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The IAS Plays a Critical Role in Defending Constitutional Values

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Inaugural Session of the Assistant Secretaries (IAS Officers of 2016 batch), in New Delhi on Wednesday, July 04, 2018. Photo: PIB.

Over the last four years, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government has presided over a politics that has seen the country moving inexorably towards a centralised, authoritaran, national security state with a strong leader inclined to abandoning the fundamental principles on which our Constitution is based. It has become critical, therefore, to strengthen institutions and systems that can check this erosion of constitutional values.

In this article, Amitabha Pande, former Secretary to Government of India, argues that the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), by virtue of its allegiance to the Constitution and not the Government of the day, has a critical role to play in defending and preserving the Constitution. Therefore, public opinion should be created to ensure that all efforts are made to strengthen the IAS to ensure its neutrality and credibility, not denigrate it by introducing changes in the name of reforms that will make the system more susceptible to misuse.

The makers of our Constitution designed the institutions of our republic with great care and attention to detail. The deliberations of the Constituent Assembly bear witness to the extraordinary quality of thought which went into the making of these institutions. They were designed to endure and it was expected that as the republic grew, a body of good practices, conventions and intangible legacies would nourish and sustain them and make them stronger.

Instead, we have seen every party in power since Indira Gandhi try to weaken and diminish these institutions. The Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Chief Election Commissioner, the Comptroller & Auditor General, the Union Public Service Commission are among the long list of institutions where  constant attempts  have been made to subdue them, erode their  autonomy and authority (sometimes in the guise of reform) and have them subordinated to the will of the political executive, particularly the Prime Minister’s Office. Yet, their structural strength has enabled them to resist these attacks and substantially retain their character although each of them is  probably weaker than before.

The one institution that has received the maximum battering from every quarter is that of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). In the sixty four years of its existence (it came into existence  in 1951 by an Act of Parliament under Article 312 of the Constitution), there have been more than fifty Commissions, Committees, Task Forces etc that have questioned and investigated different aspects of its architecture, tinkered with the recruitment system, and re-engineered it to change the socio-cultural and age profile of the entrants, introduced an OBC quota in addition to the original one for SC and ST, and suggested several other ‘reforms’ which have substantially changed its character.

Some changes have been necessitated by major sociological and political developments, for instance, the acceptance of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. Some others have been motivated by the desire to make the IAS politically and culturally more acceptable. Yet despite these changes in the original architecture — or maybe because of them — the institution  remains central to the working of the Government and, in the minds of the public, still exercises disproportionate power in the scheme of things.

Many find the IAS an impediment in the making of a business-friendly Government with ultra nationalist inclinations.

It is interesting to find that the institution is once again, smack in the middle of political controversy. Many of those who had written its obituary and declared it as an irrelevant colonial, elitist legacy are rediscovering its potential usefulness in the face of an unprecedented assault on constitutional values. Many of those who thought of it as a custodian of conservative  ideological principles find it an impediment in the making of a business and private investment friendly Government with ultra nationalist inclinations. The fact that neither side is happy is the surest sign that the IAS retains its importance in the governance ecosystem.

In critiquing the IAS, most analysts make two common errors. The first is to treat the IAS as a formal organisation with its own objectives, its own laws and rules, its own hierarchy and its own operating system. This is just not so. The IAS is not a formal organisation like the Army or Airforce or Navy with a clear mandate and its own command and control structure, nor is it a body corporate performing specific functions entrusted to it. It is a network of individuals who are recruited through a specially designed recruitment process — they undergo some part of their formal training  together as a ‘batch’ but their identity as a group ends there. Belonging to the IAS certainly means a set of common, shared values, a general similarity of experiences through the life of a career and a strong sense of being part of a privileged network. The quality of this bonding has been evocatively brought out by Bhaskar Ghosh in his memoir, The Service of the State - The IAS Reconsidered 1 - but that this is an intangible value and it  does not make the IAS into a formal organisation. To say, therefore, as many do that the IAS has failed to do this, that or other, is silly. The IAS does not ‘do’ things as the IAS. During a career an IAS officer serves many different organisations and each stint in each different organisation may be marked by success or failure or just maintaining status quo, but that has nothing to do with the IAS as an institution.

The second similar kind of error is to conflate the Government with its bureaucracy and then that bureaucracy with the IAS. Typically, the failures of the Government then get attributed to the IAS as though all the other innumerable bits and parts which constitute the Government do not really matter and the IAS must take the rap, irrespective of which bit of the Government has not performed.

Hostility to the IAS, to its conceptual design — to the disproportionate sense of privilege and entitlement that its members seem to have, to the  vast powers that its members wield, to the guaranteed promotions and the security of tenure that they enjoy,  to the supremacy of the ‘generalist’ over the ‘specialist’ — has plagued the IAS from its inception. What is surprising is not so much how the institution has survived such intense hostility but that the critique has also remained largely unchanged despite the numerous changes introduced in response to such criticism.

