Subscribe and track India like never before..

Get full online access to
Civil Society magazine.

Already a subscriber? Login


Comment here

Anil Swarup: 'The bureaucracy is part of society'

'Headline hungry officers will land in trouble’

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Nov. 26, 2021
Updated: Dec. 27, 2021

GOVERNMENT officers have been in the news recently for what many would consider the wrong reasons. There is a growing sense that officers are succumbing to the temptation of being seen and heard instead of talking softly and carrying a big stick. In the process they also find themselves in inconvenient situations.

The redoubtable Vinod Rai, former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), has had to eat his words and apologize to Sanjay Nirupam of the Congress.

Sameer Wankhede has been in the limelight for arresting Shah Rukh Khan’s son on drug charges though no drug was found on him. And the former Mumbai Police Commissioner, Param Bir Singh, has been on the run with extortion charges levelled against him.

Did these officers overreach themselves? Would it have been better if they had merely done their jobs quietly? How should government officers conduct themselves when performing their duties?

With these questions in mind we spoke to Anil Swarup, a distinguished IAS officer now retired. Swarup has many achievements to his name. He was in the PMO, coal, education and grew the footprint of the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). He has never been shy of being interviewed, but in the many years this magazine has known him, we have never found him to speak out of turn or court controversy. 


You put out a tweet in which you said that in the examples of Sameer Wankhede, Param Bir Singh and Vinod Rai there is a big lesson for civil servants — don’t seek publicity, your just rewards will come. In these three disparate cases is it just publicity that is of concern to you or is there a deeper disquiet?

I was only commenting on the very limited subject of the visibility of an officer. Thanks to social media, and even before that, there is a tendency amongst some civil servants to go to town with what they’re doing. ‘Become visible’ is the term that I use quite often. The civil servant has to be careful. It is not necessary to tom-tom what you have done. Instead, you can and should try and do your work quietly.

Let me cite the example of Vinod Rai, which I have elaborated on in both my books. As the CAG he should have submitted his report to Parliament and, at best, held a simple straightforward press conference and not tried to present it as a scam. That was for somebody else to take a call on. So, had he done his job quietly he would not have got into the limelight so much and now, it appears, that people are after him. One has got the better of him, and this may not be the end of it. So, publicity is counterproductive in his case.

Sameer Wankhede couldn’t help raiding a high-profile person — even assuming it was required. But how did the video that was shot on the ship get leaked? That is what created the problem. Actually, had that video not been leaked people would have just spoken about a high-profile person being caught. So, the officer has to be extremely careful, especially when he is handling high-profile cases.

There are many officers who do their jobs professionally, reap rewards and become high-profile without making any conscious effort. If a good job gets done, sometimes it gets recognized, sometimes it is not even known.

For example, take Julio Ribeiro. He never sought exposure. Yet, people got to know of his good work and it got publicized, which is very fair. Nothing wrong with that.

But if you look at Twitter, you will find officers tweeting about inaugurating a shop or holding a meeting. What is the purpose? To me there is a two-fold objective for using social media: one is to disseminate information, the second is publicity. Social media should be used to disseminate information because it really helps.

When it comes to publicity there are two ways of going about it. One, you publicize what you’re doing. Or you can use social media to publicize the good work done by others. Let someone else pick up that story of what you’re doing rather than you going to town with it. There is a subtle difference between the two and that doesn’t seem to be understood by some of us civil servants who go on publicizing what they are doing. And that’s where the problem arises.

So again, going back to both cases, Vinod Rai shouldn’t have gone to town over his report. There’s a difference between information dissemination and publicity. He went in for publicity. In the Sameer Wankhede case that video leak should have been avoided.


People join the services with a lot of idealism. Many do good work. But there is a growing sense that the bureaucracy is compromised and not able to deliver. What exactly is your take on this?

You know, I carried out a survey myself on Twitter, asking people who they were most dissatisfied or satisfied with, including, amongst a broad category of people, politicians, media, the judiciary and civil servants. Overwhelmingly, people said civil servants were the best of the four. They may not be that good, but they are the best.

