National emblem of India
National emblem of India

Why are IAS officers perceived as Yes Men? A wit once said that IAS stands for I Agree, Sir. In fact, take a look around you: what is it that people say about IAS officers? Are we perceived as the steel frame? Are we men of vision and compassion, upholding the law and distinguishing ourselves by right conduct and good action?

On the other hand, the truth is, the harsh reality is, that there is a growing contempt amongst both knowledgeable people and the general citizenry about the bureaucrat. We are seen as naysayers, protectors of red tape, experts in the art of procrastination and obfuscation. This perception, expressed in many shades of invective language and diatribe can be summarised as below:

  • that he is not performing the job he is bound to do,
  • that he enjoys his perks with no commensurate responsibilities
  • that he is himself manipulating the system to get better and better facilities for himself
  • that he allows gross irregularities to happen under his nose
  • that he lets the political system get the better of him
  • that he is in league with the law breakers, if not directly, then by his reluctance to engage with the issues of governance
  • that he has stopped to care, and refuses to take a stand
  • that he is genetically unable to say 'yes', and would prefer to say 'no' or at best a 'maybe'.

On introspection, we have to concede that some of these charges are correct. The role once envisaged for us when we broke away from the British yoke, is perhaps no different from what it is today. In fact, it has, with the passage of time, with the demands of a developing country and the rising aspirations of the people, and the complexity of public issues requiring our attention, become more onerous and intricate. What has really changed, and dramatically changed, is the manner in which, the passion with which, we fulfil, the requirements of that role.

We face moral situations every day: a discretionary decision, granting a favour to some crony, is sought to be issued through us. This very often catches us in a bind: should we concede and cave in; should we delay and dither, should we stand up and say 'over my dead body'?

A slight deviation in the procurement rules, and the contract can be awarded to B instead of A. All that it will take is a nod from us; but should we or should we not do it? What is expected from us is not an illegal act, but a minor deviation, a single exception to the present procedure, a sly wink of the eye.

A minor official known to be corrupt is sought to be placed in a price posting, with adequate opportunity to make hay while the sun shines. Knowing this fact, should we agree or not? Should we say, 'well, the boss wants it, who am I to stand in the way'? Or should we create a fuss, and say no?

We are not shy of using government facilities like vehicle or phone or attendants for our private and personal use. Somewhere we know it is not correct, or let us say, improper; but the fact that we can do this, and no one dares to ask why we do it, encourages us to take these things for granted in the feudal world we live in. Austerity is dead and buried. Flaunting our authority and power gives us hedonistic pleasure: so why should we not indulge in the perks?

A brush with an intemperate and powerful personage can leave our feathers ruffled. The matter may be of small consequence or a major policy issue. By rights, it should make us angry, but the question to ask is, why are unable to hold on to our stand with conviction, produce the law book and explain the position that we are taking. And all that with courage, patience and humility.

Yes, we can be strong and take a stand, if we know what that rule book says. But then, so many of us do not read, we do not understand, or take the trouble to understand, the position of law and rules. If the law was legislated upon, then it is our fundamental duty to uphold it, despite the interference, despite those who seek to prevent us from doing so. Knowledge is power and if that power is exercised with moral authority, then there is no way we can be taken for granted.

Yes, we can be strong and take a stand: if we have the moral fibre to face the inevitable consequences and be prepared to go where we are sent. To lose face and be sneered at by colleagues and peers. To face the humiliation of being thrown into the dump yard. And to not be terrified at the possibility of a change of job and headquarters with the attendant disruption to wife and children.

That dilemma we face every day and we must learn to use our not inconsiderable skills to deal with it as we should. With heads held high and undaunted against all odds.

But then we are men of straw. And so, we say, " I Agree, Sir".

[The author retired as Chief Secretary of Rajasthan last year after a distinguished 37-year career in the Indian Administrative Service. This opinion piece was first published on the blog of the Public Affairs Centre Bengaluru where he is a Senior Fellow. This article reflects the writer's personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of IBTimes India.]