MINISTER-CIVIL SERVANTS TUSSLE: DEFEND THE DIGNITY

Defend the dignity  
 
 
 
 
 

MURARI SHARMA & BHAGIRATH BASNET

Unless you are a pathological optimist, you would have a tough time adopting a positive outlook towards Nepal’s leadership. Although much progress has been made since the start of the peace process in 2006, the country is far from secure, from growing and from getting the new constitution. What leaders have offered aplenty are rampant corruption, nepotism, favoritism and lawlessness.  

Plato in his book Republic says, guardians (leaders) must be of mild disposition, be learned, be spirited and swift, be honest and must not show wickedness and hate to each other and citizens. How do our leaders stack up against Plato’s criteria? The majority of Nepali leaders fail Plato’s test.    

Some have the blood of thousands of people in their hands; many lack education and most do not care to read; they display fake spirit for public service at best, do wicked things to each other and pocket Nepali people’s resources at the worst. And they cannot deliver public services effectively because they cannot tolerate the people they have to work with.  
Ministers have shown such a grave lack of tolerance by frequently manhandling and abusing senior bureaucrats. Well, this is not something new. But it has thrived to unprecedented proportions after the 2006 political change. Only in last few months, half a dozen ministers have manhandled or abused senior officials. 

State Minister for Health Saroj Yadav bad-mouthed the employees of Bir Hospital at night in a drunken pandemonium. Irrigation Minister Mahedra Yadav used obscene language against Secretary Brinda Hada. Not long ago, then-Forest Minister Matrika Yadav had shut a senior official of the forest ministry in a toilet. Labor Minister Aftab Alam had manhandled Foreign Secretary Madan Bhattarai. State Minister for Agriculture Karima Begum had beaten up the chief district officer of Bara in his office. 

Relations between ministers and bureaucrats must be symbiotic, smooth, and cordial for effective delivery of public policy and services because of the division of labor between them in democratic societies. Ministers make policy. Bureaucracy provides expertise and workforce to draw up policy and programs and implements them. As permanent government, it offers continuity by linking the past to the present. To Max Weber, bureaucracy is the basis for meritocratic rule in a democratic system.   

Institutional arrangements and personal interests create unwarranted clashes between ministers and bureaucrats in democratic countries, particularly in young democracies like Nepal. 

Institutionally, since the ministers have to implement their party’s election manifest before the next election, they are individuals in a hurry. But bureaucrats are not tied to the election cycle nor are they committed to the political manifesto. These factors put ministers and bureaucrats at two different wavelengths. When ministers issue oral instructions or make decisions inconsistent with the law, bureaucrats resent and resist, fearing that implementing those decisions could haul them to prison. 

The spoil system in which senior officials serve at the pleasure of the chief executive, as in the US, this dissonance has been minimized. The merit-based system has managed the system with laws and tradition. For instance, it is illegal in the UK for a minister to put pressure on bureaucracy with reference to any particular case. Ministers can only talk about general issues of law and policy and their general implementation. However, they cannot take up a specific case unless a member of parliament has raised it in the parliament. 

Nepal, for its part, has tried to resolve this matter by dividing authority and responsibility of ministers and bureaucrats by law. Nonetheless, ministers frequently overstep their boundaries, while senior officials often fail to exercise their authority for the fear of getting transferred to less attractive offices.

Sometimes there could be genuine differences of opinion on policy between ministers and senior officials, but most quarrels flare up due to their petty personal interests—corruption, nepotism, favoritism, etc. For most ministers and many bureaucrats, these interests have far outweighed their vows to serve the public honestly, sincerely and diligently. 

Ministers, in an extremely fluid political situation where governments keep changing, want to make as much hay as possible when the sun is shining. Many bureaucrats cut deals with ministers to get a transfer to a lucrative post or a nomination for training overseas, to brighten up their own and the minister’s fortunes. When ministers and employee unions do not get what they want, they go against senior civil servants. 

