31 October, 2020

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Book Review: Politics & The Bureaucracy

By H.L. Seneviratne

Prof. H.L. Seneviratne

Your Obedient Servant: The Fate of the Bureaucrat in Sri Lanka By Suren Sumithraarachchi, Sarasavi Publishers 2019

This book deals with the higher bureaucracy in Sri Lanka, and its focus is bureaucratic behavior. It is about local bureaucrats, not those of British origin who historically inhabited the bureaucratic terrain with decreasing density as colonial rule waned. It considers loyalty to a set of rules, rather than to a person, the marker of ideal bureaucratic behavior, one that the vocabulary of sociology calls “rational-legal”.

The change from loyalty to a person to loyalty to a set of rules and regulations started with the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms of 1832, and was strengthened by the Donoughmore administration of 1931.  It was both a political and moral progression that one would expect to progress further for the greater benefit of the society. However, rather than a further progression, what has come about is a reversal. Bureaucrats have been changing from allegiance to rules, to allegiance to a person, the politician.

Your Obedient Servant: The Fate of the Bureaucrat in Sri Lanka By Suren Sumithraarachchi, Sarasavi Publishers 2019

The central concern of the book is to explain how and why this has come about. In this task the author uses the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of Habitus, Symbolic Capital and Field. Habitus is a lasting disposition formed in a person through primary socialization with members of the family (Primary Habitus), and dispositions formed through exposures during school, university and other life experiences (Secondary Habitus). Symbolic Capital refers to the state of recognition and respect formed through an admixture of economic, cultural and social capital. The book tries to explain the perspectives and behaviour of the different categories of bureaucrats by situating them in their primary and secondary socialization, and their social, cultural and economic capital.

The Donoughmore civil servants were the earliest to manifest rational-legal behaviour, and the author cites the interactions between these elite bureaucrats and the peoples’s representatives in the legislature of the time, the State Council. The same group of elite bureaucrats continued under the Soulbury administration. The two groups, the politicians and the bureaucrats, had been schooled together, and shared a common culture. They shared the same Habitus and the same Symbolic Capital, making the power gap between them and the politicians minimal or non-existent.

This tranquil scene was to get rudely disturbed by the religio-nationalism that had been brewing underneath, and that surfaced decisively in its electoral victory in 1956. This election was to enthrone a different kind of politician, whose Habitus and Symbolic capital were different from those of the bureaucrats who continued to come from the pre-1956 elite. These politicians held the traditional ideology of requiring personal loyalty to them, while the bureaucrats continued to hold the view that their loyalty was to a body of impersonal rules. In this contest, while the bureaucrats gained some victories, those were few and far between, and they were fated to loose.

The list of legislative acts that followed reads like an obituary of rational-legal bureaucracy. The first of these was the 1963 “restructuring” of the bureaucracy when the Ceylon Civil Service was abolished, and a broader based Sri Lanka Administraive Service (SLAS) was established. Next, in 1972, the Public Service Commission was abolished, and the bureaucracy was placed under the Cabinet, thus instituting direct political control over the bureaucrats. The 1978 constitution vested the president with wide powers over the bureaucracy, effectively controlling all senior appointments, transfers and promotions. (The 19th amendment which restored some degree of independence to the bureaucracy is outside the scope of this study. In any case, under the prospective new government, the 19th amendment faces an uncertain future). 

The changes in the social composition of the bureaucracy complemented the legislatively initiated corrosion of rational-legality in the bureaucracy. Increasingly, the new recruits came from middle-class, non-elite families with lower status, power, and social acceptance than the previously dominant elite bureaucrats. They were educated in rural schools and exclusively in local universities. They were recruited through the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS)’s open competitive examination; were absorbed into the higher bureaucracy from non-Civil Service staff grades; or promoted from clerical grades. Although they enjoyed the status, power and social acceptance of their SLAS positions, they were less confident and self-reliant than the Civil Service bureaucrats they replaced.

The book identifies three modes the bureaucrats adopt when dealing with politicians: (a) acting within a rational-legal framework, (b) appeasement, and (c) subservience. The mode adopted since the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms (1832) up to 1956 was rational action within a legal framework. With restructuring in 1963 and vesting of the bureaucracy in the Cabinet in 1972, appeasement replaced rational-legal action. Under presidential rule introduced in 1978, subservience replaced appeasement.

