Media, babus and overdemocratic times

BY ANAND VARDHAN| IN Media Practice | 18/03/2014
How was a move with significant repercussions for the nature of Indian bureaucracy, not subjected to critical scrutiny by the media?

The retreating winter morning of February 11 started unusually in Mukherjee Nagar, one of the hubs of civil services aspirants in Delhi. Some young and some not-so-young aspirants were boarding buses to take them to 12, Tughlaq Lane. They went there to thank Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi for his intervention in ensuring that they get two extra attempts at cracking civil services examination and relaxation in upper age limit (extended to 32 for general category candidates and even more for reserved category, 40 being a theoretical possibility).

Rahul had responded to some scattered student agitations (euphemistically called ‘movement’ in some news reports). The agitations had centred on demands for extra attempts and age relaxation for ‘adjusting’ to the recent changes in the examination pattern introduced by Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), the constitutional body having the mandate to conduct recruitment for the coveted bureaucratic jobs. The morning newspapers carried the news with varying degrees of prominence – the undercurrent of regional language candidates’ mobilisation perhaps contributing to the fact that the Hindi dailies gave it a more pronounced display than English press. However, for all the talk about governance and reforming its bureaucratic delivery structures, this regressive one step forward-two step backward decision went almost unexamined in the editorial commentary, opinion pages and media discourse in general.

The question remains-- how this decision, shaped by narrative of populist politics, and a move which would have significant repercussions on the nature of Indian bureaucracy in years to come, was not subjected to even a semblance of critical scrutiny in media discourse?

It somehow also echoedthe unquestioning acceptance of the decision (riding high on populism) by the Opposition parties which otherwise don’t miss any opportunity to comment on even how and on which side Rahul sneezes.What was the extent of media debate on the issue?As limited as it could be. The ones that might be counted could not go beyond avery short list.

‘Frustrating Change’ by Purnima S Tripathi (February 7, Frontline) was a report on the agitations which read more like an opinion piece as it turned itself into a lopsided and sympathetic coverage of the assumed ‘grievances’ of the agitating candidates and showed a  rather skewed or no understanding of the issues involved. Quite interestingly (though conveniently, and unsurprisingly), the aspirants carried the copies of this report to bolster their claims when they had gone to meet Rahul Gandhi during the agitations.

Frontline flaunted this as the photograph for its report, by the same journalist, in its report on the latest decision in its March 7 issue with the caption reading – ‘Rahul Gandhi reading a copy of Frontline, given to him byprotesting civil service aspirants outside his residence in New Delhi.’ The report’s use as propaganda material by those agitating wasn’t unexpected as it started with a strapline which read-  ‘Changes introduced by the UPSC in the civil services main examination at short notice frustrate the hopes of lakhs of candidates and put them on the warpath’. It goes on to quote one-sided views to support the agenda of the agitation.without making any attempt to have counter-perspectives on the need for civil services examination reforms.

The report’s inherent bias plays into the hands of an insidious populism by siding with a vocal section which has managed to project its victimhood through overstretched claims on a career in bureaucracy even though equality of opportunity and affirmative action safeguards have been taken care of by constitutional provisions. It’s a section which somehow thinks that a convenient pattern of recruitment (as if it’s an extension of welfare state, comically) is a democratic entitlement. The dumbed-down media discourse (or rather the lack of it) somehow aligned with this section’ssense of being wronged by a system which they accuse of favouring English speaking metropolitan India and arresting the upsurge of hinterland India in civil services (an upsurge which figured in a cover story by Anjali Purie in Outlook, Backwoods Babus, August 6, 2007).

