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Political Patronage of Bureaucrats, Ethics in Public Life

Published: 7th Feb, 2022


For many years after Independence, India’s civil services were regarded as exemplary among developing nations. Under India’s system of public administration, there was supposed to be a clear division of roles between the permanent civil service and the political leadership. The bureaucracy was subordinate to the elected politicians, who were chosen by the Prime Minister at the Centre (and by the Chief Ministers in the states) to head different ministries and departments.

                                   The government’s priorities and its work program were set by the elected politicians, and the bureaucracy was supposed to ensure that this program was implemented according to the laws in force and line with approved administrative procedures. While implementing the programs set by the Cabinet and the ministers, bureaucrats were expected to act without fear or favor and ensure that the benefits of the programs flowed to the people regardless of their political affiliations. While the elected politicians were free to overrule the advice rendered by civil servants, the advisory functions of the bureaucracy were expected to be performed without regard to their impact on the private interests of politicians and the party in power.


The civil service is for all purposes an important part of the government. It is the competencies of the civil service that form the base for efficient and effective governance. Its importance can be gauged from two parts. Firstly, for bringing and managing change in the political system; and secondly, for not permitting any such kind of changes that could put the system in specific and society in general to any disadvantageous position.

                           Civil services have gained enormous importance and significance over the years. Its major task is to implement the Policies and Programmes and help the Political masters in framing the policies. It is strongly felt that a government can be made to perform without a legislative for some time, but it cannot perform without civil service.


Bureaucracy is as old as is government and administration. Though the concept of bureaucracy was developed largely by the sociologists who took a relatively detached, scholarly, and descriptive point of view, it is a difficult term to define. It means different things to different people. There are almost as many definitions of bureaucracy as there are writers on the subject who emphasize different aspects of bureaucracy. As such, there is no terminological accuracy about the concept of bureaucracy. The term bureaucracy connotes different meanings to highlight different things.

                                                                              Max Weber, a German Sociologist, occupies a pivotal position about explanations of the concept of bureaucracy. He referred to the formulation of bureaucracy as ‘Ideal Type’. The normative model of bureaucracy emphasizes the structure of the organization. While the empirical model of bureaucracy, that is, bureaucracy in the modern context emphasizes the behavioral and functional patterns in an organization. If we look into structural features of bureaucracy like hierarchy, division of labor, the system of rules, etc., bureaucracy is value-neutral. From the behavioral angle, since it displays certain characteristics like objectivity, rationality, impersonality, rule orientation, etc., bureaucracy shows some functional, that is, positive as well as some dysfunctional, that is, negative symptoms. From the achievement point of view, it can be regarded as a pattern of organization that maximizes the efficiency of administration.


Bureaucracy is influenced by social, cultural, economic, and political factors. As a result, at different points of time in history, it has taken different shapes and forms. Fritz Morstein Marx has categorized bureaucracy into the following four types:

1) The Guardian bureaucracy

2) The Caste bureaucracy

3) The Patronage bureaucracy

4) The Merit bureaucracy

What is Political patronage?

  • Political patronage is the appointment or hiring of a person to a government post based on partisan loyalty. Elected officials at the national, state, and local levels of government use such appointments to reward the people who help them win and maintain an office. This practice led to the saying, “to the victor go the spoils.” When politicians use the patronage system to fire their political opponents, those fired may charge that the practice penalizes them for exercising their First Amendment rights of political association.
  • Another name for the Patronage bureaucracy is the “spoils system”. Its traditional home has been the U.S.A. through patronage had full sway even in the U.K., till the middle of the 19th century when public jobs were given as a personal favor or political award. It is interesting to note that this system worked differently in the U.K. and the U.S.A. In the U.K., patronage bureaucracy marched side by side with an aristocratic social order and fulfilled its purpose. In the United States, on the contrary, the system worked quite differently and jobs were distributed as spoils to the victorious political party. This system of patronage bureaucracy was condemned as an anachronism for its lack of technical competence, careless discipline, concealed greediness, irregular ways, partisanship, and its absence of the spirit of service.

Recent examples

The introduction of lateral entry for the post of joint Secretary. The proposal of lateral entry is “aimed at bringing in fresh ideas and new approaches to governance and also to augment manpower. The appointments will be on a contract basis for a period of three years initially, extendable to up to five years in case of satisfactory performance. There is a perception that such ‘extra-UPSC lateral inductions’ could multiply in the future and at all levels. This has caused apprehension that India’s 160-year old Merit System of recruitment is being undermined and that ‘lateral entry’ is simply another name for the nefarious Spoils System.

The proposed model of evaluation doesn’t inspire confidence about its fairness and transparency and is open to serious abuse, more so since the recruitments will not be done by UPSC but by DOPT or the departments concerned. This is not a ‘level playing field’ and, apart from seriously demoralizing the permanent civil service, it may attract legal challenge on the grounds of violating Article 14 of the Constitution of India.

Lateral induction at the level of Joint Secretary — as presently proposed — fails when evaluated on the touchstone of legality, fairness, transparency, objectivity, and bona fides. It has all the trappings of the Spoils System. It is important to note that ‘government underperformance’ is a complex problem that calls for wide-ranging political, administrative, and judicial reforms; simplistic solutions like ‘lateral entry from the private sector will not work and may end up doing more harm than good.