What are those features that give the IAS its unique status and make it equally, an object of  admiration and aspiration as well as one of envious loathing?

First is its constitutional status. The IAS and the IPS are only two of the three All India Services (the third being the Indian Forest Service which came up later) to be covenanted in the body of the Constitution itself. This provides it an impregnability and a sanctity which is very different from that of other public services in India or abroad. Both Sardar Patel whose impassioned plea before the Constituent Assembly carried through the proposal in the teeth of opposition and Dr. Ambedkar thought of the civil service as forming a protective ring around the Constitution unaffected by political changes, having an all- India perspective rather than a parochial regional one and secure enough to maintain an independent, non-partisan perspective without fear or favour.

IAS officers were expected to protect the Constitution from the vicissitudes of politics and centrifugal forces.

Sardar Patel goes so far as to say 2 , "The Union will go—you will not have a united India, if you have not a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security that you will stand by your word and that after all there is the Parliament, of which we can be proud, where their rights and privileges are secure. If you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present Constitution. Substitute something else. Put in a Congress Constitution or some other Constitution or put in R.S.S. Constitution — whatever you like — but not this Constitution. This Constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of Service which will keep the country intact. There are many impediments in this Constitution which will hamper us, but in spite of that, we have in our collective wisdom come to a decision that we shall have this model wherein the ring of Service will be such that will keep the country under control.”  In other words, it was not just that Constitutional protection was available to members of the Service but that they were expected to be the ones protecting the Constitution from the vicissitudes of politics and centrifugal forces and giving governance stability and endurance.

That the IAS was meant for higher strategic functions is also evident from Dr. Ambedkar’s address to the Constituent Assembly while introducing the Draft Constitution 3 . "It is recognised that in every country there are certain posts in its administrative set up which might be called strategic from the point of view of maintaining the standard of administration. It may not be easy to spot such posts in a large and complicated machinery of administration. But there can be no doubt that the standard of administration depends upon the calibre of the Civil Servants who are appointed to these strategic posts. Fortunately for us we have inherited from the past system of administration which is common to the whole of the country and we know what are these strategic posts. The Constitution provides that without depriving the States of their right to form their own Civil Services there shall be an All India service recruited on an All- India basis with common qualifications, with uniform scale of pay and the members of which alone could be appointed to these strategic posts throughout the Union."

The point is that this exclusivity of status is an intentional part of the conceptual design of the IAS and is responsible both for providing the Service its strength as well as making it an object of resentment and hostility. What it does is the following:

  • It gives every member a sense of pride and an acute sense of being the ‘chosen’ one.
  • Provides the moral authority to resist pressure and stay one’s ground.
  • Gives the sense that he/she works for a higher purpose and not merely the dictates of the party in power.
  • Provides the aura of authority, even where formal authority may not be invested, to enable an officer to assume a leadership role.

The downside is that inadequate understanding of this constitutional privilege can provide a false sense of entitlement and thereby accentuate  arrogance in behaviour,  officiousness and the exercise of petty tyranny. There is insufficient empirical evidence to indicate whether that has been more in evidence than the responsible use of the privilege, but without this invisible aura of authority which the constitutional status provides the idea of a service which forms ‘a ring that will keep the country under control’ goes.

The second distinctive feature as brought out by Dr. Ambedkar in the excerpt quoted above is the concept of an All India Service in the context of a federal polity. However, there is more to it than just the idea of strategic posts in both the Union and the States being manned by members of one Service governed by one set of rules. Whereas recruitment is done centrally  by the Union Government on the recommendations of the UPSC and the Service is a part of the subjects listed in the Union List, all members of the Service are divided into State based cadres with the Union/Centre not having a cadre of its own and reliant on borrowing officers from the State cadres. Each member treats the cadre of his/her allotment as the ‘parent’ cadre to which he/she belongs.

The allotted State is not just a region where an officer spends a substantial part of his/her career, it is a ‘parent’ that nurtures and grooms its progeny even though the progeny has been conceived and given birth to by the Union. The primary career management role is performed by the State and it is to the State that each member reverts after a spell of central posting. This is a unique relationship and establishes a strong emotional and psychological connect between a member and the State of allotment - a deep personal relationship which is different from the professional relationship a member may have with a Ministry/ Department of the Union Government. When the Union borrows a member for posts in the Union, each member brings to the assignment in the Union the perspective he/she has gained in the State of where he/she has been nurtured. Quite apart from the knowledge of ‘grassroots’ and field conditions that this experience provides to every officer, it also ensures that every member is always alive to the needs and interests of a fundamentally diverse and federal polity and society. This is something which gives to the IAS an extraordinary quality which has no parallel anywhere.

