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Elections and the Bureaucracy in West Bengal

The assembly elections in West Bengal will be a test of the state bureaucracy's commitment to standing firm against electoral malpractices and ensuring free and fair polls. The bureaucracy's record in recent years has been found wanting.


Elections and the Bureaucracy in West Bengal

The assembly elections in West Bengal will be a test of the state bureaucracy’s commitment to standing firm against electoral malpractices and ensuring free and fair polls. The bureaucracy’s record in recent years has been found wanting.


ome appalling incidents which happened in the past and have been happening even recently in West Bengal have shocked and outraged the intelligentsia and the civil society of the state. I am not referring to “normal” crimes of robbery, abduction, murder, rape and the like, but to the spate of lynching of alleged anti-socials by irate mobs, politically inspired localised civil strife causing large-scale killing, arson, the forceful displacement of politically inconvenient families, all reminding one of “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans in the 1990s of the last century.

Civil society was horrified and scandalised by the starvation deaths of some members of a tribe in Amlasole in West Midnapore. Where was the bureaucracy? Did all the king’s men and all the king’s horses sit pretty while the political goons rampaged the countryside? Where was the law and where was the order, which the bureaucracy at the district level was being paid out of tax payers’ money to enforce and maintain? How could destitute tribals die at Amlasole with the Annapurna Anna Yojna food stock for free distribution to the destitutes being available with the BDO and the SDO? The bureaucracy failed totally to discharge its basic functions.

When I asked a well known left theoretician about the incident of starvation deaths I was stunned by his reply. Almost accusing me of my ignorance he retorted “Don’t you know that that gram panchayat is controlled by the Jharkhand Party?” The implied cruelty froze me into silence. For voting the Jharkhand Party to power in Amlasole, a tribe forfeited its right to live with dignity as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. The bureaucracy, which under the Relief Manual is duty-bound to prevent such starvation deaths, utterly failed for which they deserve appropriate punishment for abetment to manslaughter. The arms of the law are quite long. In a future date they may have to face the consequences of their criminal inaction. These are not motivated canards spread by the “unfriendly” bourgeoisie press to malign the coalition in power. Truth has been proved beyond reasonable doubt by restoration of many of the displaced families to their original homes by the Election Commission observers.

Long ago lord chancellor Cook of England had the moral courage to admonish his king, James I, saying “A king is still under god and the law”. Over time, a doctrine emerged in England that the “king can do no wrong”. It means that king’s servants and minions cannot do anything which is not legal or not sanctioned by law. Theoretically, a king’s illegal orders can be and should be defied and disobeyed without any adverse consequences. No civil servant in India is obliged to carry out an illegal order from either his/her supervisors in the hierarchy or from the political masters. Jai Prakash Narain’s call to defy illegal orders was fully justified and correct both legally and ethically.

In a democratic set-up like ours, governed by the rule of law, the law is the king. All civil servants and the members of the armed forces of the Union are servants of that king. No one can carry out an act which is not legal or fail to perform an act which the law mandates him/her to do. He cannot in any manner subvert the foundation of the rule of law by any deliberate act of omission or commission not authorised or not sanctioned by law. Every action of the constituted civil services should invariably uphold the majesty of law. That is the only rationale for a politically neutral permanent civil service. Elected political executives, good or bad, are either politically punished or rewarded through the process of elections which has so far been held regularly in our country. To ensure this political prize or retribution, the election process has to be free and fair which only the bureaucracy involved in the election processes can assure. They are legally mandated to do so.

Bogus Voters

Unfortunately, the civil services in West Bengal have not been able to acquit themselves well in this regard so far. Otherwise, how could a few Election Commission observers coming from outside the state detect 1.3 million bogus voters in a few days. But what they did, though praiseworthy, was only the visible tip of the iceberg. The estimated number of false voters, according to a calculation made by this author (‘The Great Deception’, The Statesman, March 10, 2006) is 1 crore or 10 million. How could this happen? What was the local bureaucracy doing? Either they slipped up negligently or more probably they connived stealthily with the interested political groups to manipulate the voters’ list in their favour. Elimination of false voters from the electoral rolls and prevention of bogus voters from casting false votes are essential for free and fair election. Is the West Bengal bureaucracy capable of doing its job?

A severe test is coming for the civil services (including the police) of the state in another few weeks when voting will be done in five phases. The modus operandi of rigging of elections are well known in the state. One can write a best-seller called Rigging Made Easy in Bengali for the benefit of the non-English knowing cadres of political groups. All these are preventable election/criminal offences punishable with rigorous imprisonment. The civil services could prove their worth by being neutral, bold and fair.

Do the civil servants have a set of values they adhere to and uphold under any political pressure? The answer is an emphatic yes. The Constitution lays down these values in the preamble, part-III: fundamental rights, part-IV: directive principles of state policy, and part-IVA: duties of citizens. Members of the civil

Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006 services having sworn allegiance to the Constitution are bound both legally and ethically to preserve, uphold and defend these values.

In a democratic set-up, there are two sets of public actors: (i) elected political executives who draw their legality and legitimacy through the consent of the people expressed through free and fair elections; and (ii) a politically neutral permanent bureaucracy that has to carry out the legal and lawful orders and policies of their political masters and enforce the law. The primacy of the former over the latter is axiomatic. These two sets are both complementary to each other and on occasion non-antagonistic adversaries. That is how the whole system of checks and balances operates to ensure that the rule of law prevails over the rule of personal/partisan interests and the whims and caprices of political bosses.

There is no point in going into any “before and after” situational analysis. But the events and episodes reported in both the electronic and print media clearly suggest that there have been a major fall from the high standards expected of the bureaucracy, particularly at the higher echelons. It is not known how far away are we from the nadir. It is hoped that a few amongst the civil servants would stand up and say enough is enough and they would try to re-establish and enforce the rule of law and the values enshrined in the Constitution. A few courageous and upright officers have to be role models to restore the basic values of the services including efficiency, honesty and political neutrality. A small price in the shape of an inconvenient transfer/ posting may have to be paid. But the reward in restoring good governance would be immeasurable.

As a retired senior civil servant of the state who had had the honour and privilege to work intimately with Hare Krishna Konar and Benoy Chaudhury, may I venture to tender a few suggestions to my younger colleagues who are serving in West Bengal currently? Apart from the formal Election Commission observers, millions of eyes would be watching your performance through the electronic media. Hence, you should have the courage to shun any illegal action and should have faith and confidence in yourself to defy any illegal orders and withstand any illegitimate and unethical political pressure. Please do not fall prey to the temptation of any transient immediate gain or advantage. In a changed situation it may seriously jeopardise your career. Even if there were no changes, do not feel secure that you would be immune from any action for any election felony. other court action which might adversely You would be exposed to the strict scrutiny affect your career advancement in the of a number of election watch groups in future. Do not feel lonely or dispirited. The civil society who would try to bring to law and the enlightened public opinion justice all actors of electoral delinquency will protect you. Be dauntless and serve through Public Interest Litigation or the law!

Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006

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