They complain to the prime minister about senior officials, speak against them in public, throw them out of their ministries, and use violence and foul speech against them. They ask employees close to them to dig out the dirt about such civil servants and haul them over the coal, making real or fake allegations against them.  

The use of violence or of foul hate speech is a serious crime punishable under the Nepali laws. If Nepal were a law-abiding country, the perpetrators of these crimes could very easily land in jail or end up paying a substantial fine. But Nepal is a country where criminals chastise the constable.  

That brings us to the manhandling and bad-mouthing by ministers. Such incidents used to take place occasionally before 2006 too. But they were fewer and seldom involved the use of physical violence. But these incidents have grown alarmingly after the 2006 political change, because there is no fear of punishment due to the flourishing culture of impunity.   

Ministers can get away with murder if they know how to cloak it in the pall of revolution or of majority-minority divide. The Maoists got 15,000 Nepali people killed in the name revolution without any fear of prosecution. Some Maoist murderers are serving as members of the Constituent Assembly. The Maoist-led government has decided to withdraw the criminal cases of more than 360 people, most of them Maoist cadres. 

Ministers from minority groups wrap their bigotry and intolerance in an ethnic cloak. If they go to jail for corruption or are sacked for their bad behavior, they claim that the majority group has meted out such punishment to stifle minority rights and silence minority voice. Ironically, their supporters treat the jailed or sacked leaders as heroes.  

The prime minister heading a shaky government propped up by the parties of the wayward ministers cannot do much. We appreciate that Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai sacked a ministers for her bad behavior and corruption, something Madhav Nepal, when he was prime minister, had failed to do when Karima Begum slapped the chief district officer at his office. But Bhattarai did not show the guts to punish other ministers for worse crimes. 

The victims of manhandling and abuse have not gone to court for whatever reason. So such illegal behavior continues. 

Unfortunately, our wayward ministers have failed to understand that their bad behavior reflects on them and not on their victims. If ministers do not change and the prime minister does not care, senior bureaucrats themselves will have to take steps to protect their dignity and honor. Based on our experience, we have a few suggestions.   

First, senior bureaucrats must try to remain above reproach personally. Ministers and employee union officials, who may say nasty things behind the back of senior civil servants, cannot attack them face to face if they have kept their nose clean throughout their career. They attack you directly only if you are morally and ethically vulnerable. 

Second, on day one, secretaries should make it clear to ministers that they must engage in policy making, leaving administrative matters to appointed officials. The law is very clear about who has what powers. Senior officials must insist on exercising their powers under the law and not let ministers interfere with them.  

Third, ministers and senior officials mostly quarrel over approving projects, transferring employees, sending staff for overseas trainings, and allotting vehicles. Secretaries can do two things to prevent such tiffs. One, they can develop additional criteria to clarify the ambiguities in the law for postings and training opportunities. Two, they can constitute a board of senior officials to recommend staff for postings, trainings and other matters. When we were in office, such sharing of burden diluted undue ministerial interference.  

Fourth, secretaries and other senior officials should remain above the fray by not associating with any particular political party. It is easier said than done, because these days you seldom become a secretary in Nepal without piggybacking on one of the parties. But it is possible to maintain a great degree of neutrality after one has been appointed secretary.    
Fifth, a few clever and opportunist subordinates approach candidates for secretary pledging to lobby on their behalf and later use it as leverage to advance their personal agenda. When such subordinates approached us, we told them very clearly that we did not want their help. 

Sixth, bureaucrats must insist that the government establish in the prime minister’s office a panel of senior ministers and secretaries, assisted by experts, where an aggrieved minister or secretary can file a complaint quietly to be sorted out through discussion and mutual understanding. This will minimize the tendency to settle scores by going to the media with their complaints.  

Our politicians might not pass Plato’s test, but they can and should improve themselves for their own sake. If they do not, and the prime minister cannot hold them accountable, senior civil servants must show the guts to take necessary measures to protect their dignity.    

http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=33685

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