The future of India’s Civil Service

By on 27/05/2014
India's new government has been popular at the polls - but what impact will its policies have on the public sector?

Tom Lloyd considers how the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could affect India’s Civil Service

When the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP as it is more commonly known, was elected to power in May 2014, India took a step towards a future that promises change and upheaval.

The previous leading party, the Indian National Congress (INC), had ruled the nation for all but 18 of the 67 years since it gained independence. And while the INC’s political strength has plummeted to an all-time low, the BJP’s margin of victory was unlike any seen in India since 1984.

Now, as the party assumes the mantle of government, many in India and around the world are wondering how it will shape the country. This is especially relevant to those who work in and around India’s Civil Service – and who will undoubtedly feel the impacts of the BJP’s policies at first hand.

Pursuing uniformity

The BJP is a socially conservative organisation, committed to Indian nationalism. One of the most prominent aspects of its manifesto is an intention to introduce a uniform civil code throughout India.

This manifesto pledge provoked a great deal of controversy both within and beyond India. At present, the laws concerning marriage, adoption and inheritance are specific to particular communities, and largely influenced by religious attitudes. But the BJP wants to introduce a civil law that encompasses all citizens equally.

Some see this as reflecting, and contributing to, tensions between India’s religious groups – a charge that is exacerbated by the fact that BJP leader and new prime minister Narendra Modi was accused of presiding over anti-Muslim pogroms 12 years ago, while he was chief minister of Gujarat.

The BJP, however, describes the putative new legislation as a step towards helping India become more “positively secular”.

That may well be the case. But by instating a uniform civil code, the BJP is not simply promoting a secular society. It is also distancing India from its colonial past.

The community-specific laws were developed and introduced during the British Raj. They are symbolic of a traditional side of Indian life that the BJP wants to consign to the annals of history.

A changing Civil Service

Another part of India’s cultural inheritance is its Civil Service, which bears a close relation in structure and governance style to that of the UK. With the BJP’s nationalist values providing the cornerstone for much of its popularity, Civil Service reform could easily become a further method of creating distance from India’s colonial traditions.

An additional ideological influence here is the BJP’s commitment to strengthening India’s private sector, even if that means restricting the influence of the public sector.

This is also a prosaic consideration, especially for a party that owes its election success to a well-oiled publicity machine that was predominantly funded by the corporate sector. Its close relationship with India’s business community has already been reflected in relaxed labour laws and a clearly expressed intention to privatise public services and infrastructure.

Examples of infrastructure improvements that Modi and his party have promised the Indian people include a Speed Rail system and an Optical Fibre Network. Commentators are already looking with interest to see who politicians trust with the management of such major projects.

One person to watch is Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, who is widely touted as a potential candidate to oversee the construction of India’s new railway network. Sreedharan was contracted by the Government to become managing director of the Konkan Railway in 1990 and the Delhi Metro in 1997. His appointment would be taken as a clear sign that the prime minister intends to move responsibility – and decision-making power – out of the hands of India’s Civil Servants and into the private sector.

What, then, of Government spending?  It looks clear that the funding of projects such as these will involve the reallocation of public money, with the likely casualty being the Civil Service’s budgets.

A new era?

In sum, the BJP’s populist manifesto seems to point in a very clear direction for India’s Civil Service. The intentional distancing of the country from its colonial past, and the funding of new privately-run infrastructure projects, along with changes in civil polity, suggest that considerable change is in store for the public sector. It is too early to say whether its power will be formally curbed, but it seems clear that its influence will be significantly reduced.

Now, the question remaining is whether the BJP proves as popular in power as it has done during India’s historic election campaign.

About Kevin Sorkin

Pendragon International Media publish www.globalgovernmentforum.com, a community of senior government officials around the world. Global Government Forum is an important international network focusing on impartial, government news, analysis and best practice. The content addresses the real issues facing senior leaders in public service policy and administration today and aims to support them in developing public services for the future. Our aim is to help all organisations engage with this important community by improving understanding and strengthening relationships.

I am the founder of the Civil Service Awards and Civil Service Live, which are now established industry leading brands and extremely important events for government. I also launched and published Civil Service World, civilserviceworld.com and Civil Service World Research and Information bringing together the civil service community to enable communication, sharing of best practice, inspire and motivate the civil service community.

Over the years I have established relationships with the most senior officials in government and the private sector and have built a very strong and positive reputation across the industry.

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