A Babu-Crazy Bureaucracy: Alexander the Great Syndrome Bamboozles Dignity!

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Hemashri, an officer in the Northeast, gives us an insider’s view on exploitation, discrimination, the rude and arrogant behaviour of the creamy layer of people in the administrative services. Here’s a fictional account of a real-life situation. We are introducing a new weekly column, beginning this Tuesday. A Different Truths exclusive.

He walked with a certain air – strutting like a peacock, which was – and is – the charisma of the service he was associated with. An administrative service that is the dream job of millions of Indian youths even today! Maybe it is the ultimate hangover of colonialism that still lingers on! A job that is much aspired and awed for this is the instant ticket to elitism. A tough competitive examination procedure is followed to select them.

However, unlike the real one, this Alexander the Great, may never ask a local “Porus” how he or she would like to be treated. Thus, the saga of Babu-crazy bureaucracy lives on.

Shibaji Bhajikhamtuk Gokhale was a moderately good-looking man. He, however, had a very fine dressing sense! A young man of around 42 years. However, his uniqueness was his total indifference to his work. This man had perfected the art as to how to live “cool’ in this stressful world. These OEWs (one examination wonders) were the marvellous genius in the art and craft of delegation. This was not the kind of delegation taught in management courses of the B-Schools. Instead, it was total abdication where the credit of any project was entirely theirs and the blame, someone else’s – heads I win, tail you lose kind of situation.

This unique delegation was the secret tool of survival of these ‘generalists’ in this tough world, otherwise dominated by the specialists! Many wanted to dub this generalist versus specialist equation as the manifestation of underlying mediocrity versus meritocracy clash.

According to some, Juwalamukhi had been suffering from a perennial interpersonal skill deficiency. She was a middle-level Babuni, an officer of the outcaste provincial service. She needed 20 years of service to reach that level. Taking her deficiency as a clue for improvement, she had been trying her best to survive by adopting all kind of tactics that she could garner. Her arsenal included techniques of voice modulation where she was barely audible, in presence of this royal group. Another strategy was to maintain silence and reduce interaction with this species to avoid conflict and consequences thereof.

This time Juwalamukhi got to play the role of Gokhale, the secretary’s proxy to attend all his meetings, on his behalf. Providence had gifted her with role reversal. She had learned to adjust to it because often such gatherings turned out to be a great learning experience. On a number of occasions, she had to endure rude comments from seniors asking why she was representing “His Highness Babu” or where was he? Work for him was to shift his entire responsibility to someone else. He farmed out his work.  This was a unique experience where the onus of the task was thrown to his next junior. Instead of acting as a leader to motivate his team or to guide them effectively, he simply passed the buck. Maybe work was a headache for him. Perhaps abdication was – and is – the instant aspirin. He would rudely threaten subordinates to produce results. Who said, “Work is worship?” Here, work was a football to be kicked off to another’s half. In this game of football securing a goal wasn’t been the target. All that mattered was how quickly one could kick it off! Maybe this was the style of a delegation of the Colonial Masters but was this a useful management practice in the contemporary world? They were the typical Babus of a post-liberalised India! Wonder what these ‘Brown Sahibs’ were taught in that magnificent school, located in the picturesque clouds amidst the mountains!

Twenty-six years ago, India had liberalised her economy to end the licence raj with a commitment to facilitate governance from a strictly regulatory entity. Unaware of the paradigm shift in the very priority of governance, these high clan Babus were still flaunting their pre-Raj style of deliberation! Inspite of her utmost sincerity to discharge every single responsibility, Juwalamukhi found this Big Babu talked to her very rudely.  Gokhale’s way of crude deliberation bordered on verbal abuse. She noticed that often her morning ritual for several days was his ill-tempered comments. He attacked her dignity. These morning sessions left her extremely irritated still she did not react. Perhaps most women had been taught to bear it all by their mothers and grandmothers, without a complaint. Could a woman afford to upset His Lordship, seated on a high horse? He, the self-appointed lord and master, represented the patriarchal system!