What media discourse has either conveniently ignored or has been too unaware to engage with are the aspects which make the agitations look regressive. Why did the media not highlight UPSC’s logic in introducing the changes and its resistance to the meet the agitating candidates’ demands? First, it’s important to see the holes that the constitutional body has been pointing to in the agitation’s core demands and arguments. UPSC has been of the view that the changes introduced don’t qualify as ‘major changes’‘(a ground cited by those agitating, citing the precedents, for claiming extra attempts and age relaxation). The recent changes in the pattern of the main examination are as limited as these-doing away with one of the two optional subjects (retaining one), spreading the General Studies syllabus to four different papers (which is primarily restructuring the marking pattern) as well as introducing a paper on Ethics and Integrity (a paper, which by its very definition, should be non-preparatory in nature). CSAT, at preliminary stage of examination, has also been resented by the demonstrators but wasn’t the basis of current agitation and the subsequent waiver won. Anyway, even if it’s made the basis, UPSC would be justified in arguing that the idea any aptitude test (which is what CSAT) is intrinsically ‘on-the feet- thinking’ and doesn’t require preparation. In fact, swotting and protracted preparation for it defeats the purpose of aptitude test. Obviously, UPSC was on solid ground in rejecting the contentions of ‘short notice’ and ‘major changes’. Moreover, the talk of impending changes in civil services examination pattern have been in public domain for more than a decade since the constitution of  Prof YK Alagh Committee (which submitted its report in 2001), though the  idea of reforms gathered momentum under the chairmanship of Prof DP Agrawal.

Second, it’s also relevant for media to look at the recommendations of Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2005) which argues in its report that in interest of ‘good governance’ and young and receptive bureaucratic workforce (assumed to be more open to ideas, as against entrenched worldview of older age group), available for more years of service, the upper age limit should be pegged at 23-24. Even the most recent suggestion of Prof Arun Nigavekar committee says that the upper age limit for fresh intake shouldn’t exceed 25.

Third, there has been a failure to appreciate the important difference between a competitive examination for hiring administrative professionals and a regular certifying examination for academic credentials or educational empowerment. It’s dangerous to see state as an elite job-dispensing machinery at the cost of governance efficiency. Imperatives of seeking efficiency in governance has to outweigh the misplaced claims of convenient pattern of recruitment which fallaciously sees it as a democratic entitlement. The democratic requirements of recruitment have been met with constitutional provisions ensuring equality of opportunity and affirmative action in favour of disadvantaged groups taking care of social and educational backwardness as a historical baggage. Beyond this, any clamour for convenient adjustment in eligibility conditions has to be seen as appealing to brazen populism.

A more nuanced effort to understand the issues of reforming the civil services recruitment through examination pattern changes and encouraging younger intake by lowering the upper age limit is evident in Maruthi P Tangirala’s piece in The Indian Express (Another Shot in the Dark, February 19). But, the piece flatters to deceive in its own ways. After briefly reflecting on different shades of the age limit debate and the issues at the heart of recent agitations, Tangirala has opted for fence-sitting. The piece doesn’t suggest about what’s the way forward in pursuit of robust bureaucratic structures. However, it has summed up the mess with a concluding remark- ‘CSE reform ought to have been an easy enough place to begin the arduous task of administrative reform. It turns out, on the contrary, that it is one of the hardest.’

Dainik Bhaskar was the only Hindi daily which made an attempt to look at some counter views about the decision, though it reduced the analysis to the mechanics of bullet-point carrying box within the front page report screaming with a banner headline- ‘IAS bannein ke ab 2 aur mauke, umra mein bhi chhut’ (Two more chances to become IAS (officer), age (limit) also relaxed, February11).

What dumbed-down the understanding of the implications of the decision was that the newspapers and news channels were carried away by the euphoria and somehow broke the news with an underpinning (some implicitly, mostly explicitly) that it was ‘good news’ or ‘feel good’ news for a large section of readers and news consumers to which they cater to. In fact, some newspapers have been using their large readership among civil services aspirants to earn lot of revenue from the coaching and advertisement industry, sometimes with glaring compromises. (A case in point is The Hindu, an aspect that I have addressed in a piece I wrote two years back).

In a point of departure from the St Stephen’s educated –Agastya Sens of the world (Upamanyu Chatterjee’s portrayal of a greenhorn bureaucrat in his novel English August), the face of new entrants to civil services has undergone significant changes in last two decades, and that’s inevitable as well as healthy. However, by either being indifferent or joining the euphoric din of derailing the necessary reforms in civil services, the media failed in asking some fundamental questions.Are we stretching the concept of democratisation in things as professional as the process of hiring human resources for state machinery? Instead of being vulnerable to the cacophony which populism entails, shouldn’t media be watching out for the perils of populism usurping even the imperatives of governance reforms?

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