Yatha raja, tatha prashasan
by Krishen Kak on 20 Apr 2010 135 Comments

Each year, for about a month, I volunteer with an NGO that coaches candidates for UPSC’s civil services interviews (officially “personality tests”). Each candidate, for interaction with subject specialists, two mock interviews, individual counselling, and lunch daily, pays a total fee of a just Rs 501/-.  That’s right, five hundred and one only, plus a hundred-odd rupees for some textual material at cost.  The “ faculty”  are volunteers and the candidates come from all backgrounds; many as the late Dharampal noted of the students in our village school system before the British missionary-colonial nexus destroyed it, “ those termed Soodras, and the castes considered below them”.(1)      


Given the number of the NGO’s aspirants who are selected each year, obviously the NGO feels the effort is worth it. And so do these young people - the NGO doesn’t advertise, it’s all by candidate-word-of-mouth, the number of applicants continues to rise, and they come from as afar as Kashmir, Sikkim, Assam, the deep South, and Gujarat (that is, from all over the country). For the 2010 personality tests, about 1000 aspirants passed through our doors. 


It’s a very educative, uplifting, saddening experience all-in-one. Every year there are candidates who’ve made it in their very first attempt to the personality test stage; there are candidates for whom it is their second attempt; and it goes on to candidates trying for the eighth or ninth time (there was one who tried 14 times). For the unreserved, four attempts up to the age of 30; for OBCs, seven attempts up to age 33; and for SCs/STs, no limit up to age 40. The maximum marks of the main written examination total 2000, and of the personality test 300. There is no cut-off mark. The result is merely a matter of totalling marks secured and assigning ranks accordingly. Obviously, a person can get in primarily or solely on the result of the written exam, and there has been at least one case of the latter, from Bihar. His written exam marks were high enough to qualify him for the IAS itself, he declined to appear for the personality test, and he chose not to join. Instead, he runs his own coaching institute!


You could be outstanding, but if there are 700-odd more outstanding than you are, you don’t get in. You could be hopeless, but if there are 700-odd more hopeless than you are, you’re the topper and you get in. It is all about how well you have done in a written exam that has little specific connection to IAS capability and then it adds a so-called personality test worth less than one-sixth that. All complicated by quotas.


And as it happens, a noticeable number of candidates, especially from the OBC and ST categories, appear to come from backgrounds educationally, socially and materially quite comparable to the general category. 


Take the Rajasthan Meenas. They are STs. They cheerfully admit they dominate the Rajasthan administration; most are emphatically “creamy layer” and readily admit so; they equally readily admit the Sawai Madhopur Meenas have cornered most of the quota in Rajasthan, with much heartburning amongst other Meenas; but, so what? They are “quota” and entitled to be selected. Himachal and north-eastern STs are a comparable story: well-educated, well-off, from professional and materially successful backgrounds, they are “quota”, and entitled to be selected.(2) And then there are general candidates who come from very humble backgrounds (the father of one is labours in a cycle-repair shop), but no quota for them.


It is revealing why most of the repeaters are trying - they want job security. They have very little idea of what the job entails and whether they can do it. It is enough that it is government and it is considered prestigious, powerful, pays very well, and they’ll have permanent tenure. They swot to do as well as they can in the written exam so as to offset any lack of personality.


In the last few years, a new characteristic is displayed in “quota” candidates – a strong sense of entitlement. There is little or no sense of application, of ability, of job requirement, of leadership, of what in military parlance is called OLQ – officer-like qualities. They do not even do homework about service realities. It is enough that all these are sarkari jobs. By the very fact that they are “quota”, they deserve the job.


And it is the same examination and personality test that selects, for example, to the Railway Board Secretariat Service (Section Officer’s Grade) and to the Posts of Assistant Security Officer in Railway Protection Force as it does to the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Foreign Service.


Obviously, the selection criteria must then cater to the lowest common denominators. If the all-India services selection system does pick up genuinely meritorious candidates, it is clearly not because it is designed to do so. Is it surprising that our bureaucracy is considered the worst in Asia?



