A rib-tickling take on babus
The subtle humour of the book brings James Thurber to mind, while its hilarity reminds the reader of Mark Twain

Reviewed by Ram Varma

Bureaucrazy Gets Crazier: IAS Unmasked
By M.K. Kaw. Konark Publishers. Pages 196. Rs 250.

About two decades back, M.K. Kaw published his book Bureaucrazy lampooning the IAS, the premier Civil Service, to which he himself belonged. He took potshots at his own tribe, not sparing the highest, not even himself. The book became an instant success. The present book is an updated and amplified version; the old wine has matured over the years and there is plenty brewed later that has more body and is bubbly, mirthful and sparkling.

Everyone knows that the IAS has been designed on the ICS pattern. Look how Kaw sees it. "The ICS were the primal burra sahibs," he says, "that too its British members`85Sovereignty vested in them; there was no Minister, MP, MLA or sarpanch to share authority. Their lightest word was law, and the entire might of the state was available to back up that word with lathi-blow and sword-thrust, whiplash and gunfire`85When Indians gained entry into the rarefied realm of the ICS, we got the brown burra sahibs, who metamorphosed into a caricature of the real thing". The IAS officers who came in the last are the ultimate specimen ó they are "the copy of a copy"!

Isnít that hilarious? But thatís a hard fact.

As the world is too much with us, as Wordsworth would have us believe, seniority is too much with the IAS. We know it; after all itís a hierarchy. But look how Kaw sees it: "When two IAS officers meet for the first time," he remarks, "there is a preliminary interval of unease while they circle around and sniff at each otherís tails, trying to guess at their relative seniority." Isnít that classic?

Northcote Parkinson found that the number of government administrators increased even when their work and responsibility were actually reduced; the number of men in the British Navy increased 78 per cent from 1914 to 1918, when the Navy fleet strength was reduced by 68 per cent. This resulted in diminution of work and dilution of responsibility. Similarly, Kaw found out that those engaged in Indian administration are ace practitioners of the art of passing the buck. "The primary premise," spake Kaw the Oracle of Delhi, "is to keep in mind that a decision taken is a risk undertaken. Someday, at some stage, somehow, that decision may prove to be wrong. Then, one is doomed. Therefore, if decision avoidance is difficult, one should at least attempt responsibility evasion." This is wisdom at its highest. "Take a decision in a way it can never be traced to you ó appoint a committee!"

The book says our lawmakers, the MPs, MLAs and ministers make the policy and the IAS officers get it implemented. Kaw found out that ministers yawn when draft policy documents are presented to them and say: "Arre Bhai, you make any import policy you wish to. I only want that Messrs X, Y and Z should get import permits`85"

The common notion is that the IAS is a meritocracy ó that the ablest get the best jobs. Kaw sees it differently. He reiterates the age-old dictum, "Show me the face and Iíll show you the rule", and observes: "The fortunate ones are born to influential fathers. A scant few choose their father-in-law wisely. For the rest of us pygmy mortals, the only course left is a godfather." But depending on one godfather may be risky like whisky. "The best bet", says Kaw the Insider, "is an interlocking chain of godfatherships, a few in politics, plenty in administration, half a dozen business tycoons and a couple of journalists." Wisdom was rarely so succinct, so specific.

Kawís subtle humour brings James Thurber to mind, his hilarity reminds me of Mark Twain. But the brevity and pithiness of his formulations make him the modern-day avatar of Manu of Administrative Laws. His book oozes distilled wisdom. His every sentence is rib tickling; every incident he quotes is rip-roaring.