Friday, July 14, 2017
Yes, Prime Minister: On the restive mood among India's top bureaucracy. By Amitabha Pande
The sense of foreboding that pervades our socio-political environment has slowly crept its way into the bureaucracy too. A government that laid much store by its ability to galvanise the bureaucracy to work towards a transformed India has now to reckon with its growing sullenness, a quiet but discernible discomfort with the way its affairs are being handled and a heightened sense of fear that the slightest stepping out of line or speaking out or not being an active enough cheerleader may prove costly.
Several recent developments have led to this restive mood. A joint secretary in the ministry of telecom is transferred overnight because he sends an inconvenient communication to the regulatory authority raising awkward questions about a favoured corporate, sending a clear signal that no one steps outside the invisible line. No explanations are offered to the perplexed officer. A lateral-entry recruitment is made at the secretary level in the newly created (2014) ministry of AYUSH to signal that no service can claim proprietary rights over top assignments. A number of really powerful positions are reserved for officers identified as being regime-friendly, and while some may have been lucky enough to have made it by sheer dint of ability, it helps to have been a part of the Gujarat cadre. For a small cadre, which had a very small and intermittent presence in the central government till 2014, it now has a disproportionate number of officers occupying the most powerful positions in the PMO and elsewhere.
However, more than any of these stray incidents, it is the recent round of 'empanelments' for appointment as secretaries that has had a very demoralising effect. The process of 'empanelment' (which is not treated as selection but simply a determination of suitability for appointment as a secretary in the central government) has always been opaque and questionable, but over the years some practices and conventions had evolved that had reduced arbitrariness and increased acceptability. This year, the process was turned upside down and almost 35 per cent of the officers who were due to be empanelled, something any officer looks forward to as the culmination of a long career, have been left out because of a complete overhaul of the way assessments are made.
This change was done ostensibly to make the process merit-based, and that was determined not merely on the basis of the confidential report (CR) dossier but on the basis of diverse inputs drawn from a variety of sources. No one knows what these inputs were. There are no explanations for why some people have been left out or what criteria have been followed, what kind of inputs were obtained to make the assessment or where they were obtained from, or what redress an officer has if s/he has cause to feel unfairly treated. Introducing such uncertainty in career advancement at the end of a career is not just inexplicable, it is whimsical and arbitrary in the extreme. It bodes ill.
For the bureaucracy, a clear statement is being made. The authority of the prime minister and the prime minister's office (PMO )is absolute and no one else matters. The sphere of a minister and a secretary is that which the PMO decides, and while suggestions and initiatives are welcome, such initiatives will be subject to the close watch of Big Brother. Access to the top will be filtered through the chosen few and decisions taken by the chosen few may or may not be based on prior consultation. Officers will have to live with uncertainty regarding their future, which could be bright if they read the signals right but bleak if they get it wrong.
In a related development, the conviction of H.C. Gupta in the alleged 'coal scam', possibly the most perverse example of miscarriage of justice in the history of the IAS, has sent a clear signal to the higher echelons of the bureaucracy that honesty, sincerity of purpose and being fearless in decision-making do not matter. Time-serving does. Witch-hunts will now acquire legitimacy and politics will always trump justice. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Amitabha Pande is a retired IAS officerhttp://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/prime-minister-office-ayush-bureaucracy-ias/1/1000953.html