Aspirants fill in a UPSC application form. Of the lakhs who initially appear, those in theory the brightest and most suitable make it to the 2000-odd called for the personality test. They are the “cream” of those who appear. Ask them about their professional service choices apart from the IFS and the all-India IAS/IPS and most go blank. All those whom I met had applied for the Indian Corporate Law Service but not one knew what it is about. Ask them the reasons of their preferences, and almost all say “power” or “authority” or “status”. Ask them if this is what their UPSC personality-testers will want to hear. And they go blank. Then they say, you tell us what to say.


Ask them about their hobbies, their general knowledge… an MA in English can’t speak English; what books outside your syllabus have you read?  Silence. Okay, name a book from your syllabus that you have read. Shakespeare, name the book, “Hamlet?” Who was Hamlet? “Prince of Denmark”. Where is Denmark? Long silence, then, “Europe”. Where in Europe? Longer silence. “Eastern Europe”.  And this is just one example. 


Why are there so many doctors wanting to switch to the civil services? Why is an MD prepared to give up his medical career to start out as an assistant security officer or a section officer in a Group B service? In one State, three sayings at one time were used jokingly to describe the “successful” IAS officer –

-        you start out with 33 vertebrae, and every year you lose one;

-        in the beginning (of your career) you resist (“the system”), then you accept, finally you join;

-        the “successful” officer is the “practical” one (who learns to adjust to the demands of “the system”).(3) 


There is now talk of introducing psychometric testing, itself still controversial. Whether this will be used to identify backboned aspirants who will retain their spine and how it will accommodate quotas remains to be seen. The IAS is an all-India service. Its rationale is negated if home State preferences are given weightage, as they have been so far. Those who do not opt for their home States and are prepared to serve anywhere in the country are really the all-India ‘capables’. Now, this year the application form asks candidates to list their State preferences – 24 of them! Most clump at the top their home State and its contiguous States.  And, most commonly, which are the States towards the bottom of their lists? – J&K, WB, Kerala, and the northeastern ones which are “disturbed”.


So why don’t they appear for their State civil services? Why have an all-India service at all? The biases of the individual UPSC members become part of our database. And, yes, they do have their biases. They do not appear to be there because of any special skill or training or ability they have as personality-testers. Rather, many appear to be there as a reward for affiliation and/or professional services rendered. Favourable feedback reports are few. One UPSC member, whose official bio-data was the only one that stated her religion (and she highlighted that twice in it), was notorious for bringing it into her personality-testing – Arab/Jew, Middle East, Indo-Pak, Hindu/Muslim, secularism… and woe betide the candidate who said anything even remotely critical of her religious ideology. 


Another UPSC member is known to be soft towards those who belong to his home town (a bonus if you studied in the school he did) and can answer well questions relating to the town (and the school). Reports of arrogance and downright rudeness are frequent, of candidates being snubbed or of a personality test being summarily concluded because the candidate (politely) disagreed on a point of fact with the Chair – even though the candidate was factually correct.


One Chair was known to smoke a cigar during the personality test. Personality-testers are known to gossip amongst themselves while the candidate sits in front of them – as one coaching website tactfully puts it: “They usually like to talk more…”



Chairs are known to leave the room during the personality test, yet they assess the candidate. Is this fair to the candidate? Candidates can opt for being tested in English or in any of the Indian languages. There are instances when the translator provided proves inadequate to the task so that a personality-tester takes over the translation or, worse, when candidates in Indian languages muddle along in English, personality-testers don’t know what is being said. And this is fair to the candidate? 


So, part of the coaching involves warning candidates what to watch out for should they be listed to appear before Chairs with pronounced biases! There was a time when I suggested to candidates that the element of “ luck”  towards a scoring personality-test was 20%. Now I say it is 50%.


A personality-test question is why is there so much poverty or corruption in, say, this State or that. Candidates blame the politicians, till I ask them what prevents administrators from doing their duty conscientiously. They suggest it is because of political pressure. I ask them why, when they have a permanent job, should they succumb to political pressure? They have the grace to look sheepish.


They go on to say that a question sometimes asked is “What will you do if you are the district magistrate and...”, variously, the chief minister orders you to do something illegal, a politician / your superior officer puts pressure on you, you go outside and are surrounded by women with rolling-pins and they begin to beat you? So, ask these youngsters, what answer should we give? And, taking the last variation, I ask them, you tell me, what would you do? And they say, we’ll run away.


