New Cab Sec: Modi's Mission of Making Bureaucracy an Obedient Partner Gets Headstart
Suspense and surprise are the tools of a successful leader. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a predilection for springing surprises. Whether it is over the selection of Cabinet ministers or choosing senior civil servants for crucial posts, he has always defied the rule of predictability. When his colleagues expect him to experiment, he baffles them by opting for conventional wisdom. When they are sure he would follow convention when choosing senior bureaucrats, Modi prefers merit over experience.
Last week, when he appointed Pradeep Kumar Sinha, a discreetly low-profile IAS officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre as the 31st Cabinet Secretary of India, the PM endorsed the seniority principle. Sinha, a 1977 batch officer, is the senior-most secretary in the Central government. For the past few weeks, corporate lobbyists, some not-so-powerful ministers and retired babus had been either lobbying for their favourites, or betting in favour of the incumbent Cabinet Secretary, Ajit Kumar Seth, getting yet another extension. Those tormented with the Gujarat phobia were spreading the rumour that only an officer from that state would be given the catbird seat. A group of influence peddlers connected with Foreign Institutional Investors had put their last greenback on an IAS officer from the Rajasthan cadre.
When Modi retained Seth after coming to power, it baffled many BJP leaders since the senior bureaucrat was seen as a staunch UPA loyalist. He had never even served in any significant ministry before being handpicked by Manmohan Singh. But Seth proved his mettle for both Singh and Modi by becoming the fifth Cabinet Secretary since 1950 to last in his seat for four years. The others were Y Sukhthanker, B D Pande, B K Chaturvedi and K M Chandrasekhar. Seth was hoping to set a record of being the longest serving Cabinet Secretary by getting a six-month extension. But Modi realised that it would be setting a bad example by denying promotion to over half a dozen IAS officers who are due to retire by end of this year.
Earlier, too, many deserving candidates couldn’t become Cabinet Secretaries because Chaturvedi, Chandrasekhar and Seth were given the maximum number of extensions. Since Modi is heavily dependent on the bureaucracy for the implementation of his development agenda, he is unwilling to have a demoralised civil service queer his pitch. While he continues to fill various ministries with trusted bureaucrats, he chose Sinha to ensure continuity and stability. After spending over a year in the PM’s chair, Modi has finally realised that the success or failure of the leader of 1.25 billion people is precariously dependent on the active cooperation of over 900 secretaries, additional secretaries and joint secretaries. For the past 13 months, they have been forced to reach office before 9 am, but their productivity hasn’t increased commensurately. By nature, babus are pygmies. They are, however, capable of halting an elephant in its tracks with red tape and regulation tricks. Modi replaced over 60 secretary-level officials after the retirement of the incumbent officers, but continued with Seth since the officer was privy to the ways and means of the UPA government. It was the PM’s first encounter with the army of official mercenaries whose only object is to thrive even if the country is on the verge of an administrative chaos.
Normally, the induction of a Cabinet Secretary hardly makes important news. But ever since Modi took over, he and the PMO have been charged with excessive centralisation of power. The appointment of over half a dozen officers from the Gujarat cadre led his detractors to believe that the concept of a committed bureaucracy—which was Indira Gandhi’s hallmark—will stage a comeback. They felt the process would start with the selection of a pliable or loyal civil servant from Modi’s home state as the new Cabinet Secretary, who is considered the guardian of the 7,000-strong IAS officers. He is the one who presides over most of the selection panels, which shortlists officers for sensitive appointments. Not only does he report directly to the PM, his office too is out of bounds for even ministers and top babus, thanks to its location inside the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The most important part of his assignment is to keep records of all the meetings of the Cabinet and its committees. He is also the link between the PMO and various ministries, and serves as the eyes and ears of the PM.
Conventionally, the senior-most IAS officer is chosen as the Cabinet Secretary. But there have been a few exceptions when some PMs found the eligible ones unacceptable or undesirable. Five Cabinet Secretaries did not last for more than a year. The conflict between the PM and his Cabinet Secretary came to the fore when Rajiv Gandhi decided to remove P K Kaul, considered an Indira loyalist, from the post in 1986. Rajiv was told that Kaul was close to Arun Nehru and was working against the PM. Kaul was dispatched to Washington as the Indian ambassador. From then on, Cabinet Secretaries were picked by various PMs on the basis of their loyalty and suitability to the ruling party. Rajiv chose T N Seshan over other deserving candidates because he was considered the best instrument to handle his adversaries in the system. Seshan survived for barely a year. V P Singh, who succeeded Rajiv as PM in December 1989, replaced Seshan with Vinod Pandey within 48 hours of taking over. Pandey was one of the toughest and cleanest officers in the IAS and was instrumental in carrying out Singh’s cleansing drive against tax defaulters. But he didn’t last either. The Congress party toppled Singh’s government and installed Chandrasekhar as the PM. Pandey was given his marching orders. It was left to Manmohan Singh to restore some sanity in the system by sticking to the stability mantra and a longer tenure for the Cabinet Secretary. He, however, was also the first PM to interview various contenders for the job, revealing his flexible approach. He didn’t follow the seniority principle when he selected B K Chaturvedi as his Cabinet Secretary, who was chosen after interviews of six other candidates. Chaturvedi lasted three years, but his successors, Chandrasekhar and Seth, stayed on for four years.
Sinha’s unexpected elevation is a clear indication that Modi doesn’t want to open a front against the bureaucracy. For him, a tamed tiger is safer than a wounded one. With one stroke of his pen, he has made the bureaucracy an obedient partner in his venture of ensuring at least maximum governance with a yet to be minimised government.
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