Subservience is the willingness to obey others unquestioningly. It is found in relationships where the power gap is wide, and where the subordinate suffers from insecurity and low self esteem, due to either his/her inadequacies or intimidation by the superior partner, in this case the politician. Subservience in the Sri Lankan bureaucracy was initially seen in breaucrats  absorbed from lower rungs, after the 1963 restructuring. At that time their numbers were very small, but subservience became more common after the 1972 aboliton of the Public Service Commission, and was further reinforced by the 1978 constitution. The abolition of the Public Service Commission in particular removed the independence of the bureaucrats to make rational-legal decisions, and made them dependent on politicians for their survival. The need for survival brought down the self esteem of bureaucrats, thus widening the gap between them and the political leaders, and leading them to subservience. Most of them had weak inherited Symbolic Capital and were relying on their acquired Symbolic Capital, accrued essentially through their position in the bureaucracy. This resulted in their forming subservient behaviour to avoid conflict with their political masters.

The five-sixth majority the 1978 regime enjoyed encouraged the political leadership to cultivate a superior mind set, and demand obedience and personal loyalty from the bureaucracy. Often these were demands that violated the regulatory framework, and impossible for the bureaucrcats to fullfil legitimately. But it was only by meekly fulfilling these demands that the bureaucrats could save their positions.

Subservience was further reinforced by the 18th amendment’s removal of all constraints on the president’s power to make appointments to key bureaucratic positions. This increased the already wide gap between the president and the bureaucracy as the promotional prospects of the bureaucrat depended solely on the whim of the president. The five-member parliamentary council to advice the president on appointments was not capable of opposing the president’s choice, as their mandate was non-binding. The president used the provision to nurture and sustain the existing patronage-based system. This set an example for the political leaders across the provinces who insisted that only those bureaucrats they recommended got appointments, transfers and promotions. This widened the power gap between political leaders and the bureaucrats in the provinces as well, and they were forced to conform to the dictates of the politicians as their only means of appointments, promotions and transfers.

The decline of the bureaucracy in Sri Lanka is not news to even the most cursory observer, but that does not detract from the value of this painstaking account of the process of that decline. If it is a well known story, it is still a story well worth repetition, both for its own sake, and as one more indicator of the general malaise that has been afflicting our society ever since hegemonic religio-nationalism eclipsed the clearly discernible path to a patriotic Sri Lankan national identity that transcended narrow ethnic and religious boundaries, and a happy, prosperous, urbane and modern nation. Besides, the perspectives on the bureaucracy based on interviews with the handful of distinguished men and women of the former Ceylon Civil Service, and with senior administrators still in service, constitute original and valuable material. While the book is not intended as anything other than an objective and scholarly study, it is implicitly yet inescapably a critique of our sordid political culture.

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Latest comments

  • 2
    5

    All those trying to denigrate native politicians and bureaucracies should note that the bureaucracy the German Jew Max Weber characterised (fearless, frank etc) does not exist anywhere in the world.
    /
    It is natural that an elected democratic government needs public servants who carry out ‘their’ policies diligently, rather than sabotaging policies and programs due to personal views of bureaucrats.
    /
    As long as the people are appropriately qualified and experienced, there is nothing wrong in choosing key bureaucrats from a pool of such people.
    /
    As an example, P.B. Jayasundera has proved that he is a better finance manager than Indrajit Coomaraswamy.who was chosen by Chandrika B.
    /
    There are many other examples.

    • 5
      0

      Kingsley de Silva

      “As an example, P.B. Jayasundera has proved that he is a better finance manager than Indrajit Coomaraswamy.who was chosen by Chandrika B.”

      I haven’t seen or read any comparative studies which looked at the performance of Indrajit Coomaraswamy and P B Jayasundera. I am yet to see hear an explanation as to why he left the country on the eve of 2015 presidential election?

      All Sri Lankan institutions have revolving doors depending on which party comes to power.