I say, imagine the scene - the district magistrate, scared, being chased by belan-wielding women. How fast he runs! And watched over TV by the entire country. They expect the police to protect them. It doesn’t matter that the police constable may get beaten for them, but the district magistrate sahib must be protected. They want positions of leadership, and expect their subordinates to display the courage they clearly lack. 


What are the educational qualifications of my questioners? All are graduates, many postgraduates, some PhDs. And what is the educational qualification of a jawan or constable? I tell them, a jawan is braver than you are. He is expected to direct his chest, not his back, towards the bullets. And you won’t face even a belan?


Are you still surprised at reports of legislators punching or slapping (or even beating with a chappal) the district magistrate; of a Bihar district magistrate whose public duties included the intimacy of her preparing for chief minister Lalu Yadav and serving to him his paan; of a UP IAS officer kneeling before chief minister Mayawati to remove her footwear; of State civil service and police bosses queuing up with gifts to felicitate their chief ministers, of income tax investigators raiding IAS houses for black money; of a State IAS association polling the names of their most corrupt members – and IAS higher-ups taking no action against those named

(http://www.rediff.com/news/jan/15up.htm ;



Three points:

(i) why are such questions needing to be asked in personality tests? 

(ii) the total lack of leadership quality in most of our civil-service hopefuls; and

(iii) our country’s civil services increasingly being perceived and treated, both by government and by candidates, as entitled employment and not as public service opportunities.


What are we looking for in our administrators? Going by this admittedly limited experience, it seems to be the ability to pass a written exam giving answers that conform to model answers. The key word is “conform”, of which a corollary is “obedience”. Therefore, the ability to follow orders.


Indeed, a chief minister, known for his no-nonsense administrative dynamism, commented to the NGO’s managing trustee that all the UPSC seemed good at was recruiting babus. Clearly there is a moral in this somewhere. 


We have a prime minister who is the quintessential babu – suave, humble, polite, discreet, pliant, politically correct, a committee-wala, blind to the corruption of his colleagues, and skilful at dodging the buck. His ability to follow orders is well-storied. He is described as the world’s most academically-distinguished prime minister – and obediently takes orders from a high-school dropout foreigner.


Therefore, have we evolved an administrative system that increasingly is recruiting Indian followers, not Indian leaders? As the 21st century progresses, who will lead us Indians? For an answer, reflect on Santayana’s dictum: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.




1] Dharampal, “The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century”, New Delhi , Biblia Impex, 1983:15. Dharampal’s Introduction to the book should be compulsory reading for all administrators and educationists. An edition has been brought out by The Other Press, Mapusa (Goa). 


2] Recall the background of Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar: a graduate of Delhi University’s prestigious Indraprastha and Miranda Colleges, educated abroad as well, a member of the IFS and a Central Minister. Her husband is a Supreme Court lawyer. Her father, Babu Jagjivan Ram was an MP for decades, a very senior Central minister, a deputy prime minister and – I recall from a photograph once published in “India Today” – had in his native place a huge house abutting the boundary wall of which were the jhonpris of his poor neighbours. He became notorious for “forgetting” to pay his taxes. Ms Meira Kumar, who in no way can be considered deprived, has categorically asserted that “reservation would end the day the caste system was eliminated”

(http://www.thehindu.com/2010/03/21/stories/2010032155590800.htm).  So, she ensures her children and their children will be entitled to quotas too



3] One of many direct experiences of “the system” - as Executive Director (Vigilance) in a PSU nicknamed “Corruption Corporation of India”, I sent to the Central Vigilance Commission over a dozen reports that prima facie indicted the CMD for corruption. Persecuted by the CMD, I sought the advice of the Joint Secretary (Vigilance) in the Department of Personnel (an MP IAS officer) who responded that those who have “unscrupulous CMDs must learn to live with them”. The Central Vigilance Commissioner (Orissa IAS) advised me to leave the IAS because I did not “fit in”. My Ministry boss (UP IAS) whom I met when he was Secretary (Heavy Industries) and later when he was Cabinet Secretary nodded me out on both occasions. MoS (Personnel) said the CMD’s backer (Rajasthan IAS) was “too powerful”. The sarkari “system” and its protection of that corrupt CMD notwithstanding, it was courts that eventually put paid to his hugely lucrative career.


Krishen Kak opted for early retirement from the IAS 

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