Friday, December 23, 2011


by Major General Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM 
In late 1980s, an engineer regiment was asked to move to high altitude area as part of normal turn over of units. The regiment put in its demand for high altitude clothing for the troops well in time. However, the case got mired in bureaucratic wrangles between the Command Headquarters and the Army Headquarters. The regiment had to move without the said clothing. Unfortunately, the area received early snowfall, the regiment got trapped en route and suffered heavy casualties - both fatal and frostbite. Subsequent enquiries revealed total apathy and indifference by the military officers involved in releasing snow clothing. They got embroiled in petty squabbles and showed no urgency or concern for the troops.
In another case, disagreement between two senior military officers over the number of backup batteries required made expensive imported equipment lie unutilized while the troops suffered. In yet another case, a senior commander ordered that every military person wanting to visit Hussainiwala must obtain a pass from the Divisional Headquarters located at Ferozepur at a distance of nearly 30 km. It served no purpose at all as no military man could possibly be denied permission. There was no need and justification for the said order. It caused immense difficulties to all visitors. It was a classic case of bureaucratic mindset. There are numerous such instances.
One of the commonest complaints heard from the troops is regarding the functioning of senior military officers posted at higher headquarters. It is a general refrain that they tend to be more bureaucratic than the career bureaucrats and become totally insensitive to ground realities. For them, procedures and rules take precedence over troops’ requirements, howsoever urgent they may be. According to general perception, commanders-turned-bureaucrats do more damage than good while occupying critical appointments at decision making level at higher headquarters.

