The leaked video clip of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s outburst at State Bank of India (SBI) Chairman Rajnish Kumar over non-functioning bank accounts of tea garden workers revealed one of India’s worst-kept secrets: The habitual discourtesy of the rich and powerful towards their subordinates. The whistle-blower who taped the exchange was making a point: That a senior politician thought it was acceptable to berate the head of the country’s largest bank in a meeting attended by officials of the Assam government and SBI. That her accusations were misdirected is beside the point. The fact that Mr Kumar did not think Ms Sitharaman’s public display of disrespect worthy of an instant resignation is remarkable. That Ms Sitharaman did not think fit to issue an apology is no less revealing. Instead, the bank unions’ association was induced, somehow, to withdraw its statement of censure and a first information report has been lodged to identify the whistleblower.
It was Ms Sitharaman’s misfortune that this was recorded, there are many others in her government who are known to behave just as offensively with bureaucrats and staff, sometimes stretching to outright abuse. Few bureaucrats care to talk publicly about the habitual misbehaviour of politicians. One exception is former coal secretary Anil Swarup. At the launch of his book Not Just a Civil Servant Mr Swarup said he had to request his minister not to shout at his joint secretaries in public and threatened to ask the prime minister for a transfer if the misbehaviour persisted. He said the minister dialled back his behaviour but resumed when he was given temporary charge of another ministry. Nor is this behaviour confined to this government or to the central government alone. The infamous photo of a senior police officer polishing then UP chief minister Mayawati’s shoes captured for all to see how low politicians are prepared to stoop in their exercise of power.
Such institutionally embedded disrespect has played its part in vitiating relations between bureaucrats and politicians, an undesirable state of affairs in a country in which development priorities demand close coordination between the civil service and the executive. One indication that relations have reached a low point is that the UP government, in 2017, felt the need to issue a directive to senior government officials to rise from the chair when an MLA, MP, or minister visited them and repeat the procedure when they left. Water and refreshment also needed to be offered. These etiquettes and protocols are defined in conduct rules and attract disciplinary action for offenders. In 2018, the Haryana government issued a similar diktat to bureaucrats (though no penalties were specified). Significantly, the state was responding to a parliamentary committee report, no less, on the violation of protocol and disrespectful behaviour of the bureaucrats with MPs and MLAs.
The way politicians behave with officials is a reflection of the bullying culture embedded in the hierarchical underpinnings of Indian society. These worst practices endure because good jobs are scarce so subordinates are rarely in a position to defend themselves. So, from the powerful minister and industrial honcho to the chief executive and the petty official down the line to service providers and household help, discourtesy becomes the common expression of power. This top-down culture of disrespect encourages the transmission of bad behaviour down the pecking order and, inevitably, little respect in the reverse direction. Small wonder, then, that India has gained a reputation for its poor work culture. In the Global Empathy Index, eight Indian companies, most of them stock-market front-runners, figured among the bottom 20. Ms Sitharaman’s outburst only revealed an inconvenient truth.