Political Patronage in Government Services – Missing Angle of Lokpal Debate

Political patronage in Government services has a lot of disadvantages. We in India have been tasting it to find its bitter truth – such a system is endemic. Consider, for example, something as basic as postal service. In the United States, Postal Service was a government department since the inception of United States Post Office under Benjamin Franklin’s leadership in 1775. Read this interesting write-up on wikipedia about United States Postal Service.

The Post Office Department was enlarged during the tenure of President Andrew Jackson. As the Post Office expanded, difficulties were experienced due to a lack of employees and transportation. The Post Office’s employees at that time were still subject to the so-called “spoils” system, where faithful political supporters of the executive branch were appointed to positions in the post office and other government corporations as a reward for their patronage. These appointees rarely had prior experience in postal service and mail delivery. This system of political patronage was replaced in 1883, after passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.[8] [Taken from Wikipedia]

Note the sentence in bold. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was legislated in 1883. Further, on Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, 1883 read this

In Jackson’s time there had been 20,000 persons on the federal payroll. By end of the Civil War the number had increased to 53,000; by 1884, 131,000; and by 1891, 166,000. Presidents were hounded by office- seekers. When James Garfield became president he discovered hungry office-seekers “lying in wait” for him “like vultures for a wounded bison.”

Moreover, new government jobs required special skills. The use of typewriters, introduced in the early 1880s, meant that mere literacy and decent penmanship were no longer enough for a clerk’s job. With the creation of administrative agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission and specialized agricultural bureaus, one needed scientific expertise. The spoils system was not the way to get them.

A civil service movement started in New York in 1877, and although it developed considerable public support, the politicians refused to go along. Then came the assassination of President Garfield by Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office-seeker, and the public clamor could no longer be ignored.

Now let us look at something similar in India. Government jobs. Political patronage in government jobs is nothing new. It has been talked about, solutions proposed, never implemented and discussed again. This keeps happening round the year. Political Patronage definitely cannot be resolved in all areas. But some of the areas where people are directly effected by the office bearers must be dealt with properly. Read this:

The Pendleton Act classified certain jobs, removed them from the patronage ranks, and set up a Civil Service Commission to administer a system based on merit rather than political connections. As the classified list was expanded over the years, it provided the American people with a competent and permanent government bureaucracy. In 1883 fewer than 15,000 jobs were classified; by the time McKinley became president in 1897, 86,000 — almost half of all federal employees — were in classified positions. Today, with the exception of a few thousand policy-level appointments, nearly all federal jobs are handled within the civil service system.

So we ask – “is there no civil service commission in India?”. Yes, we do. Constitution Draft Committee members wisely enshrined the civil services commission within the Constitution itself. Refer to Articles 308-323.

Under these provisions, civil services positions are filled by the Public Service commission at both state/national level. Constitution also provides 6 year term to the chairperson of the commission, instead of 5 which is the term for the government itself. Only President/Governor has the powers to appoint the civil services commission chairman and elected representatives have no role. Yet we find that some very important civil services are still under political patronage. Whenever a new government appears at the top of state/nation, we see several transfers, new appointments. So the question obviously is

Despite having Public Services Commission as a constitutional body, we see that political patronage continues unabated in India. Why?

This debate is a necessary part of the current efforts to understand corruption. In fact, UPSC currently looks like nothing more than a “examination execution commission”. Someone as basic as “commissioner of Police” or “Director General of Police” is under complete control of the Government of the day. May be this is another key aspect of the whole issue?


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