In a country where top politicians rarely speak to the media impromptu, bureaucrats holding a press conference to speak about unofficial matters is rather odd. On Sunday, however, the Delhi Indian Administrative Service Association did just that, appearing before the media to refute the Aam Aadmi Party’s claim that its members are striking work. The Aam Aadmi Party, which rules Delhi, claims the alleged strike is being orchestrated by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Since Delhi is not yet a full state, the lieutenant governor appointed by the Centre controls much of the bureaucracy. The situation came to a head when chief ministers of four Opposition-ruled states held a press conference, urging the central government to resolve the problem in Delhi.

This drama unfolded on the heels of the central government deciding to open 10 positions of joint secretary – a post almost always occupied by IAS officers – to professionals from outside the career bureaucracy. This drew charges of partisan politics, with the Congress accusing the BJP of trying to “saffronise” the bureaucracy.

For a supposedly impassive body of faceless officials, how did the IAS end up giving rise to – and sometimes participating in – such partisan party politics?

Babu Raj

The IAS was originally created during the British Raj. In 1858, as the British government took over administration of the subcontinent from the East India Company, it created a centralised cadre of officials called the Indian Civil Service to govern the colony. Nearly half of the posts of district collector were reserved for the Indian Civil Service as well as a quarter of all posts in a provincial capital such as Madras. In the central administration, based in Calcutta, 10% of the posts, mostly at the top, were reserved for the service. The introduction to the historian Clive Dewey’s book on the Indian Civil Service describes it as “the most powerful body of offi cials in the English-speaking world” given that “about 3,00,000,000 Indians, a sixth of the human race, were ruled by 1,000 civilians”. They were also the world’s best paid bureaucrats. In 1922, the British prime minister described the Indian Civil Service as the Raj’s “steel frame” without which the “fabric will collapse”.

Of course, for anyone opposed to the Raj, the steel frame had a different connotation. As such, these elite civil servants were constantly at odds with the freedom movement and specifically the Congress. In Glimpses of World History, Jawaharlal Nerhu acidly describes the Indian Civil Service as “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”.

Saving the service

After independence, though, the Congress had a change of heart. Vallabhbhai Patel became a firm proponent of retaining the Indian Civil Service, arguing that the bureaucrats were “useful instruments” who would “also serve as a liaison between the Provinces and the Government of India and introduce certain amount of brashness and vigour in the administration both of the Centre and the Provinces”.

Given the Congress’s history with the Indian Civil Service, Patel’s idea drew opposition in the Constituent Assembly. But Patel saw that this was done, delivering his famous defence of the elite cadre in 1949, ironically mirroring the British in arguing that a centralised bureaucracy was necessary to keep India intact: “The Union will go, you will not have a united India, if you do not have a good all-India Service which has independence to speak its mind.”

Not only was the cadre retained, it was written into the Constitution, an act that the historian David Potter writes was “probably unique in the history of constitutions”. Practically, the only change the cadre underwent was to swap “civil” in its name for “administrative”.

Serving authoritarian rule

The IAS, in turn, adjusted its point of view, moving from disliking the Congress to liking it, to liking it a little too much. Between 1975 and 1977, as Indira Gandhi put the country under the Emergency, almost all IAS officials worked to serve the authoritarian aims of the regime. Navin Chawla, the secretary to Delhi’s lieutenant governor who was known to be close to Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi, was indicted by the JC Shah Commission, which probed the excesses committed during the Emergency, for being “authoritarian and callous”. Chawla was the norm: Potter notes that “most IAS officers” during the Emergency “accepted orders they believed to be improper and politically motivated”.

Scarred by this experience, states such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Tripura and Punjab called for abolishing the all-India services, a proposal that has found little traction in the four decades since.

The 1990s bought changes that further weakened the “steel frame”. For one, a weak central government meant the Prime Minister’s Office directly controlling IAS officers in districts was unlikely. Now state governments exercise greater control over the cadre. In states such as Bihar, the upper caste nature of the IAS was seen as a hindrance and it was weakened by transferring power to local politicians, who often came from the backward castes.

Growing weaker

As India has produced more parties and political discourse has turned bitter, lamentations about the politicisation of the IAS have grown loud and frequent. It was the same complaint that animated the Aam Aadmi Party’s standoff with the lieutenant governor this month.

While being partisan is now often a requirement for IAS officers to progress in their career, to suggest that the politicisation started with, say, Indira Gandhi, may not be accurate. As Milan Vaishnav and Saksham Khosla point out, “The ICS was far from politically neutral during the Raj era, in the sense that it was deeply invested in the continuation of the status quo and was opposed to the nationalist Congress Party.”

Though the centralised bureaucratic service was not abolished in 1947, it has been gradually attenuated in modern India. Opening up high positions in the bureaucracy to people who do not belong to the IAS is part of the same trend.