Towards a Headless Bureaucracy

When I joined the IAS in 1980, the Chief Secretary (CS) of the State was a figure inspiring awe and reverence. Summons to the great man’s (it was never a woman) presence inspired the same dread as a visit to the office of the headmaster of an English public school for receiving six of the best on one’s tender backside for some transgression. Fortunately, being so far down the pecking order, there was little occasion to meet (or even see) him, save at some annual gathering of the IAS Association or at some meeting where one could safely wallow in one’s anonymity. A combination of circumstances catapulted me to serve as Staff Officer to the CS of Maharashtra in the mid-1980s. I was fortunate to serve under two stalwarts, Mr. B.G. Deshmukh and Mr. K.G. Paranjape, with hugely contrasting styles of functioning. Mr. Deshmukh was a stickler for propriety. He was keenly conscious of the critical role of the CS in ensuring a smooth administration. More to the point, he was watchful in ensuring that the position of the CS was never devalued by the political executive. When called by the CM for a discussion, he expected to sail into the CM’s inner office like a breeze, without loitering about the corridors, as many unfortunate successors of his from the 1990s onwards were wont to do. At times, I was sent to verify from the CM’s office the exact moment when the CM was free so that the CS could directly enter the inner chambers. On one occasion, when the Minister for Tribal Development called the CS for a meeting (an unheard of occurrence in those days), yours truly was despatched to attend the meeting as the CS’s representative. I survived the meeting under the baleful glare of the Minister and the inscrutable looks of the Finance, Planning and other Secretaries, who were aware of the reasons for the absence of their boss. Mr. Paranjape was more informal in his approach but was equally conscious about preserving the dignity of the post of the CS. He was forthright in his written and oral communications and never hesitated to frankly express himself.

Cut to 1996, when I returned to Maharashtra after a stint in the Government of India, and the situation had undergone a sea change. A change in government had taken place and CSs were no longer secure about their position at the top of the hierarchy. As I moved up the ladder to Secretary-level posts, I was privy to the pressures brought on the top bureaucrat by Ministers, more so because the seat of power had moved outside the Secretariat. The CS was also no longer the arbiter of bureaucratic postings — the Principal Secretary to the CM had developed as the new power centre. If I thought the position of the CS had worsened in Maharashtra, my realpolitik education was vastly enhanced when Uttar Pradesh (UP) introduced the innovation of the Cabinet Secretary, a sort of super CS, during the Mayawati regime (2007-2012). Apparently starting his working life as a helicopter pilot, this worthy had held various civil service posts without having to bother about going through a Public Service Commission recruitment process. That the UP bureaucracy tolerated this direct assault on its independence should not occasion any surprise, given the depths that the bureaucracy in UP (and elsewhere) has plumbed in the years after the Emergency.

The same fate that befell the bureaucracies in the states was also to confront the bureaucracy at the central level. The P.N. Haksar era saw the Cabinet Secretary being gradually sidelined by the powerful Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister (PM). With occasional exceptions, the subsequent decades saw the dominance of the PM’s Office (PMO) and its numero uno, the Principal Secretary. During my Delhi days, I could see the power exercised by the Principal Secretary to the PM, with even Ministers ensuring they stayed on his right side. The culmination was the role played by Brajesh Mishra as Principal Secretary to the PM and National Security Adviser during the Vajpayee era.

All this time, the importance of the Cabinet Secretary fluctuated depending on the influence of the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. No doubt, he still chaired the meetings of Committees of Secretaries and was part of the appointments process. But it was becoming increasingly clear to resourceful bureaucrats that the path to career advancement passed through the PMO. Postings in important Ministries and to international assignments depended on who one knew in the PMO and on one’s proximity to the Principal Secretary.

The undesirable practice of granting extensions to the Cabinet Secretary has been in vogue from the UPA-I era. From 2004 to date, only four persons have occupied the post, all well past their retirement ages. Not only did this foreclose the progression of their juniors to the top civilian post, it also raises the uneasy issue of the motivations of the government. While we may well be past the era when a retired CS of Madhya Pradesh could cheerfully refuse an offer of extension before zooming off on his motorcycle, bureaucrats, especially those at the top, would do well to be suspicious of too many compliments from the political class about their competence and indispensability. In one Yes Minister serial, the Political Adviser to the British PM rebukes the Minister, James Hacker, saying that his bureaucrats find him “a pleasure to work with”. In India’s Yes, Secretary setting, a bureaucrat who seems to fit in too well with her/his political bosses must reflect on whether (s)he is giving them the right advice, which may often need to be unpalatable.