There was an India Today survey conducted by the Azim Premji University 10 years ago along similar lines. There may be disenchantment with the civil service on account of the exposure that civil servants have with the common man. But if you go to villages, where most of our population resides, they still have faith in the civil servant who comes there, and not so much in the politician or the media or anybody else. So it’s not that they don’t have faith in the civil service.

Yes, there is a lot wrong with the bureaucracy that needs to be corrected. But the bureaucracy is a part of society. They don’t live in a zoo. Most civil servants carry with them the aspirations and infirmities of the common man to the civil services. Ironically, what gets to be known to the public are mostly negative stories because we are very fond of masala, you know.

I tweet both positive and negative stories. Twice a week I write positive stories and also some of the criticism. The traction that the criticism part gets is many times more than the traction the positive stories get. I don’t blame anyone because that’s how we are. We love negative stories.


Bad news sells.

Yes, it’s very unfortunate, but that’s how it is. We blame the media for all those gory stories on TV channels and in newspapers. Media gives us what we like. If there are no scams, you’d like to have those scams going. We have situations where the media is shy of putting out positive stories, because very rarely do positive stories get the traction which a negative story does.

I’m not saying that everything is hunky-dory with the civil service. Certainly not. There’s a lot wrong with it. But what gets portrayed is primarily the negative part. When I tweeted about these three guys, Sameer Wankhede, Vinod Rai and Param Bir Singh, almost 700,000 viewed it. None of my positive stories got that kind of viewership. It’s really crazy. I was quite aghast to see the traction this tweet got.

That tweet was primarily a wakeup call for civil servants to beware, and not unnecessarily try to hog the limelight with what they’ve done. Because they are likely to face the same consequences as these three gentlemen are facing at this point in time. That was my objective. But look at the traction it got.

When I speak to civil servants I tell them to look at some of the civil servants who have evolved as efficient and honest officers. They have been recognized by society over a period of time. My book, Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant, is a message that ethical behaviour is key in the long run. That’s what I’m trying to convey. But, as I said, it takes all types to make this world and so it is with civil servants.


Is there a need now to pause, 75 years after Independence, and perhaps look at the bureaucracy and its role a little differently and in a more uniform way?

Absolutely correct. I think we should all evolve. If we don’t, we become not only irrelevant, we become a nuisance. In my book,  there is an entire chapter in which I talk about this evolution.

My concern, and I will limit myself to the IAS where I spent some 37 years, is that right through the process, beginning from selection to postings, we are not looking at evolving. We should be looking at the leadership qualities of a civil servant. Because, ultimately, an IAS officer has to first be a leader. I’ve often said that expertise can be outsourced, but attitude cannot. And that’s where leadership qualities become very important.

Let me explain. I have absolutely no doubt that the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) is one of the finest institutions in the country. It’s absolutely above board. You can’t point a finger at it and say that a person has been wrongly or rightly selected. You can’t attribute motives. But the problem is that the officers we select are not based on leadership criteria.

They’re selecting people who are good at writing answers. They’re good at expression. Their written articulation is very good. They present their case well, which are also attributes of leadership. But this is not the only attribute required of a leader. They don’t even test their aptitude or attitude. A paper on ethics does not help you understand whether that guy’s ethical or not.

Today, the world over, there are tools available to assess the aptitude and attitude of the person you’re selecting. You can also assess whether this chap has leadership qualities. It takes a slightly longer time, but it is well worth the effort. Because, imagine selecting officers who go on to become joint secretaries, additional secretaries, secretaries to the Government of India, who are in charge of districts — and they don’t have leadership qualities.

Some of the IAS officers do evolve as leaders. But that’s an exception. If you start from the time of selection and use those tools to select leaders, you may still go wrong in 20 percent of cases. But 80 percent will be those who have basic leadership qualities and that is step number one.

Secondly, the training imparted at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration is more knowledge-oriented. I mean, these people are knowledgeable already. They don’t develop leadership qualities during the course of training. I think the total focus has to be on group activity and leadership, rather than imparting more knowledge. Knowledge can be acquired by anybody individually. You don’t have to tell them more about the Constitution of India, or the Indian Penal Code.

