The Indian administration is still “yatha raja”
by Krishen Kak on 03 Apr 2013 6 Comments

The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) originated in 1926 and was accorded its present Constitutional status in 1950.  The functions of the UPSC are listed in Article 320 and are primarily the “recruitment for all civil services and civil posts” of the Government of India.[1] As part of these functions, the UPSC conducts the Civil Services Examination (CSE) annually to recruit through this one common exam to 24, yes, 24 widely different government services.[2] 


Some time ago, in “Yatha raja tatha prashasan”, I looked at the UPSC selection system generally.[3]  What was pointed out then is even more so now, and this essay leads from the earlier one.


The effectiveness of the UPSC’s function can be assessed from the fact that, 60 years down the line, we have the most corrupt government in the history of free India though, we are told, the “UPSC always selects candidate judging his/her integrity, honesty and intelligence”.[4]  Let it be understood clearly that there can be no government corruption unless a civil servant signs the file or the order that enables that corruption by the politician and/or the civil servant.  All the scams and the loot of the public exchequer that are front-page news these days could not have been possible without the connivance of the civil servant. 


The UPSC was in the news recently for sweeping changes it made to the CSE. The grapevine has it that its chairman, who fancies himself a reformer, wanted to be remembered so in his retirement – and he certainly will be, but not for the reason he hoped for.


The most significant change his UPSC recommended was knowledge of the English language, and of only English, as a requirement to be selected to rule this country.[5]


However, there was such a furore at this blatant neo-colonialism that the Government of India that had approved this change then hastily backtracked and cancelled it. This is symptomatic of the UPSC selection process over the years – a bureaucratic system claiming merit but actually fostering divisiveness [6] and seeding corruption in its widest sense.[7]


Perhaps the UPSC chairman, to be remembered in the way he wanted, should first have thought of structural changes. “Yatha raja” pointed out the illogic of the same one examination serving to recruit to services as diverse as the Indian Foreign Service and the Railway Protection Force.


Here, three basic structural changes are offered for consideration.


1] The first is to club services – and to recruit - according to their functional requirements.  Yes, there can or not be a common preliminary qualifying examination, but the main examination must be one designed specifically for that particular category of services.


(a) There are the accounts services which can have a common exam  – the Indian Audit and Accounts Service, Group ‘A’; the Indian P & T Accounts & Finance Service, Group ‘A’; the Indian Defence Accounts Service, Group ‘A’; the Indian Civil Accounts Service, Group ‘A’; and the Indian Railway Accounts Service, Group ‘A’.


(b) Different in focus (“economic services”?) are the Indian Trade Service, Group ‘A’ (Gr. III) and possibly the Indian Corporate Law Service, Group “A” which, with the Indian Economic Service, can have a common exam. Whether the Indian Revenue Service (I.T.), Group ‘A’ and the Indian Revenue Service (Customs and Central Excise), Group ‘A’ fit better here or with the accounts services is to be considered.


(c) What reason is there for not having a common exam for the Indian Police Service; all the Central Armed Police Forces (CRPF, BSF, ITBP, SSB, CISF, NSG, RPF); the “Post of Assistant Security Commissioner in Railway Protection Force, Group ‘A’”; the Delhi, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli Police Service, Group ‘B’; and the Pondicherry Police Service, Group ‘B’?      


(d) The Indian Engineering Services can be expanded to include the Indian Ordnance Factories Service, Group ‘A’ (Assistant Works Manager, Administration); the Indian Railway Traffic Service, Group ‘A’; and possibly the Indian Defence Estates Service, Group ‘A’.


(e) There can be a common exam for the Indian Railway Personnel Service, Group ‘A’; the Armed Forces Headquarters Civil Service, Group ‘B’ (Section Officer’s Grade); the Delhi, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, Daman & Diu and Dadra & Nagar Haveli Civil Service, Group ‘B’; and the Pondicherry Civil Service, Group ‘B’.


(f) Of the CSE list of 24, that leaves the Indian Postal Service, Group ‘A’ and the Indian Information Service (Junior Grade), Group ‘A’. It also leaves the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Foreign Service, of which more later.


2] The CSE as now approved has a preliminary qualifying examination and a main examination. The latter has qualifying papers in English and an Eighth Schedule language (that is, only needed to be passed but not counted towards the total marks), five papers in “General Studies” and one specialization, and a “personality test”, all of which count for the final result. Candidates from Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim are exempted from the Indian language qualification.


(a) The IAS and IFS can have a common examination with, as a minimum qualification, a postgraduate degree in any of the non-technical Group 1 subjects currently listed as optional subjects. This will not exclude engineers, doctors and other specialists but their second degree must be one more directly relevant to public administration / international relations.  Likewise, though without a necessary post-graduation qualification, for the other clubbed services – thus, the accounting services must select their optional from Commerce and Accountancy, and the economic services from Economics and Law. 


