The recent unsavoury public spat between the Union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the West Bengal government of chief minister Mamata Banerjee over an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer is not the first such episode in the history of Centre-state relations. There have been numerous such face-offs between the central and state governments over the posting, reward or punishment of a civil servant. Often, these are fuelled by political motives.
However, if public administration experts are to be believed, the latest conflict over Alapan Bandyopadhyay, the now retired chief secretary of West Bengal—triggered by an incident on May 28 when the prime minister visited the state—has highlighted a worrisome trend in the country’s governance structure. While the founders of the Constitution envisaged the bureaucracy as an apolitical institution, civil servants are increasingly getting embroiled in political conflicts involving the leaders of different parties and governments and, often, even within the same party and government.
They are forced into these conflicts because of their vulnerability to the political executive. At times, they are also driven to please their political masters by a desperation for career advancement. The result is the increasing politicisation of civil servants, dividing the service vertically along lines of ideology or political allegiance. “Politicians often use this fragility of civil servants to seek better or cushier postings to break their resilience,” says Ajay Dua, a former secretary in the Union ministry for industry and commerce. “The younger bureaucrat will observe who gets the reward—those adhering to the rulebook or those showing allegiance to their political masters.”
As a result, the unity that once served as a bulwark against blatant political abuse now stands eroded. This breakdown fuels further politicisation, creating a vicious cycle. “One unfortunate development has been that senior officers don’t support junior officers,” says the former Union home secretary G.K. Pillai. “This increases the vulnerability of an officer, who then starts believing that kow-towing to political diktat is the only mechanism for professional protection.”
Who is to Blame?
A large section of the bureaucrats believes that they themselves are responsible for their predicament and point to Bandyopadhyay’s case as an example. Several IAS officers assert that the fiasco could have been averted by bureaucrats on both sides. Of course, Bandyopadhyay had little choice but to follow the chief minister to whom he reports daily, but many civil servants concur that the former West Bengal chief secretary erred in his duties towards the prime minister. “The prime minister’s programme does not come up suddenly,” says Kumar Sanjay Krishna, who retired as Assam’s chief secretary last year. “The state machinery is informed well in advance. Were I in Bandyopadhyay’s place, I’d have convinced the chief minister about the chief secretary’s protocol obligation to be part of the prime minister’s programme. Even if the chief secretary cannot be present due to some unavoidable circumstance, he or she must depute another officer. None of this happened in this case, which reflects badly on the IAS officer.”
Another central government officer cites the example of Odisha. A few hours before his arrival in West Bengal, the PM landed in Bhubaneswar to review the impact of Cyclone Yaas in the state. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his chief secretary were there at the airport to receive the prime minister.
While Bandyopadhyay may have erred at his end, the officer issuing the order asking him to report in Delhi also ignored the rulebook. According to many former bureaucrats, he should have flagged a procedural flaw in the directive, exposing it to suggestions of political intent. Bandyopadhyay had never been empaneled to serve under the central government at the joint secretary level. A non-empaneled officer can only take up positions such as director or under-secretary, far lower in rank than what Bandyopadhyay’s post was. “This was such a stupid decision,” says former Union home secretary Pillai. “There has never been a precedent. Someone should have put their foot down and pointed out the illegality of the order. Civil servants should always write their notes in the file. That’s their right. This practice is not followed these days and bureaucrats blindly follow orders.”
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee with chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay; ANI Photo
Shailaja Chandra, a former secretary to the Union government and a former chief secretary of Delhi, acknowledges this growing unwillingness to place facts on paper and that there is always the possibility of facing humiliation and ‘punishment’ if you do not conform to the political will. But, like many of her colleagues, the former IAS officer asserts that adhering to norms is the only protection against political vendetta. “The shortcomings of any move must be highlighted in writing—howsoever unpalatable the advice might be,” she says. “At least, the officer will not be labelled as biased or lacking in courage and professional integrity.”
Who is the Real Master?
The game of oneupmanship between Modi and Mamata has resuscitated the perennial demand for insulating civil servants from the whims and fancies of their political masters. In 2013, in response to a PIL filed by several former civil servants, the Supreme Court stated that officers should have a minimum fixed tenure, they should not act on verbal orders from politicians, and civil service boards (CSBs) should be set up at the central and state levels within three months to regulate postings, transfers and disciplinary action. It also asked the government to pass a comprehensive law on the subject.
On January 28, 2014, the UPA government notified the Indian Administrative Service (Cadre) Amendment Rules, making it clear that an officer in a cadre post will hold the office for at least two years unless he or she has in the meantime been promoted, retired or sent on deputation outside the state or training exceeding two months. The state governments were mandated to constitute a CSB, headed by a top executive such as a chief secretary. A cadre officer can be transferred before the minimum specified period only on the CSB’s recommendation, which must record the reasons in writing. While 20 states have constituted the CSB, most remain non-functional. And IAS officers remain convenient pawns for political manoeuvring.
