The Great Assembly Line: Deconstructing the "Steel Frame"

The whole system of examination is in fact a procrustean exercise.
The Great Assembly Line: Deconstructing the "Steel Frame"
Representational PicANI

Adnan Nazir Khan

A legion of aspirational Indians try their luck every year at what is purported to be the country's toughest examination. Not surprisingly, only a handful are able to make the cut. One would then be tempted to think of those that qualify as savants, folks in the league of a Christopher Langan or a James Sidis. That, of course, isn't the case.

The ones who somehow make it in the slot are usually the ones who've learnt the tricks of the trade— the tricks of the trade: tireless persistence in achieving the goal, a flair for rote learning, and an okayish grasp of the core principles of the subjects taught during school years. Throw a good, retentive memory into the bargain, and you stand a good chance of sailing through. In theory, at least, that's all what it takes. No jesting!

Fundamentally, the system of recruitment of candidates for civil services is one great big assembly line designed to throw up a raft of customized models to serve the nation. On a more careful analysis, it's a pitch-perfect model of production right off the bat. The entire pattern is slanted toward this end only— Not much scope in the way of creative thought or enterprise. Laid-out blueprints and established mantras do often carry the day.

Case in point:

Which of the following factors constitutes the best safeguard of liberty in a liberal democracy?

(a) A committed judiciary

(b) Centralization of powers

(c) Elected government

(d) Separation of powers

[PRELIMS 2021]

Assuming anyone with even a passable knowledge of polity could easily rule out the middle two options, the nub of the question essentially hinges upon the other two options. Now herein lies the catch— why should option (d) be the generally accepted correct answer but not option (a)? Divested of any extraneous baggage, the first option should be construed to mean a judiciary which is, well, "committed"— committed, perhaps, to its raison d'être of upholding the ideals enshrined in the constitution. But despite an innocent appearance "a committed judiciary" in the Indian context is a devilishly loaded phrase. Read in conjunction with the country's epic wrestle between democratic ideals and the corridors of power decades back, this phrase assumes an Orwellian dimension and projects the question into a debatable territory.

The phrase "A committed judiciary", as it turns out, harks back to the bleak phase of the Indian democracy during the seventies, which a certain writer has described in a delightful turn of phrase as "...chicken pox on the body politic of India." It was a period marked by brinkmanship and a near-total absence of democratic ideals. Democracy was virtually flung into suspended animation for a long time even as seers such as H R Khanna took up the cudgels for its resuscitation.

Anyone attempting such a question from a purely analytical perspective stands to lose then. Why? Because, possibly no standard lexicon exists that talks of "a committed judiciary" as being one that's in cahoots with the corridors of power. It's a phrase with a pronounced regional flavour. One need not cudgel one's brains to score two points if one is in the know about this thing. Putting a semantic spin on a phrase could possibly save the day for our triviamonger. And yet the same phrase elsewhere could mean just what it appears to mean at first blush: a judiciary committed to its ideal of safeguarding the rights of citizens.

But how far is option (d) the correct answer? Unlike the vague option (a), option (d) is a well-established and layered concept with a universal appeal. As such, it admits of multiple interpretations— one of which is its significant overlap with the concept of federalism. The two can't really be divorced from each other: The concept of "Separation of powers" is in fact a subunit of federalism. In its most basic avatar, the concept simply means that there should be no encroachment of the three organs of the government on one another.

Read more broadly, it also connotes the independence in functioning of the various autonomous units of a polity. Thus the concept in its broader avatar also encompasses the power tussle between units of a federation— the Centre and the states, in our case. And if that is the case, you can't really mark option (d) as the right answer. Why? Well, because in that case "Separation of powers" is no foolproof safeguard of liberty. We have had countless power tussles between the units of a federation, where the battle for supremacy ultimately landed in the apex court only to be conceded by the relatively weaker federation units more often than not. In instances such as these the law of the land enables an instantaneous melding of a federal system into a unitary one through the instrumentality of emergency proclamation. What this essentially means is that the states are in thrall to the more powerful Centre. One might reasonably argue then that if the states have no immunity against a more powerful Centre in extreme cases, lofty ideals such as "liberty" and "equality" essentially lose their relevance. This line of reasoning might appear far-fetched, but we've already upped the ante by splitting hairs over an innocent-appearing phrase. This, then, tips the balance in favour of option (a)— well, provided it's shorn of its extraneous historical baggage. Fair point, no? To cut the long story short, the question is amenable to subjective analysis and could admit of varying answers depending on the kind of reasoning one applies. A thorny question as this one should then hardly find place on an objective test of eminent merit. Suffice it to say, a sampler like this is quite indicative of the point the writer is trying to make.

The whole system of examination is in fact a procrustean exercise. The three fiendishly difficult stages culminate in manufacturing a cookie-cutter batch— a clutch of folks that's there just to implement government policies. Part of the story why many folks fail to qualify stems principally from the rather constrained nature of the examination, which offers little elbow room in the way of inquisition and initiative. "The Grand Inquisitor" might find this rut a bit too much for his expansive taste.

It gets funny at the interview stage, though — at least one gets that impression from the barrage of mock interviews of the toppers available on the social media after the final list comes out. One could fairly assume that these mocks mimic the real interviews well enough to draw some quick conclusions. The whole interview process hopscotches randomly across diverse areas— except for occasional glimpses into a candidate's persona, nothing substantial of note one can glean. The candidates begin by introducing themselves and rattling off a series of hobbies — an initial gambit to lure the interviewers to ask questions about them, which would help them outmanoeuvre the smart interviewer early in the process. Too often either the interviewer isn't really sure what they should be asking about the hobbies— often because they happen to know precious little about them (candidates' choosing esoteric hobbies to avert any serious probing, for example)— or the interviewees sometimes have brushed only the most salient points about their hobbies, thus thwarting any further volley of questions. Admitted, one can hardly know everything about anything but if it's your hobby (a personality test would anyhow be incomplete without touching on the hobbies part), you are expected to know about them inside out. The scenario prevails (as it must) across areas where either of the two parties in the vis-à-vis keep seesawing between their turfs and the foreign. What is given as a verdict at the end then is a vague and dim appraisal of a candidate made mostly from a psychological angle— the kind of schooling, institution of graduation, articulation, and other such parameters that are penumbral at best to the complex arabesque of personality. It gets funnier at times when some board member tries to PUSH their PENT-up desires to parade his own knowledge by hogging other members' time. Perhaps that's so with most, if not all, personality tests that an interplay of factors and the very human element involved in the process thwart the very purpose they're designed for.

Be that as it may, balanced against such a critique remains the unvarnished truth that this is an examination which is not for the fainthearted nor for the dabbler for it demands sheer hardwork and perseverance in full proportion. One cannot but admire the courage and grit of all those workhorses who try and fail and then try again and fail better, eventually managing to beat the odds after Herculean efforts. That is something worth looking up to.

Adnan Nazir Khan is an alumnus of NIT Srinagar

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