(b) The CSE interviews are a cruel joke. Yes, an interview is certainly necessary - but necessary for all services? The accounting services? And, in any case, the content of the CSE interview is highly idiosyncratic with the biases of the very different chairpersons, and there is no perception at all, certainly amongst candidates, of a level playing-field. [8]


(c) The age limit for entry ranges from 21 to 40 (possibly 45), and the number of attempts acceptable from four to 15 and more. Therefore, it is possible to have in the same batch a 21-yr-old and a 39-yr-old, one in on the first attempt and the other on the 14th. What implications this has for long-term service professionalism do not appear relevant. Moreover, the candidate getting recruited in his late 30s will retire before reaching the top rank of his service. It is inevitable that political pressure will build up for the accelerated promotion of such category of candidate. [9]


3] The IAS and IPS are all-India services. Yet most candidates opt for their home States.  What is the rationale of an all-India service if the government actively encourages candidates to want to work only in their home States? Why don’t they then apply for their home State services instead? No choice of State should be given to IAS / IPS candidates. There should be a rational and transparent cadre allocation procedure and if these are truly to be all-India services, those selected must serve in whichever Indian State they are sent.  


Such structural deformities in the UPSC’s Civil Services Examination apart, there are four areas of substance that also merit attention (there are more, but four are sufficient to start with!).


(i) “Yatha raja” argued that the entire selection process is totally marks-oriented and the primary skill required in a candidate is the ability to write (and speak) with “political correctness”. The exam is a test solely of the ability to do well in a test of this kind, not of the potential to make a competent administrator. 


(ii) It is not the official language of India in which the CSE requires that qualifying knowledge from all candidates, but it still requires it from all candidates only in the language variously described as “associate official language” or “subsidiary official language”, namely, English. 


(iii) The CSE now introduces a compulsory paper it calls “Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude” designed “to test the candidates’ attitude and approach to issues relating to integrity, probity in public life and his [sic] problem solving approach to various issues and conflicts faced by him in dealing with society.” 


A tacit admission of the signal failure of the CSE over all its years to seed an administrative culture that is honest?  And a failed American-style approach to rectify this? [10] 


(iv) The value of the “interview test” or “personality test” (it is called both by the UPSC) has been reduced from 300 marks to 275. I have called it a cruel joke, because that is exactly what it is. [11] 


To earlier examples can be added many more.[12]  These are from this year’s interviews - 


An interview when none other than the chairman had in his hand any record of the candidate’s career; an interview a part of which was missed by the chairman because he’d left the room;  an interview when not a single question was asked from the candidate’s record; an interview when all questions asked related only to China; interviews where the questioner’s accent was incomprehensible (and the chairperson may or may not have clarified the question to the candidate); an interview where the questioner asked stock questions from a list he held in his hand; many interviews when most questions were from subjects in “which [the candidate] has been already tested through their written papers”; the notorious rudeness and whimsy of a chairwoman whose retirement soon is eagerly awaited…


One can go on and on. Many candidates post their experiences on the web but, given that there are similar experiences every year, it does not seem the UPSC babus bother to read them. Interviews are usually for 20-25 minutes; the ones closer to the end of the day can be for 15 minutes – and it is in this brief time the candidate is judged on (I quote) intellectual qualities, social traits, interest in current affairs, mental alertness, critical powers of assimilation, clear and logical exposition, balance of judgment, variety and depth of interest, ability for social cohesion and leadership, intellectual and moral integrity, and on intelligent interest in modern currents of thought and in new discoveries which should rouse the curiosity of well educated youth.


No, I’m not joking. Fifteen minutes for all this. And, apropos “well educated youth”, there are cases where the candidate gave the right factual answer but the questioner did not accept it. Therefore, I repeat, whether the written exam or interview, the “politically correct” performance principle is the one that best applies to this selection system. It is not about how much you know or how well you think or what you believe or what you have done so far in life. It is, as a system, only about how many marks you can get from supposedly “competent and unbiased” examiners because you have the ability to tell them just what they want to hear from you.[13] 


“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.” [14]


“A man does not rise to become the Queen’s butler unless he is gifted with extraordinary ingenuity, adaptability, versatility, dexterity, cunning, sophistication, sagacity, discretion and a host of other talents that neither you nor I possess.” [15]


So, now, the selection system we have evolved is designed really to recruit future leaders - or our Queen’s servitors?