In March, for instance, the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) reinstated the CSB in Karnataka, which the state government had kept in abeyance. The action came in response to an application filed by the IAS officer B. Sharat, challenging his premature transfer as deputy commissioner of Mysuru district. The CAT also asked the chief minister to revisit Sharat’s transfer order.
Former IAS officers say that the friction between the political executive and bureaucracy is also a function of the maturity of leaders at the state or central helm. According to them, unlike in the past, when seasoned politicians often used efficient and well-performing officers to their advantage, the current climate is of distrust between the political class and the bureaucracy. “There was a chief minister in Maharashtra who did not mind bending some rules here and there but told his officers not to sign anything they were not comfortable with,” says a Maharashtra cadre IAS officer. Another officer cites the example of Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao, who appointed a chief secretary ignoring several other officers senior to him. “The chief minister met each of them to assuage their anger,” says the bureaucrat.
A section among IAS officers claims that the power of the state government to take punitive action against civil servants, coupled with the immature handling of IAS officers by some chief ministers, is also responsible for creating Centre-state friction. According to the All India Services (AIS) Rules, the Centre cannot take any disciplinary action against IAS, IPS or IFS officers posted in their state cadres. It is the government that the IAS officer is serving under who is the competent authority to suspend him or her.
Some chief ministers use this power to demand unquestioning loyalty from bureaucrats even if it involves breaking norms or protocol. “It’s happening more in states headed by temperamental politicians such as Arvind Kejriwal or Mamata Banerjee,” says an IAS officer from the AGMUT (Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram and Union Territory) cadre. In 2015, Shakuntala Gamlin’s appointment as the acting chief secretary of Delhi was held hostage to the power struggle between the then lieutenant governor
Najeeb Jung and chief minister Kejriwal. In 2018, chief secretary Anshu Prakash alleged that he had been assaulted by two MLAs in the presence of Kejriwal at his home. Mamata doesn’t allow any IAS officer to go on deputation at the Centre.
Besides transfer and postings, the increasing Centre-state political friction is also impacting empanelment and deputation. According to Section 6(1) of the IAS (Cadre) Rules, 1954, a cadre officer, with the concurrence of the concerned state government and the central government, can be deputed for service under the central government or another state government, subject to the officer’s consent. The Union government must consult with the state government, which must release the officer. In case of disagreement, the central government’s decision remains final.
However, though the final authority vests with the Centre, the rules are vague if the state government decides not to relieve the officer. Of course, if an officer is willing to join the Centre but the state doesn’t relieve him, he or she can move CAT and the courts. However, the rules are silent on what happens if the officer is unwilling and the state too is not releasing him—as in Bandyopadhyay’s case. Last December, the Union home ministry had summoned three West Bengal officers, who were in charge of BJP national president J.P. Nadda’s security, for central deputation after his convoy was attacked in the state. Mamata did not release the officers.
The new selection process for empanelment has also been criticised on the grounds that it is designed to induct officers loyal to the political ideology of the central government. In April 2015, the Modi government introduced the 360-degree appraisal procedure involving a multi-source feedback (MSF) from various stakeholders, including seniors, peers and juniors. The process also considers the overall service record, vigilance status, integrity, behavioural competencies, functional skills, domain expertise, delivery and the potential and suitability of the officers concerned. On the surface, the 360-degree appraisal appears to be more democratic as it broadens the performance review process, but critics claim the process is designed to rope in “ideologically inclined” officials, not independent-thinking ones.
An August 2017 report by the parliamentary standing committee on personnel, public grievance, law and justice, headed by Congress MP Anand Sharma, also called the process opaque, subjective and susceptible to manipulation. “As the feedback could come from anywhere, the officials started showing political and ideological affiliations in their official actions to get noticed. This muddied the waters further,” says a former IAS officer from the Rajasthan cadre. However, last year, the Delhi High Court upheld the 360-degree review process as it found “nothing amiss” in the MSF process.
While such debates over process and politics will continue, there is no dispute that the way out of the political whirlpool is in the practice of propriety. With the change in political environment, there could be more conflicts between the Centre and the states, but these are unlikely to have a far-reaching impact on the functioning of the bureaucracy. “The civil servants, particularly those from the IAS, are well-trained and experienced to handle political interference and tension,” says the former chief election commissioner Om Prakash Rawat. And the key to a deft handling of these tricky situations is bringing propriety to official conduct. Sacrifice it, and the action may see political repercussion, for which the official will have only himself or herself to blame.
Who Control’s an IAS Officer?
Selection and appointment
Deputation to the Centre
Who can punish an IAS officer?
Grievance redress system
– With Romita Datta and Rahul Noronha
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Source: India Today