The Key to Success in the IAS
By T.R. Raghunandan, 29 Oct 2017

This blog is part of a series on leadership in the Indian bureaucracy and is based on the experiences of senior bureaucrats. The previous blog can be found here

From the examples of Kurien and Vijaykumar related in earlier blogs, are there any trends that emerge, as to what the qualities are, which equip an IAS officer for success, or is it dictated by environmental factors such as the circumstances of the positioning of the officer or the political climate?

Clearly, longevity is an important factor in the effectiveness of both officers. Kurien and Vijaykumar lasted long in their defining postings, in the case of the former, as the head of the Kochi International Airport and in the latter, as the head of the Girijan Cooperative Corporation and later on, the Poverty Eradication Mission. The assurance of a secure tenure enabled both officers to think in the long term and stay long enough to execute their plans. Another commonality between Kurien and Vijaykumar was that both entered into relatively new organisations, or those with expanding responsibilities, and had few legacy issues to deal with. In the case of Kurien, he was able to define processes to tune with the priorities he set himself. While in the case of Vijay, relatively speaking, he entered into organisations where processes were already begun to be established, he still had the latitude to change them to adapt to the steep growth path on which these organisations were moving.

The question is then, whether such longevity is a purely fortuitous matter and that therefore, the effectiveness of officers is largely a matter of luck; of how long they manage to stay in a particular position. In answer, there is still the matter of luck that prevails; both spent considerable periods of time at their defining jobs and that helped them make their mark.

Yet, if one looks closer, a stable tenure is not dependent merely on luck alone. It is possible for officers to create their own luck, through their quick grasp of the core requirements of the jobs they hold. In other words, both Kurien and Vijaykumar, unwittingly or otherwise, became indispensable to their organisations. They did so by gaining so much knowledge about the environment in which they worked, as also the processes they needed to adopt to move forward, that their removal would have imperilled any future progress.

Politicians are perceptive people and they know that at the end of the day, they will be judged by the tangible progress they have demonstrated on the ground. Yet at the same time, in the current political scenario, politicians see as very valuable their powers of individual patronage. They see this as cementing their relationships with a vast body of political friends and interest groups who work in concert to ensure that politicians get elected. Thus, a dichotomy exists in the minds of most politicians when it comes to their preferences regarding officials posted in their constituencies. They want somebody both effective and obedient, and oftentimes, these two qualities are not compatible with each other.

In the case of both Kurien and Vijaykumar, in all probability, the levels of trust they developed within their organisations gave them an aura of invincibility that no politicians who might have been annoyed with any of their actions, would have liked to tackle.

Quite simply, Vijay and Kurien reached a stage of widely respected professional excellence that removing them would have had adverse political repercussions on any politician who might have contemplated moving them.

That both Kurien and Vijay were able to reach this bastion, is due to their own qualities of leading from behind, and their easy ability for teamwork. In the government, teamwork is often spoken about, but rarely practiced. Hierarchical command and control systems are both de-facto and de jure the preferred option. If Kurien and Vijay had conformed to this conventional model of being top down bosses, their premature movement would not have surprised anybody. However, the fact that both of them were able to forge teams, must have built the political aura of invincibility and indispensability around them, which would have made any politician who might have been annoyed with them and contemplated moving them, think twice.

Yet, success could cause jealousy, which is the biggest threat to officers who perform well. Jealousy rarely emerges from the political side; but it is rampant in the closed confines of the bureaucracy. Jealousy could be of anything – usually it is of the success of the officer – but it could be of publicity that the officer gains, his easy relationship with influential politicians, or even about the fact that he is ‘having a good time’.

The last mentioned reason may look frivolous, but it is a real and serious problem. Vijay spoke to me about a valuable forest produce, a nut (Strychnos potatorum) that had the unique property of being able to clarify and clean muddy water. There was a huge procurement of this product, but at one stage the market collapsed. Whilst undertaking research on improving the quality of the product, Vijay stumbled on the potential of using this nut for removing radioactive contamination from water. He engaged scientists for conducting research on this matter and as research progressed, he believed that testing by the International Atomic Energy Agency in France and Germany would settle the matter. However, when he sought permission to go abroad to arrange for and have this vital test conducted, jealousy intervened and he was not allowed to travel abroad.

He was attempting to have a ‘good time’, and that is sacrilege in the Government.

The views expressed are of the author only.