  • 2
    0

    An excellent recapitulation of what I think must be an excellent book. This article itself is written in simple words, yet brilliantly expressed. This article is a MUST reading for all politicians and bureaucrats in this country but how many of them will read it? It is unfortunate that an even fewer number will read the book.

    • 3
      0

      How many can read?

    • 4
      1

      Stanley

      “This article itself is written in simple words, yet brilliantly expressed.”

      Professor H L Seneviratne is among the last few great scholars that this island is blessed with. According to his profile he specialises(ed) in
      religion and politics, socialism, classical social theory, human rights, democracy and free market economy, ethno-nationalism, cinema, art and popular culture.

      Sadly this island does not produce intellectually honest scholars anymore.

  • 0
    2

    The last paragraph or the conclusion shows author’s own biases. Otherwise, lot of terminology. Cooking up of that with some western ideas, probably from completely unrelated situation. Some how whether the reality is explained or not, it looks a book has been born.

  • 1
    0

    H.L write:
    ‘It is about local bureaucrats, not those of British origin who historically inhabited the bureaucratic terrain with decreasing density as colonial rule waned. It considers loyalty to a set of rules, rather than to a person, the marker of ideal bureaucratic behavior, one that the vocabulary of sociology calls “rational-legal”.’

    The problem today is that the elected politicians with all of the privileges and rewards they get officially and unofficially have become like colonial rulers who control the population and their voices at district and national level. Changes in bureaucracy is part of this new mode of rule. A new set of rules have been created de factor on ground and bureaucrats are expressing loyalty to it rather than an ideal set inherited from the past.

    Recently I watched a video on u-tube on the Walawwas in Sri Lanka. They show how extensive the local bureaucracy had been during the colonial period(it is in my face book page). On the top of local chieftains occupying positions and privileges then were the Britishers occupying important places in the administration(bureaucracy). It was an administration that exploited the colony’s resources including human resources(later transformed the HRs in the shape of the coloniser). In a way that administration was also oppressive. In fact the rise of communist party and the LSSP was to address the oppression faced by the peasants, lower castes and working class. Individuals like Henpitagedera Gnanaseeha expressed views against such oppression too. The author of this book needs to critically dig deeper into the nature of bureaucracy that existed during the colonial period in order to make an evaluation of its deterioration in the post independent era. Without such an exercise, one cannot take the bureaucracy that existed before as better, or ideal .

  • 1
    0

    The book is an interesting delve into both a long-gone past, and a less happier present. These last, possibly, thirty years has seen the decline and fall of what was once the backbone of government administration. Now it is nothing more than a yes-sir-no-sir-three-bags-full sir sycophancy. The present cadre divides in the arse-lickers (whose fortunes ebbs and flow when their political masters are in power/opposition), and the time-servers who will not play the game, but simply work on until their pension matures. Then again, our civil servant is only as good as the calibre of the politician we vote into power.

  • 0
    0

    Mr. Kingsly de Silva without any doubt is undoubtedly a very knowledgable and perceptive commentator not to speak of being a creative one. Consider for example how he has converted Max Weber into a Jew!

  • 0
    0

    “The decline of the bureaucracy in Sri Lanka is not news to even the most cursory Thobserver, but that does not detract from the value of this painstaking account of the process of that decline. If it is a well-known story, it is still a story well worth repetition, both for its own sake, and as one more indicator of the general malaise that has been afflicting our society ever since hegemonic religio-nationalism eclipsed the clearly discernible path to a patriotic Sri Lankan national identity, and a happy, prosperous, urbane and modern nation, writes the redoubtable scholar HLS. He is right on the mark as is the author of the book.Is there any hope of redemption? I fear not. The rot is too deep and the chances of an urbane rational society emerging is too remote. I fear we will descend into a collection of warring tribes!

  • 1
    0

    Why focus on the servile bureaucracy? They are after all under the surveillance and domination of their masters with their careers and living depend on them.Suren Sumithraarachchi, should next write. about the” scholars”, “intellectuals” “historians”, hack journalists and self politicians and fanatical clerics who have contributed to the destruction of a civil and civilized polity in the island with their fanciful theories and imaginary tales about the island. He will be following in the footsteps of Julian Benda’s The Betrayal of the Intellectuals” If not Suren Sumithraarachchi, then Seneviratne, perhaps!

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