NEW DELHI — They are the royalty of regulation, the barons of bureaucracy. Without their permission, ships would not sail, planes would not fly, trains would not leave the station, contracts would not be let, licenses would not be issued.
They are the 5,000 or so men and women who make up the elite of the Indian civil service, the famous "steel frame" that holds the country together.
The Indian Administrative Service, together with its sister institutions, the Indian Foreign Service and the Indian Police Service, are the backbone--and the bane--of Indian government. Prime ministers and governors, members of Parliament and the state assemblies, mayors and village chiefs--all depend on this cadre of elite civil servants for quick, accurate, sophisticated advice.
But they all complain of the civil service elite's haughtiness and power. In the red sandstone corridors of government ministries here in New Delhi, frustrated politicians sometimes refer to the Indian Administrative Service, the IAS, as the "I'm Arrogant Service."
The power of the elite civil servants, who control an apparatus of 3.3 million office workers and other central government underlings, a force three times the size of the Indian army, is immense and undisputed.
Until Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister in 1984, after the assassination of his mother, Indira, no Indian prime minister had dared to challenge them. But almost immediately after taking office, Rajiv Gandhi took to scolding the bureaucracy, consistently and publicly, for delaying his economic and social reforms.
His criticism won considerable support, particularly from businessmen who feel trapped in the red tape they must deal with in even the simplest transactions. (India's official file folders are still bound with the red tape that gave rise to the term).
But Gandhi's scolding has come to an abrupt halt. Not long ago, he tangled with a senior civil servant and lost, and he was compelled to seek peace with the bureaucrats by making what amounted to an apology before a special meeting of senior government secretaries, the deans of the civil service.
In the course of a press conference, Gandhi publicly humiliated a respected diplomat, and the incident not only put him at odds with powerful bureaucrats but produced the most bitter criticism of his government yet from opposition parties and the Indian press.
The offended diplomat, Foreign Secretary A.P. Venkateswaran, resigned from the government on Jan. 22 after Gandhi, in the presence of several hundred Indian and foreign journalists, told a questioner, "You will speak to a new foreign secretary soon."
This came as a surprise to Venkateswaran, a veteran of 30 years with the Foreign Service, who was sitting in the front row. It also surprised almost everyone else there and obscured all the other topics that came up.
The incident quickly snowballed into the worst public relations setback of Gandhi's 2 1/2 years as prime minister.
Assailed in Press
"An utter disgrace," the Times of India said in an editorial. "Deplorable," the Indian Express said. (In India, the bureaucratic elite is closely allied with the press, which depends on the senior civil servants for information and the supply of newsprint, which is regulated by the government.) More important, the incident brought into the open differences between Gandhi and the civil service elite.
"A wave of resentment has spread through the ranks," an official involved in the training of new officers said. "All are equally touched by this incident. They say, 'If it can happen to him, it can happen to me.' "
The elite services are the modern extension of the famous Indian Civil Service that essentially governed India for two centuries, first under the East India Co. and then as an arm of the British Empire. In practice, the civil service is one of the three main branches of power in the Indian government, along with Parliament, headed by the prime minister, and the judiciary.
For Gandhi to challenge the senior bureaucracy, whose members are the working executives of every department in the central government, and in the state governments as well, is the equivalent of an American president attacking every Washington bureaucrat, every state administrator and every police chief in the land.
Could Affect Teamwork
"The Venkateswaran affair has certainly agitated and demoralized the services," said Dharma Vir, 81, who before his retirement was private secretary to Jawaharlal Nehru and Cabinet secretary to Indira Gandhi. "If such incidents go on, there is a danger of the political bosses losing the cooperation of the services."