Third, contrary to general belief, the IAS does not have an ethos of its own. You can recognize an Army officer, even if he’s not in uniform, by the way he walks, talks, or his disciplined manner which makes him different. You don’t have that ethos in the IAS. I can’t think of a single quality which can describe an IAS officer as an IAS officer. Unless that IAS officer tells you that he’s an IAS officer, you’ll never get to know. That ethos needs to be developed both at the academy and otherwise. By ethos I mean it in terms of general qualities, leadership, ethical behaviour, conduct. It has to be visibly distinct from others.

The fourth point is mentorship. There is no system of institutionalized mentoring of civil servants. There should be as there is in the Army and in the private sector. I remember when I was a young IAS officer, I didn’t really know whom to talk to if I ran into some trouble.

Now, I’m personally mentoring hundreds of IAS officers but that’s not the issue. The question is, whether there’s an institutional framework to mentor and guide an officer towards a particular ethical behaviour or ethos.

In my book, I talk about an ombudsman within the service to guide officers into a particular behaviour. If they are doing something which is not considered to be correct, it should be pointed out. No one does that today. An officer gets caught, but before getting caught, he has been moving in that direction. So I talk of mentorship. This can be done very easily.

The difficult part is how the officer is treated when he gets into the service. His efficiency and honesty are the primary criteria for posting him. But servility, liability, malleability is the primary message that the government gives to officers. Whether you are efficient or honest or not is not material to me, you have to be totally beholden to me, you have to do what I tell you to do. If that is the signal that is going to the officer, he will ultimately say, okay, to hell with everything else, I will do this.

There are not many steps that need to be taken. I think there has to be a relook at what’s going on, and then see what needs to be done. Not in terms of fulfilling the requirements and desires of a limited set of politicians, but in the larger context of the development of the country.


You know, this whole thing of looking at the bureaucracy differently seems to have gotten narrowed down to lateral entry. How do you, as someone who has been for a long time a successful IAS officer, see the question of lateral entries?

See, personally, I have nothing against lateral entries so long as it is done in a transparent manner by an institution which is above board, and not as somebody’s choice. But that doesn’t solve the problem.

Everyone talks about expertise. I can tell you from my personal experience, when I was Coal Secretary, I was not an expert in coal. But I outsourced expertise. I got in SBI CAP, MSTC Ltd, all experts. As a leader, I knew how to get them.

What is required is attitude which, let me assure you, cannot be outsourced. But a lot of expertise can be outsourced. People mistake specialization and expertise with the capacity to deliver. Capacity to deliver is not based on specialization or expertise. It is determined by your attitude. I keep using these words attitude and aptitude. These are very, very important and they don’t and can’t come overnight. And you can’t outsource them.

I mean, to me lateral entry is too small an issue to even be discussed. Out of a cadre of 5,000 people, if you are going to give lateral entry to 500 people, how does that make a difference? Because you are not assessing the attitude of people you are getting in through lateral entry.

Even in the private sector, most CEOs are not experts in the areas they manage. They are leaders and managers. And when you talk of expertise, what expertise are you talking of?

If someone has the right attitude, and he has come through a UPSC examination, it won’t take more than two to three months to acquire a reasonable understanding of the subject that he’s handling. And then he’ll be able to get the experts to do the job.

I did that throughout my career. As an expert you can have a blinkered vision. You have to be a visionary — the quality of a leader — and get the overall picture. You don’t have to be an expert. You have to create the space and environment for an expert, a specialist to work in.

Creating space is not the attribute of an expert. It’s the attribute of a person with an attitude, a leader. So, to me leadership attributes, the right attitude are extremely important for a civil servant. We should get experts. But I think leadership is different from expertise.


How do you change the relationship between the IAS and the politician?

I don’t think you need to change anything. You know, there are so many IAS officers who are performing extremely well in this political environment. Changing politics is an academic discussion. You and I cannot do it.

But how do I change the IAS is not an academic discussion. That can be done and should be done. And that’s what I’m concerned about.

I’m assuming politics will remain what it is. I’m assuming it may become worse. I won’t be able to do much about that. But I can certainly change how I respond to politics as a civil servant. During my career, I came across all sorts of politicians. I came across outstanding, honest politicians. I came across absolutely dishonest, nasty politicians. It takes all types to make this world. I would be more concerned about how I am and what I can do, because I can’t do anything to a politician in any case.



Currently there are no Comments. Be first to write a comment!