That day as Juwalamukhi was struggling to complete an important file, her cell declared that His Highness’ was calling from a landline. As she received the call, his rude voice blurted, “Aap ko Jumbotron ke larka logo ke sarr pe baith kar kaam nikal lo, samjhe? Mujhe result chahiye, result. Samajh Gayi na.” (You get the work done from the boys sitting on their heads. Is that clear? Result, I need result). Before she could reply, the phone was disconnected.Totally disgusted by his choice of words, she redialled his number and after several rings, he answered with his typical “Helloooou!” Without any introduction, Juwalamukhi retorted back, “May I know why are you treating me so rudely despite my doing everything so sincerely. Listen, I will lodge a complaint against you.” She disconnected the phone and felt utterly flabbergasted at her own reaction. Perhaps another bad chapter had begun. After five minutes, her cell buzzed, again and again. His Highness was calling through his Personal Assistant. She did not receive the call. It kept on ringing not once or twice but several times.

She had no regret for her behaviour. How long was she to endure? Juwalamukhi saluted those who could take uncouth behaviours indefinitely and were, instead, boastful about it. She told herself, “They are great souls but I am an ordinary creature.”

The corporate world strictly evaluated productivity, fairly ruthlessly. On the basis of the results or productivity, they decided who were indispensable performance-wise. The reputed corporate houses conducted programmes to improve employees’ motivation to enhance performance/productivity. They designed incentive and reward system to acknowledge competence or efficiency.

How could the government insulate itself from such practices when efficiency was – and is – such a crucial issue? The Indian public sector (read government offices) refused to pay heed to the best practices of the corporate world to create a healthy working atmosphere! Lesser mortals still clung to government jobs so that the dear ones might get the pittance even after they went to the graves. So in the public sector, these Big Babus’ arrogance, rude behaviour, mental harassment had been a routine and any refusal actually made life a pure hell! Juwalamukhi was grateful to her Dad for one thing. He did not teach her to fear anyone. She felt amused to see some of her friends to be scared of the Big Babus!  They were revered as gods just for their official designations! She was to witness situations when they even refused to sit before their lords and masters. In the presence of Big Babus, their voices trembled or choked with fear.

An officer’s job was to analyse issues objectively, do critical analysis, derive actionable agenda for implementation and pursue relentlessly for compliance. Instead, most of the time was spent to flatter these Big Babus with what they loved to hear. This all-pervasive flattering culture had spoiled so many projects. Why weren’t most people self-respecting individuals, who politely and firmly placed their point of views, with due justification? This practice had been going on for so many generations that it seemed irreversible. The obfuscation thickened.  

Perhaps this was one of the reasons that people who often spoke reasonably and wanted to live with dignity, were marginalised and pushed to the periphery. Juwalamukhi still thought, who needed to be in the centre, hogging the limelight, by uttering gibberish and enduring utter nonsense!

Anyway, Juwalamukhi’s humble justification was that since she treated everyone with due respect, why was she to take such indignity? The flatterer-crowd was forever in the rat race for the moon. But, this stupid woman, Juwalamukhi, stood for a dignified existence, not only for herself but everyone who worked with her!

Life moved on for poor Poruses

No Alexander the Great ever asked a Porus, “How should you be treated?”

©Hemashri Hazarika

Photos from the Internet

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Hemashri Hazarika is an Officer of the Assam Civil Service since 1997. Her research on Assam Civil Service brought reforms in 2015. A first-class Postgraduate in Economics from Gauhati University, she was awarded JRF/NET by UGC in 1997. Her experience as a bureaucrat has sensitised her to human sufferings. A solutionist by passion, she takes an active interest in issues related to Governance, Development, Women, Children, etc. Reading, Writing, Speaking and Painting are her hobbies.