The third distinctive feature of the IAS is the process by which its members are specially groomed to  perform the roles given to them at different stages of their career. This grooming process is embedded in the conceptual design of the service and it relies on a meticulously structured process of ‘learning by doing’, of gaining experience by handling complex social and political challenges from the very beginning of a career, challenges which no one outside of the IAS ever has to face. Within the first 10 years of service an officer goes through a bewildering diversity of professional experiences, sectorally and spatially, to be able to develop leadership skills in the management of  such diversity and above all to  learn  how to integrate and synthesise.

The ability to take a multidimensional and ‘generalist’ view was accorded primacy in the selection process.

This feature is a continuation of the ICS (Indian Civil Service) tradition which believes that at higher, strategic levels of administration  the ability to synthesise inputs from a multiplicity of domains into a coherent policy or strategy or programme framework is more important, rather than  the ability to ‘specialise’ in a specific subject. Hence, it was the ability to take a broad, rounded, multidimensional and ‘generalist’ view which was accorded primacy in the selection process, stressed during the training process and treated as an essential part of career management. This tradition has been carried on to the IAS, as carefully traced by David C.Potter 4 in his seminal work on the continuity of the ICS traditions, styles and attitudes in the IAS. Whether the tradition needs to continue under contemporary conditions is a separate matter.

Paradoxically, it is these very features which prompt the maximum criticism. From its inception the critique has focussed on four points, that the IAS is an outmoded colonial legacy which may have been difficult to do away with at the time of independence, but is an anachronism in a modern world; that at a time when complexities of a knowledge driven economy demand domain expertise and high levels of professionalisation the skill sets offered by the IAS are amateur and too generalist to be of any real value; that members of the service have an exaggerated sense of entitlement, privilege and superiority  merely on the basis of their having had higher scores in the UPSC examination and that their claim to exclusive control of top level assignments on the strength of their examination scores is undeserved; that guaranteed promotions on the basis of seniority and complete security of tenure is a disincentive to performance and  the practice is completely at variance with principles of good management.

It is tempting to go into each of these charges against the IAS and rebut them but that has to be the subject of a longer thesis. The charge of being an outmoded colonial legacy out of sync with current reality, for example, is equally leviable on other institutions inherited from colonial times, such as the Courts of Justice, or the Railways, or the Parliament, an institution following the Westminster model of democracy. Yet those are institutions we take pride in, so why single out the All India Services for criticism on account of being a colonial legacy?

The ‘generalist’ versus ‘specialist’ issue deserves some discussion. It has been fashionable for some time now to pay homage to the importance of bringing in increasing number of specialists and domain experts into mainstream governance and move away from the allegedly primitive model of governance represented by the IAS. Much of this fashionable discourse is itself based on somewhat outmoded ideas of the industrial era when ‘Management’ was reified as an academic discipline and  precepts and ideas based on practices followed by large corporations were inducted into the mainstream public administration and governance discourse. It is tempting to plunge into a discussion on the bogus nature of this discourse but that will await another essay.

Instead of nurturing skills, simple minded attempts at reform only marginalise the talent already available.

Suffice it to point out two twenty first century trends which most votaries of the supremacy of the ‘specialist’ over the ‘generalist’ seem ignorant of. First that the new knowledge economy is moving into a realm which is multi/ interdisciplinary, and  knowledge convergence skills are the most sought after; second, that both in Government and public policy circles and in corporate/business strategy circles sectoral fragmentation and narrow specialisation has given way to a team based, multi- sectoral approach to problem solving because each sector is so inseparably interconnected with the other that sectorally-fragmented approaches can be calamitous. Good governance practices require skills in fusion and synthesis. It is these skills which are in abundance in the IAS and instead of nurturing them and honing them further, simple minded attempts at reform only go to marginalise the talent already available.

At a time when politics is leaning dangerously towards a centralised, authoritarian, national security state with a strong, muscular leader committed to the ideology of cultural nationalism and capable of abandoning the fundamental principles on which our Constitution is based without demur, it has become critical for citizens to come out in support of institutions and systems which can check this frightening erosion of constitutional values. By virtue of its allegiance to the Constitution and not the Government of the day, the All India Services, particularly the IAS has a critical role to play. While it is true that many members will willingly subordinate themselves to political expediency, it is also true that as in the past many will resist such developments in their own little ways. The need of the hour is to strengthen these institutions, not to disparage them. In ways differently from what the Sardar had envisaged, it is the ‘ring of service which will keep the country (and the Constitution) intact’.


  1. Bhaskar Ghosh- The Service of the State-the IAS reconsidered’ Penguin Random House, India 2011. Return To text
  2. Sardar Patel’s Speech before the Constituent Assembly- December 1949. Return to Text .
  3. Dr. BR Ambedkar’s speech -Constituent Assembly Debates -November 1948. Return to Text .
  4. David Potter -India’s Political Administrators- From ICS to IAS- Oxford University Press 1996.
  5. Return to Text .

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