On 21 April 2008, on Civil Services Day, the Indian Prime Minister exhorted the civil services to ‘break their stereotype image as non-performers’. “The most important challenge is to instill confidence in our people that our civil services are fair, honest, as well as efficient,” he added. Over the years, bureaucracy has come to be associated with inertia, status quo and apathy. This may not be a very fair description of their functioning but it does indicate a general loss of confidence in their competence to deliver.
Emergence of bureaucracy can be attributed to societal need to have a sound and skilled organisation whose members possess specialised expertise and provide certainty, continuity and unity in a methodical, anonymous, impersonal and independent manner. German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) called bureaucracy as the most technically proficient form of organisation. A bureaucrat takes pride in being systematic and meticulous.
However, over a period of time, rigid adherences to rules, regulations, systems and procedures gained ascendancy over every other trait. In a way, the whole functioning became captive of regulations, conventions and precedence. Every proposal came to be examined as per the precedence. Invariably the initiator had to quote previous instances to say how it was done the previous time. Overabundance of files provided long lasting memory to bureaucracy. It made the bureaucracy live in the past rather than be futuristic and progressive. Gradually, it became an uncongenial, faceless and soulless system without any welfare orientation.
Maintenance of status-quo and abhorrence for change have become common traits now. Every bureaucrat is wary of infusion of newer ideas and techniques, lest his own qualifications and competence may become irrelevant. He is fully aware of his inability to keep pace with progressive techniques of governance and hence tends to stall reforms. Every bureaucrat is highly sensitive to any threat to his authority. However, in order to safeguard his own career interests, he involves maximum number of functionaries in decision making. Invariably, all acts of commission and omission are attributed to ‘systemic failure’ rather than apportioning blame. Bureaucracy thrives on organizational parochialism. Acceptance of own mistakes and fallibility is yet to acculturate the system.
In the absence of any quantifiable and measurable performance matrix, promotions are decided on the basis of adherence to procedures and ability to swim with the system without causing any ripples. Seniority and not merit becomes the primary criterion for advancement in career. Non-performance is preferred to initiative. It is often said that a fresh IAS appointee, if put in deep freeze and taken out after 15 years will be a Joint Secretary. Moreover, he will be regarded highly as he would have taken no decisions and rocked no boat.  
Military, on the other hand, is a purely mission oriented organisation. As accomplishment of mission is totally dependent on the performance of the men under command, a military leader assumes the role of mobiliser and channeliser of human effort. Initially, a military leader gets command of his troops through official mandate. However, his standing and ability to gain obedience depends entirely on the credibility he establishes through his personal conduct and competence.
Military command thus, entails two dimensions – achievement of assigned objective and welfare of troops under command. He cannot fail in his task as it may have an adverse effect on the very security of the nation. Simultaneously, he cannot ignore well being of his men. Dealing with human beings with their complex apprehensions, concerns and aspirations calls for extreme empathy and loyalty. Command implies close contact with troops and awareness of their needs. A commander becomes responsible not only to his superiors but also to his troops who place their trust in him. Trust is the expectancy that the followers can rely on a commander’s competence, impartiality and sincerity. As a commander has to face his followers, he cannot seek anonymity and hide behind faceless files.
Transition from Commander to Bureaucrat
As seen above, whereas a bureaucrat is a faceless and remote entity, a commander is in direct contact with his troops.Therefore, traits required for the two are totally different.  Many military officers, when in command of troops, earn reputation for being go-getters and achievers. They deride bureaucratic delays and want higher authorities to be more prompt in decision making. But when posted to higher appointments, they become more bureaucratic than the career bureaucrats. The switch over is amazingly swift.
Bureaucrat versus Commander
Some of the commonly recognised factors that contribute to the conversion of psyche, approach and conduct of commanders are discussed below:-
 ·                     Prolonged Absence from Direct Command of Troops. Command of troops is tough, challenging and risky. Many officers are wary of command tenures as they fear exposure of their incompetence. They prefer to play safe by doing minimum mandatory terms and revert to higher headquarters in good peace stations. Prolonged absence from command of troops makes them lose touch with ground realities and they become mere file pushers.
·          Bureaucratic Culture is Infectious. By its very nature of laid back, safe and process-centric functioning, bureaucratic culture is highly infectious. Even highly enthusiastic officers get disillusioned in no time when they find cases moving at a snail’s pace despite their best efforts. Initially they feel frustrated but soon adopt the same culture. Innovative ways are found to ‘put a case in orbit’ by seeking comments of all and sundry to defer taking any definite action.
·                Upgradation of Appointments. With a view to improve promotional prospects of officers, a large number of appointments have been upgraded. The command structure of the field forces could not be disturbed. Thus, all higher headquarters have become highly bloated and overstaffed. This has resulted in emergence of multiple tiers in decision making and bureaucratized functioning. As every link in the chain wants to remain in the loop and retain its relevance, urgency becomes inconsequential.
·         Zero Error Syndromes. “It is better not to take a decision and play safe rather than take one and risk one’s career,” is the common refrain. Non-acceptance of mistakes committed by subordinates has created an environment of treading warily even in trivial matters. Penchant for playing safe is thus, one of the significant triggers for bureaucratization.    
·              Change in Role Definition. Unfortunately, many officers have a tendency to redefine their role when posted out of command of troops. They feel that their new assignment of managing resources is distinctly different and they disassociate themselves totally from command functions. Change of hat causes change of outlook and mind-set.  
Coping with the Malaise
Bureaucrats have been defined differently by different dictionaries. The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy says that the term bureaucrat is often used negatively to describe a petty, narrow-minded person. It is perhaps an extreme and unfair description. According to another dictionary, he is an official who works by fixed routine without exercising intelligent judgment. However, a bureaucrat is generally defined as an official who is rigidly devoted to the details of administrative procedure.
There is no doubt the armed forces suffer when its own commanders turn bureaucrats. Worse, as always happens with the newly converted, they become more fanatic adherents of the adopted genre. The services are used to career bureaucrats’ way of indifferent functioning and have come to accept it. But, when service officers adopt the same approach, they cause immense despair as troops feel let down. Such officers are considered insincere to their troops and are commonly equated with political defectors.
It is generally agreed that the malaise cannot be fully eradicated as it pertains to human character and conduct. However, the following steps can be initiated to minimize its prevalence:-
Prolonged staff tenures should be avoided. Command and staff tenures should be equitably balanced out.
·         There should be more delegation of powers to cut out red-tapism.
·         Decision making should be encouraged by backing subordinates if things go wrong.
·         A system should be put in place to oversee and curtail proclivity for deferring positive action. If required, appropriate attributes should be added in annual confidential reports.
One of the special features of a service officer’s training is to prepare him to take quick decisions and to initiate definite action to implement them. During the floods of 1971, Gomti was threatening to inundate the town of Lucknow. Noticing an ominous breach, the Army Commander ordered that a cement loaded military truck be driven into the breach to plug it. The town was thus saved from flood devastation. Military command is all about accomplishing assigned mission.  
A military commander has to be capable of exploiting all fleeting opportunities in battle. He can do that only if he is trained for quick decision-making and prompt action. Vacillation and excessive adherence to procedure make him lose focus. A commander with bureaucratic mindset is a liability to the services as he tends to drift into a mode of indecisiveness and inactivity. Raison d'être of military leadership is mission accomplishment while ensuring welfare of troops under command. Everything else is of peripheral importance.


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