What has occasioned all the above reflections has been a rather innocuous news item titled Major Revamp of India’s National Security Architecture. While one may have no bones to pick with strengthening India’s National Security apparatus, given a rather fluid environment around India’s borders, what gave pause for thought was the Cabinet Secretary being downgraded from the position of Chairman (a position held by him since 1999) to a member of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG), which is now to be chaired by the National Security Adviser (NSA). The media has witnessed meaningless wrangles about who is senior to whom in the Warrant of Precedence and whether this is another IAS vs. IPS battle. What has been lost sight of is the unique position of the Cabinet Secretary as the head of the Civil Services. If it was genuinely felt that the SPG required an expert, who commanded the confidence of the PM, to be its head, nothing would have been lost by keeping the Cabinet Secretary out of the SPG and by the NSA liaising with the Cabinet Secretary whenever departmental coordination issues needed to be sorted out.

The Cabinet Secretary is the Secretary to the Union Cabinet and is their Adviser on all policy issues. As such, (s)he needs to be free of association with any particular Committee chaired by a Minister (or a person of equivalent rank). Making the Cabinet Secretary a member of Ministerial Committees would dilute her/his ability to give an independent, frank opinion on major national issues to the PM and the Cabinet.

What give rise to unnecessary controversy and speculation are the sudden changes in time-honoured conventions, without apparently enough thought being given to their implications for an independent, professional civil service. Norms for a time-bound tenure for the top post and a selection process that affirms the selection of the most competent (and generally senior most) bureaucrat for that post would reassure the civil service (and the public) that only considerations of merit and competence have played a role in the selection. Discipline in a hierarchical organisation like the Indian civil services is possible only when the top bureaucrat is seen to have the moral and administrative authority to govern. Trends developing over the past couple of decades seem to indicate a fondness of the political class for departing from established conventions and procedures. The casualties in such a process will be the bureaucracy and, ultimately, the public, which can access their rights and entitlements only through an efficiently managed bureaucracy.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Dear Ramani, In 1972 when I reported for training in West Bengal, N.C.Sengupta ICS
    was the CS. He never went to any minister’s chamber. In 1974 as staff
    officer to B.R.Gupta IAS the CS I was stunned to see him ask his peon
    where the fishery minister’s chamber was as he had been summoned
    there! He had becomes CS by currying favour with S.S.Ray the CM. I was
    even asked by the Jt. Secy. Home Dept. (1959 batch) to draft a Padma
    Shri recommendation for Gupta to be sent to MHA. I knew nothing of his
    achievements and looked flabbergasted. The HS (1955) told me to relax
    as the CS himself would draft his own eulogy. I dutifully took the
    file to the CM along with the HS. He signed it and then rang up
    Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (the President), called him “Arrey Fakhru ensure
    that Pankaj Roy gets the Padma Shri this time”. Gupta never got the
    award for which he fancied himself having coordinated the Bangladeshi
    evacuee problem from Delhi (the real work was all done in the state
    and he had little to contribute).
    As for the Cab Sec, the fault lies with the incumbent. They have never
    had the guts to stand on their dignity. When he was made a mere member
    of the SPG, he should have declined and if necessary resigned. I
    always lament the total subservience of Krishna Rao Sahib as CS and PC
    Alexander as principal sec to Indira Gandhi during the V.K.Singh
    affair. They were effectively exposed by Mr Appu’s resignation.
    Incidentally, I hope you got hold of Mr Appu’s writings which I edited
    and published in 2 volumes from Sahitya Samsad Calcutta?
    Best wishes,

    Reply

  2. Posted by ashwinimehra on October 13, 2018 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks, Ramani. In the public sector banks also, especially SBI, the top man wants to please as many subordinates as possible and invariably promotions are more than the posts available. So quite a few them get accommodated in sinecure posts just created to accommodate them or different power centres are created to help rule by confusion.

    On Thu, Oct 11, 2018 at 8:28 PM V. Ramani’s blog wrote:

    > vramani posted: “When I joined the IAS in 1980, the Chief Secretary (CS) > of the State was a figure inspiring awe and reverence. Summons to the great > man’s (it was never a woman) presence inspired the same dread as a visit to > the office of the headmaster of an English publ” >

    Reply

  3. Posted by Shiv Basant on October 14, 2018 at 1:27 pm

    It’s a free for all now..Secretaries with corrupt ministers have the choice of either participating in the loot or get transferred.Same with Chief Secretaries.They have the choice of looking sideways or get replaced with more pliant colleagues.Most of the public expenditure is either diverted into bribes and whatever little gets spent on the ground is mostly infructuous expenditure.In Jharkhand Ranchi-Jamshedpur National Highway segment could not be constucted in ten years.That is the level of corruption and incompetence.How long this farce will go on.Parties in power change but nothing changes on the ground.That is why India has failed to realize its potential as a nation.Even the spectalur rise of China has not stirred us.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Natarajan Bala Baskar on October 21, 2018 at 10:27 am

    Very well written! The Indian Administrative Service has been committing suicide, “slowly and in comfort”!

    Natarajan Bala Baskar

    Reply

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