training, V Narayanasamy, said the order will be kept in abeyance”.

The noisy protests that led to three adjournments were not surprising as the exams determine entry to elite services such as IAS, IPS, IRS and IFS and have for long been an emotive issue for candidates who feel the exam’s format favours English speakers.

The Social Democracy of Babudom

With parties also painting the UPSC as anti-backward caste, tempers rose in the House against what was seen to be an “elitist” conspiracy to skew the Civil Services exam by disadvantaging rural candidates lacking fluency in English.

The discussion threw up a rare unanimity in the House with both the Hindi and non-Hindi camps uniting, although for different reasons. With the UPSC order precipitating a rare confluence of opinion between both camps, the government had no choice but to freeze the exam order.

It is almost certain the order will be rescinded to a large extent despite government sources arguing that the weight given to English is just 100 marks out of 1,800 – and that this was needed as the writing skills of recruits are plummeting.

The order also meant that candidates “appearing in English of Hindi” cannot attempt papers like Pali, seen as a high-scoring option that puts other candidates at a disadvantage. Those opting for a regional language as the medium of examination would be able to do so only if they had studied in the language at the college level.


But the measures, particularly as they were announced together, became a red rag for MPs with Samajwadi Party and Prasad’s crew entering the well, demanding the UPSC order be withdrawn forthwith.”

Attacking the Anti-Democrat Technocrat (Prof D P Agrawal, the current chairperson, UPSC and formerly Dean, IIT, Delhi – one of the longest serving chairpersons of UPSC from a non-bureaucrat background) for his initiatives to change the pattern.

JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav attacked the UPSC chairman and urged the government to impeach him. Akali Dal member Ratan Singh Ajnala too demanded “punishment” for the authors of the move. Trinamool’s Saugata Roy expressed similar views. (The Indian Express, March 16, 2013)”.

Cosmetics of Examination Reforms: the more the things change, the more they remain same

However, curbing the prerogative of a constitutional body which has the mandate to frame the pattern for the examination is symptomatic of overreaching the brief of democracy itself. The irony is that such clamour is defended in the name of democracy (perhaps giving credence to Plato’s classic case against democracy that it has a tendency to have too many speakers but only a few candid and reasoned ones). Here it’s important to note that the context of the changes introduced by UPSC was twofold. The sad part is that knee-jerk reforms (even what was earlier notified) would not be adequate in addressing the serious flaws which have undermined the Civil Services recruitment examination for long.

The first concern has been about ensuring that clichéd “level playing field” so that candidates taking the examination from as diverse backgrounds as humanities, science, engineering, management, medicine, engineering, etc don’t have any advantage or disadvantage. This would be difficult to ensure, although efforts have been made through a complicated “scaling” process to do so. But the more profound concern (and ironically, less talked about) is this:

Learning by rote and a syllabus-centric approach has given rise to a system that rewards the mug up-and-vomit mode of study. And then aspirants are evaluated on the degree of the stink of their vomit. Coaching shops have sought to exploit these loopholes to mint money by spoon-feeding students with the required feed to mug up and regurgitate. No wonder that wide reading, depth of understanding and analysis, and thinking on your feet and articulation have been put to serious disadvantage. UPSC pressed the panic button, although it managed to only introduce cosmetic changes in the preliminary examination with a newly designed Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT). And now its move to bring some changes in the main examination too (partly discarded now) doesn’t seem to change the ball game much. Such changes are too little and may soon become part of the same rote cycle (coaching institutes are ready with their “rote” action plan).

Young Entrants to Babudom – The Ground Is Already Shifting. Didn’t Need Parliamentary Intervention, Agastya Sens- the rare creatures

In the context of the changing contours of India’s babudom in the last two decades or so, the once valid argument about “elite fiefdom” has lost much of its steam. In fact, it sounds specious and even ignorant in the face of the elements of change (and some continuity too) which are visible in the profile of new entrants to the Civil Services. In the first three decades in the post-Independence phase, Oxford-and Cambridge-educated youngsters constituted a large section of the bureaucracy. This is not true for the new entrants to bureaucracy. Similarly, products from traditional breeding grounds of civil servants in India like Delhi University, JNU, Madras University, Allahabad University, Patna University and Osmania University are also facing stiff competition from students from the hinterland (who usually shift to Delhi or their state capitals/ major cities in their states to prepare for IAS exams). August Sen from Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August, might not be imagined today with St Stephen’s College as his alma mater.

The demolition of traditional bastions of civil servants has largely been the effect of the surge led by young aspirants from the BIMARU (a lampooning acronym to scoff at their poor human development indices) Hindi belt (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh). The Hindi heartland has been supported in this surge by southern states, particularly Tamil Nadu (continuing its legacy of civil servants), Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. However, it must be remembered that aspirants, with a background of technical education (engineers, doctors, management professionals etc), have also been a major factor in defining the profile of a new breed of bureaucrats. This has also led to a debate on specialists (with professional degrees) opting for generalist bureaucratic positions, wasting government funds invested in providing technical education at a very affordable fee. But equality of opportunity and freedom of career choice are their defense against any such attack.