Ethical concern

  • In each government service, there are various factions based on language, religion, caste, and region. To gain promotion and perks for their faction, they’d bend to the wills of politicians.
  • There will be more secrecy in official functioning. As a result, there develops nexus between the political executive and civil servants to fulfill their illegitimate gratifications.
  • Due to the lack of an independent board, civil servants align with one or the other political party to get their favorite postings and other perks.
  • Transfers have been used as instruments of reward and punishment, as tools for controlling and taming the bureaucracy. There is no transparency, and in the public mind transfer after a short categorized as a stigma.
  • Some civil servants are deeply involved in partisan politics: they are preoccupied with it, penetrated by it, and now participate individually and collectively in it.
  • Over the years, whatever virtues the IAS possessed – integrity, political neutrality, courage, and high morale – are showing signs of decay.
  • As a civil servant, one has the responsibility towards the public and must adhere to constitutional principles keeping his conscience intact. His primary job is to perform Nishkama Karma (selfless and desire less duty).

Ethics in Public Life

Public relationships are those that exist by the virtue of profession (e.g. Civil services) or the position one holds in professional life (e.g. Prime Minister or President). Ethics in Public relationships guides one’s behavior, action, and decision-making process. It is vital to maintain the integrity of the profession. For instance, Ethical conduct such as adhering to rule of law by civil servants maintains the integrity of civil services but instances of Encounter Killing, Preferential treatments, etc. lower public confidence in the administrative machinery.

Ethical Principles in Public life

  • Rule of law – It is a constitutional directive for civil servants that must be adhered to. This brings consistency and predictability to the conduct of civil servants. For example, Civil servants are expected to honor the due process of law concerning investigation, inquiry, and arrest in criminal cases. They should restrain from torturing accused and encounter killings.
  • Fairness & Justice – This is the basic demand of our constitution. This directs politicians and civil servants to frame a policy framework to accommodate all sections of society based on the Principle of Equity. For instance, Affirmative Actions (Provisions of Reservation) for weaker sections have been incorporated through various legislations.
  • Transparency and Accountability – Public relationships require transparency and accountability in order fairness in public dealings and increase public confidence. For instance, a Social audit is an important mechanism to ensure transparency in the expenditure of public funds and also makes public servants accountable for any mismanagement.
  • Honesty, integrity, and Probity – These values direct a civil servant to show the highest standards of moral behavior while engaging with the public at large. For instance, Mere non-involvement in coercive and collusive corruption (Honesty and Integrity) is not enough but civil servants are expected to expose and fight corruption (Whistleblowing) till the end (Probity).
  • Impartiality and Non-Partisanship – Right to equality under Art 14 of the Indian Constitution is the source of this principle. This helps civil servants to restrain from personal biases, engaging in n, nepotism or potential conflict of interest situations. For instance, In Janta Darbar (Public hearings) organized by various Chief Ministers, every citizen is allowed to raise their grievances without any preferential to the minimum
  • The minimum level of Courtesy – It is highly important in the official conduct of civil servants in India. This induces a sense of belongingness among the common masses. For instance, Prashanth Nair’s (IAS) style of engaging with the public at large earned him the title of ‘Collector bro’.
  • Spirit of service – This is closer to serving the purpose of service. Civil servants are expected to go beyond the call of duty to serve the public interest. This has dual benefits – inner satisfaction to the person concerned and inspiration for his colleagues to fulfill the service goals.

Public officials are expected to uphold the highest standards in their actions and an ethical code acts as a guide to achieve this. In the year 1994, The Committee on Standards in Public Life, famously known as the Nolan Committee, was set up in the UK advisevice on the ethical standards in public life.

One of the most comprehensive statements of what constitutes principles of public life came from the Nolan Committee, which outlined the following seven principles of public life Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty, Leadership.

The seven principles of public life given by the Nolan Committee are as follows:

Leadership: Holders of public office should promote and support the principles of public life by leadership and example.

For eg., Lal Bahadur Shastri used to fast every Monday to save grains for poor people of the country and he gave a call for the nation to follow it. Thus exhibiting a true example of how leaders should lead from the front.

Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of public interest. They should not do so to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.

For eg. Tukara, Omble of Maharashtra police tackled Kasab one of the terrorists of the Mumbai attack so that he couldn’t attack his fellow servicemen. Thus showing exemplary courage and the highest degree of selflessness by giving away his life for the cause of his nation.

Gita also in one of its shloka- karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana reiterates the principle of selflessness which means one should only focus on our actions and should not worry about the result.

Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

For eg., Vikram Sarabhai accepted the failure of ISRO’s first mission without actually putting it on the mission head (APJ Abdul Kalam). Thus taking full accountability for the failure of his team.

Thus it can be established that principles of public life are important for every democracy. Guidelines of public behavior arising from such principles can play a crucial role in creating trust between the public functionaries and the common public. Therefore any person who is privileged to guide the destiny of the people must not only be ethical but must be seen to practice these principles of public life.

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