The UPSC CSE selection system, as a system, affirms that government service, and especially the still-elite “Indian Administrative Service”, is about a colonial-type ” administration” (shaasan), not about a bharatiya-type service (seva); that to be “Indian” starts with needing to learn English, and to be able to treat citizens as objects rather than as subjects of policy.   



1. - p.3

2. - pp.1-2


4. DP Agrawal - The UPSC chairman suggested they become corrupt later, which then begs a question about the UPSC’s failure to identify susceptibility to corruption!

5. Till now, it was only a qualifying paper, i.e., it needed a passing mark that was not added to the total marks. It was now made part of the total. Therefore, if your English was not good enough (and no matter how fluent you are in any Eighth Schedule language), you’d do poorly compared to someone fluent in English (and ignorant of any Indian language).

This English-only decision brought into the open the covert English-preference strategy of the UPSC. By common experience, those opting for English for the interview are at an advantage over those opting for Hindi (and even more so over the other Eighth Schedule languages) because all the interviewers know English, and many are not conversant with Hindi (and so cannot really comprehend answers in Hindi). UPSC interviewers themselves prefer answers in English. Thus, in August 2012, the UPSC conducted interviews for the IPS Ltd Competitive Exam 2012. There were candidates who opted for their interviews in Hindi. This was entirely within the UPSC rules yet a chairman of one interviewing board required at least two Hindi-medium candidates to answer only in English. He told them he expected them to know English and that there were board members who did not know Hindi. The candidates had no option but to stumble through their answers in English. 

6. In 1835 TB Macaulay (in his notorious “Minute on Indian Education” that decided that English must be the language of education in India – enunciated the missionary-colonial objective of introducing a class of brown sahibs between the colonial rulers and the native ruled. Since 1835 the language of our rulers has been English. It is unsurprising that the current Indian government affirmed its loyalty to this colonial legacy of macaulayanism - to recruit babus who must know English to rule over the aam admi. No knowledge of any Indian language was expected or wanted, so a candidate could have been selected to Indian government service not knowing a single word of any Indian language. 

7. How would you interpret the advice of the Supreme Court in the General VK Singh case - “Wise people are those who move with the wind” – You should bend before the prevailing wind? You should be “flexible”? You should be “practical” (the word I use at

In one CSE interview, a chairman from a military background asked a candidate why her first preference was for a service that had no accountability (the IAS - this was before the alleged corruption of the Air Force Chief became public!).

8. I had one candidate tell me that he was sure to do well in the interview if he had Parveen Talha or DP Agrawal as the chairperson. He explained that Talha would appreciate his minority-appeasing secularism, and Agrawal and he were of the same caste. Candidates who got Subir Dutta, KK Paul or DP Agrawal started sweating even before they entered the room, unlike with, say, Bhure Lal or E Balagurusamy who were reputed to be  relaxing interviewers. Earlier, Arundhati Ghose was notoriously abrasive, in contrast to the polished Chokila Iyer. 

9. “Age Limits” at is not clear. According to its Note 1, an SC / ST candidate or a certain class of Kashmiri candidate who is also “blind, deaf-mute and orthopaedically handicapped etc. will be eligible for grant of cumulative age-relaxation under both the categories” – in other words, eligible till the age of 45 years? Certain military service candidates can also go up to 45, but it is not clear whether their military years will be added to their civilian seniority.

10. The CSE “ethics” syllabus ranges extremely widely, losing the forest for the trees - pp.12-13). How much “syllabus” is needed for the two most important foundational ethical principles in administration (jhoot mat bolo, chori mat karo) and which are really learnt as young children at home? “Ethics” as a special course to be taught was introduced in the late 1980s in American b-schools. It certainly doesn’t appear to have achieved an American (business) culture that is honest. And how long will it take for candidates – and coaching institutes – to catch on to preparing the kinds of answers the UPSC will want to see (and, therefore, that will fetch the candidates the marks, whether or not they themselves actually believe in what they write)?

11. What it is expected to be is at p.8 – For comparison, consider the expectations and procedure at, though read with the author’s comment on his son’s experience at !       

12. - Shailaja Chandra wrote about a woman candidate, but it could apply to men too, and she reinforces what I wrote in “Yatha raja” – but why did she wait five years to go public with this? Why didn’t she write promptly to the UPSC Chairman or to DOPT? She had nothing to lose. Perhaps some action would’ve been taken, and her action could’ve made it possible for some deserving candidates to get selected.

13. “In my experience, if anything, civil servants are so keen to do whatever they’re told by the Minister that they tend not to offer alternatives or say if they don’t think something will work, rather than being diplomatically obstructive.” (post 7 – He’s a UK civil servant describing his system, but it applies to the UPSC’s interviewing culture too.


15. Roald Dahl, “The BFG” (London: Puffin, 2007:154)

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