The political initiative of implementing Mandal Commission recommendations, which provided 27 per cent reservation to Other Backward Classes (OBC) in government jobs, can also be viewed as a game changer in redefining the demographic profile of young civil servants.

Interestingly, although the number of people appearing for the Civil Services examination in Hindi and regional languages has increased, English remains the first choice for taking the examination.

Mainstream media has also taken note of the diversification in the backgrounds of new recruits to bureaucracy.  In 2007, in a cover story on this trend published in Outlook (Backwoods Babus, August 6, 2007), Anjali Puri asked: “Children of rickshaw-pullers, farmers, clerks are cracking the IAS. Will they lead to a better, kinder bureaucracy?” Not necessarily.

Young babus and the lingering disconnect. What’s lohe ka swad?

The interesting thing to observe is that except few highly motivated and dedicated bureaucrats who have become a minority in civil services, the hinterland surge and more entrants with humble background have not changed the narrative of disconnect between young bureaucrats and the people. In fact, any such expectation about transformation would be too naïve an assumption. The old story of becoming the smug part of the powerful elite after making it to the final list of the Civil Services examination, keeps recycling itself.

While young IAS officers with integrity and administrative vision are not extinct, the majority reflect the times in which they have been brought up and in which they made their career choice. The times of unprecedented consumerist upsurge. Transforming themselves from a patronising representative of the state to a visionary policymaker and facilitator of development and administration seems a long road ahead. However, this issue warrants a separate inquiry and analysis of different perspectives on the relationship between bureaucracy and development administration in India.

In the late 80s, while referring to the clout of India’s civil servants (particularly IAS officers), a political commentator had described IAS as the “New Brahminical System” in the governance of India. The young entrants to this Brahminical fold are not showing significant signs of shedding their high-born aura in public hierarchy. The persisting disconnect seems insidious, and exists between the bureaucrat, who is the policymaker, and people who bear the brunt (sometimes fruits too) of policies. You might be reminded of these lines from a poem by Dhumil, who commenting on the same disconnect wrote: Lohe ka Swad Lohar Se Na Puchho, Us Ghore Se Puchho Jiske Muh Me Laggam Hai (Do not ask the blacksmith about the taste of iron, ask the horse who has the bit in his mouth).

This might undermine the argument that lingual affinity with the soil of the land gives you bigger ears to the ground.

Are we living in times of hyper-democratic activism in which examination question papers for civil services recruitment are also democratically verified? With its latest act of undoing the changes notified by a constitutionally mandated body, the Parliament and government seem to have sought a format for hiring bureaucrats where democratic legitimacy of the pattern and representative credentials of the candidates counts more than anything else. These are signs of an over-democratic state apparatus. The times of democratically “selected” Babus (if that’s sexist, the female equivalent is Babunis).

Anand Vardhan Contact


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  • shamanth

    Good to see a realistic no-nonsense take on this unnecessarily hyped issue. DP. Agarwal should have showed much more courage considering his is a Constitutional post and that sacking him would not have been politically very difficult.

  • News Laundry : Babudom and Democracy?
    March 31,2013

    The language war controversy in the Civil Services (Main) Exam in Lok Sabha recently, reflected on UPSC’s failure in advising GOI in carrying out radical changes in the format and syllabus of Civil Services (Main) Exam 2013 purportedly “ to make it more relevant with the present day, global as well as internal scenario”. The changes were recommended by a committee constituted by UPSC under Prof Arun S Nigavekar, former chairman, UGC. It gave more weightage to the two General Studies papers and the English language by making it competitive. Regional languages were totally ignored. Neither did the Committee nor the UPSC nor the GOI visualise the repercussions of the proposed changes .This smacked of intellectual bankruptcy with complete disregard for regional languages included in Schedule VIII of Constitution. The inclusion of regional languages is an emotive issue and needed to be handled carefully. The UPSC’s suggestions were approved by the Prime minister in Feb 2013,as Cabinet minister for DOP&T, before being put in public domain by UPSC on March 5,2013. This is clarified in fairness to UPSC as in Lok Sabha debate, both PM and MOS (Personnel) drew blank face feigning ignorance about their close involvement.The Chairman UPSC became the fall guy to face MPs attacks in Parliament. For diffusing the crisis,the PM had no option but to put the notification on the hold. The civil services aspirants suffered the suspense they had to pass through. The March 5 notification has been put on hold by UPSC on the basis of PM’s assurance to Parliament. The notification will not impact CS (Main) Exam, 2013.But, as it has not been “withdrawn”, the GOI is free to operationalise it from CS (Main) 2014. The arguments adduced by the MPs of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha would be relevant for all times and the GOI must learn lessons from history. The author served in UPSC on a sensitive portfolio and had handled the issues in the past .

    A K SAXENA (A retired civil servant)