They that sow the wind in babudom shall reap the whirlwind later...
Last week, Vishwapati Trivedi, an upright IAS officer from Madhya Pradesh who was the coal secretary, was unceremoniously removed from his post. His only fault was that he forwarded the Shah Commission report on the Goa Mining Scam directly to Parliament, bypassing Cabinet. Even his minister Dinshaw Patel wasn’t informed of his transfer as Chairman of the Inland Waterways Authority. Last month, Sunil Arora, a senior IAS officer from Rajasthan, was made Development Commissioner in the commerce ministry. Before he could formally join in New Delhi, the appointment was quietly withdrawn because he wrote a letter to the then cabinet secretary on matters concerning his previous ministry in 2005. Are these knee-jerk reactions the sign of insecurity of a paranoid government battling rising allegations of corruption and coalition dharma compulsions? Or, were they meant to make a hapless civil servant without a godfather a scapegoat for an administrative lapse? The answer lies somewhere in between.
Of late, civil servants have been facing the wrath of investigative agencies for their alleged roles in numerous scams. Over two dozen senior babus are in jail or facing probes. Never since 1977 has India’s 7,000-member steel-framed babudom been under such relentless judicial and public scrutiny. If whispers in the corridors of power are to be trusted, a group of around a dozen senior secretary-level officers has decided to take up cudgels on behalf of their troubled colleagues at the highest levels. With constitutional institutions like the CAG, Election Commission, Central Vigilance Commission, and even Parliament under severe threats, the bureaucracy suffers the most. The only instrument of continuity in a democracy, it has been losing credibility and relevance.
A government that is struggling to retain its parliamentary majority and mandate for its executive decisions is now being crippled by a new kind of policy paralysis. It may be making bold pronouncements on reform, but its ability to carry the implementers along is eroding faster than its credibility. The bureaucracy is the backbone of good governance. It is like a tiger, and can create havoc in the system unless tamed tactically.
It was as recently as April 21, Civil Services Day, that the prime minister said: “It is our government’s commitment to put in place a system and create an environment in which our civil servants are encouraged to be decisive, and no one is harassed for bonafide mistakes of errors of judgment. We stand committed to protecting honest and well meaning civil servants who might have made genuine errors in their work.”
Just a few months later, Trivedi’s ignominious exit is escalating into a major crisis; most civil servants are refusing to move files and process even routine proposals and decisions. Civil servants are now being held responsible for wrong or illegal decisions. Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal had made it clear in his interview to IBN7 that babus who took wrong decisions for coal block allocations would be punished, but not the ministers who approved the recommendations. He asserted: “Do you expect a minister to visit every coal block or study every application before signing a file? He approves it because he expects the officers to do their job properly.” Jaiswal was only reflecting the mindset of the political class. Former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao told me ominously, “It’s the bureaucracy that has led the nation down. Left to me, I would hang them from the nearest pole and shoot them one by one.” His government was also embroiled in numerous corruption cases.
The political leadership has, thankfully, failed to physically eliminate even the worst and tainted civil servants. But its inability to protect the innocent and reward performers is going to cost the UPA leadership more than it can imagine. Earlier, officials had the privilege of writing to the chief secretary of the state or the cabinet secretary at the Centre on problems concerning their minister or ministry. Both the bureaucratic bosses would discuss these grouses with the CM or the PM and initiate corrective measures. But with the PM and the CMs losing authority because of coalition dharma or other compulsions, the system of selecting officials for sensitive and key posts has suffered immensely. Manmohan Singh is the first prime minister since Independence to instruct the cabinet secretary to take the minister’s prior approval before proposing the name for the post of secretary in a ministry. Even CMs are under pressure to select officers on the basis of extraneous and not meritorious considerations. As a result, most chief secretaries and cabinet secretaries are individuals who neither enjoy acceptability nor credibility among their colleagues, while lacking the courage to protect them from the political leadership.
The tendency to hire more and more technocrats and corporate honchos to bail out the government is no coincidence. Since the established bureaucracy is unwilling to stick its neck out, over a dozen outsiders have been engaged to advise the government on fiscal matters, infrastructure issues, public-private partnerships—they’re willing to speak the leadership’s language and face the consequences. But leaders should not live under the illusion that only babus who fail will go to jail. Bureaucrats may not display their power or their talent for manipulation, but they know how to weave a web to trap their political masters.
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