The perks…and quirks…of public office

I do not offhand remember the name of the 1960s Hindi movie starring two great actors, Padmini and Pran, which I saw on Doordarshan in my student days. The girl, Padmini, is obviously not overjoyed at the prospect of being married to the villain rather than to her hero. Pran attempts to convince her by pointing out to her that her hero has no wealth while he (Pran) can provide her with “नौकर, चाकर, बंगला और गाड़ी” (servants, a palatial house and vehicles). Padmini may not have been convinced, but this argument holds a strong appeal for many who aspire to public office, whether in the political or administrative spheres. I am not for a moment suggesting that the perks of office are the sole, or even major, reason for aspiring to public office. But they are a definite added attraction, apart from the aspect of job security (not guaranteed, of course, for politicians) and the social prestige that comes attached, though often with a tinge of neighbours’ envy (sometimes masquerading as self-righteous attempts to knock these worthies off their high pedestals).

Let me (from my lengthy association with the bureaucracy) take the quintessential budding Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and his entry into the hallowed portals of the civil service. I deliberately use the gender-incorrect “his”, since the male of the species exhibits, in my opinion, many more quirks; also, there is a far greater sample size to draw on for examples. It begins with his rapid elevation in the marriage market sweepstakes. Even apart from the sordid issue of dowry payment levels, there is a lengthy line of parents of marriageable daughters for tying up alliances with the eligible bachelor. Feted in his social circles at home, the young man proceeds to the district for his initial training and subsequent posting. The perks start here, with a comfortable house (generally far from the madding crowd), domestic help at the residence, a Group D employee (literally preceding the young officer on his travels) and a jeep with a driver. The perks multiply very soon with his elevation to the district officer level, as the officer graduates to a much larger bungalow, a chauffeur-driven car and a whole retinue of domestic staff at his beck and call. While the perks are alluring, it is the quirks that command one’s attention more as an interesting object of socio-economic analysis: let us turn to them.

Among the visible prestige symbols that are the accoutrements of office, the flashing beacon on the vehicle (jeep or car) is one that catches the public’s attention. Though popularly known as the “लाल बत्ती” (red light), the district/sub-district officer’s vehicle actually sports an orange beacon. Acquisition of this symbol gains one access to areas not easily accessible to the public, a wave-through without payment at toll booths and an occasional salute from the roadside policeman. In more recent years, there is also the armed security person in the front seat of the car and the pennant fluttering on the car bonnet to testify to the status of the occupant. Equally fascinating to observe is the seating plan in the vehicle. When the officer has just a jeep, he occupies the left side front seat, next to the driver. The problem of two officers of equal rank travelling by the same vehicle is resolved by one of them taking the steering wheel. In the case of a car, the senior officer must occupy the rear left hand seat, so that his door opens directly in front of the porch of his office, residence or the guest house. After observing these phenomena, I have termed them “jeepocracy” and “carocracy”, signifying bureaucratic vehicular hierarchy in a people’s democracy. The hierarchy extends to the arrival and departure of vehicles at offices, guest houses and public functions; the last in (who is the top honcho in the hierarchy) is the first out (LIFO), quite unlike the normal (FIFO) inventory procedure.

Once in office, the impressive chair behind the large table testifies to the importance of its occupier. The first law of babudom states: the size of the table is directly proportional to the position of the officer in the bureaucratic hierarchy. There was great discomfort among the Petroleum Ministry babus when I opted for a table measuring three feet by two feet, discarded from the Secretary’s office after the transfer of the previous incumbent. I would not even have ruled out my subordinates feeling that their boss had reduced their standing in the eyes of their subordinates. The second law of babudom is: the occupier of the chair shall surrender it to his superior in the bureaucratic hierarchy, when the latter visits his office. This can have unpredictable fallouts, like the time we in the General Administration Department were called upon to adjudicate in a dispute between the District Collector and a Divisional Forest Officer. Matters had come to a head when the Forest Officer refused to vacate his chair when the Collector (who considered himself primus inter pares) came visiting his office. The contrast was provided by one of my bosses who, when visiting my office, would take a chair on the side of the desk, refusing the proffered (and preferred) chair with the remark “That chair is yours; I have not been appointed to your post.” The conflict can arise even when two district officers occupy rooms in the guest house — matters can be precipitated especially when they are from the IAS and the Indian Police Service (IPS), two services that share a strange love-hate relationship.

Official residential accommodation is another undisputed perk of a public job, especially in the higher echelons of the political and administrative hierarchy and top-level district officers. The old British habit of isolating the rulers from the natives is alive and kicking seven decades after independence. Allied with the provision of official vehicles, this effectively insulates the public official from his ostensible masters, the aam aurat/aadmi. Not surprisingly, two of independent India’s biggest problems — public housing and public transport — remain unresolved, since those entrusted with the task of solving them do not themselves use or need them. The realisation probably dawns on the politician/bureaucrat only when they are out of office, at which time their successors in office have no time or sympathy to listen to their problems.

Little wonder then that politicians and bureaucrats stick to public posts like limpets, well past their “sell by” dates. India’s gargantuan public sector and plethora of public institutions enable the accommodation of defeated (and unelectable) politicians, keeping intraparty dissent muted and enabling the politician in power to get on with her job. The bureaucrat relies on a whole host of post-retirement sinecures, ranging from administrative tribunals to governorships of states and diplomatic postings; the really enterprising few become politicians themselves, extending their perks well into the sunset years.

But the day of reckoning must come sooner or later. That day will dawn for the majority of politicians/bureaucrats when the trappings of office recede and they must rub shoulders with the common man. I still remember my office boy recounting how the Chairman of a large public sector company was a few places ahead of him in the morning queue at the milk booth, days after his retirement. Without being cynical, their position reminds me of Timon of Athens (refer to one William Shakespeare for more information on this Grecian tragic hero). It is probably appropriate to conclude with a stanza from the Bhaja Govindam, attributed to a disciple of Adi Sankaracharya:

अंगं गलितं पलितं मुण्डं दशनविहीनं जातं तुण्डम्

वृद्धो याति गृहीत्वा दण्डं तदपि न मुंच्यत्याशापिण्डम्

(Strength has left the old man’s body, his head has become bald, his gums toothless and he is leaning on crutches. Even then the attachment is strong and he clings firmly to fruitless desires)






4 responses to this post.

  1. As a trainer at an apex Academy, one had a ringside view of bureaucratic quirks. Like the time a quirky DG sent the institute’s 3-wheeler to pick up a Principal Secretary, who was so peeved that he never visited us again… Or the absolute obsession of the Delhi upper echelons with VIP status and protocol. Perhaps the Indian bureaucracy with ingrained consciousness of caste and class is even more inaccessible to the common person than their British forebears… and as Nehruji famously said of the ICS, ‘… In this land of caste, the British have created another caste…’

  2. You are dead right, Nasreen. It has been a matter of great hilarity for me to observe the foibles of humans, whether from the IAS or otherwise.

  3. Posted by Murali Nagarajan on February 29, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Very interesting to learn about the bureaucratic life of Senior officers/politicians in public service and their experiences. Your conclusion with the Adi Shankara’s wisdom is brilliant. The following article though not directly related to the subject is also an interesting reading for every man/woman.
    Even after the retirement, continuing the service to humanity without the fruits of the position/power enjoyed earlier is not so easy. Pranams!

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