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Leaving it to the pros

The perils of a bureaucratic and legal imagination that disdains politics.

What kind of a judgment is T.S.R. Subramanian and Ors vs Union of India? The judgment has been widely lauded for pushing civil service reform. Some of its suggestions may have a degree of merit, though their actual impact will probably be far less radical than supporters assume. But the more you read the order, the more disturbing it appears. It is well intentioned. But it also unwittingly reveals a particular cast of thinking that is haunting discussions on governance reform. It is a complex of sociological claims, claims about the law and static thinking about institutions. It is a combination of bureaucratic and legal imagination that is so peculiar a name is needed for this amalgam: the bureaual mind. What are the elements of this imagination?

The bureaual mind takes its starting point from the obvious failures of our representative government. But then it assumes that the more matters are insulated from representative government and handed to independent professionals, the better off the system will be. Judges with balancing oversight of other branches or professional civil services boards handling transfers will be better than anything where politicians are involved. Left to their own, our professional classes will do better than politicians. Implicit is a construction that politicisation is the single point explanation of all vice; insulation from politics a road to virtue. This assumption is deeply problematic. It sets up a sociology of innocence among India’s ruling classes that is patently false. To put the point starkly: India’s elites, from judges to bureaucrats, academics to politicians to the police, are all cut from the same cloth. No particular group is less likely to be corrupt or have fewer failings than the others. Rather than using politicisation as a catch-all explanation of all evil, we should reverse the presumption. Perhaps we are producing the kind of politics we are because of the kind of society we are. If this is true then reform by keeping out politics is a pipe dream. Just look at what happened to the judiciary itself.

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