What prompted Narendra Modi, arguably the most decisive Prime Minister the nation ever had, to fly off the handle on one occasion last week? He made a direct attack on ‘babudom’, the fraternity of IAS officers who have been executing, often initiating, policies of successive governments.
I heard on an English TV channel the views of two highly respected former IAS officers for not having accepted a post-retirement sinecure from their political masters. They were Subhash Kumar Garg, a former Finance Secretary who retired prematurely after a successful career, and Anil Swarup, a former Coal Secretary, equally distinguished.
The former Coal Secretary was more forthcoming than the former Finance Secretary, who I learn has chosen the spiritual path over the material. Anil Swarup, a man I personally know and admire, was very supportive of Modi, praising him for being a good listener and a boss who did not hesitate to take quick decisions. Subhash Garg was not so effusive in praise, but he too felt that it was a pleasure to work with Modiji.
An IAS officer has many opportunities to interact with top politicians. It is the nature of the job. Many a minister literally eat out of the hands of bureaucrats, in a manner of speaking. If the minister has been given charge of a ministry in which he has no expertise, but is expected to learn the ropes while on the job, the bureaucrat gets a headstart, unless he himself or herself is being introduced to the subject for the first time. This does happen often because the officer is not a specialist. He is trained to take on any department of the government. His superior intellect and vast knowledge and experience help him along.
Other all-India and Central services officers specialise in one subject. They have fewer occasions to meet political bosses and certainly not the top man. The only PM I interacted with on a regular basis was Rajiv Gandhi. Punjab Governor SS Ray and I would fly to Delhi from Chandigarh by a government aircraft to brief him on the course the terrorist menace was taking in the state. He was receptive and reasonable. It was only when I mentioned the guilty Congressmen of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that he turned resentful. That did not deter me from mentioning it, at times, when the occasion arose.
In Maharashtra, where I was assigned, I would meet numerous politicians, big and small. The first CM I met was Morarji Desai. As CM of the composite state of Bombay, he visited Mount Abu where IPS officers were then trained. I was introduced to him along with three other officers assigned to Bombay State. He picked on me for special attention when he heard my name. He asked if my father had served in the Postal Service and when I nodded, he told me that my father, who died when I was eight, and he were fellows of the Wilson College in Bombay at the same time, my father in the Arts faculty and he, Morarjibhai, in the science stream. This conversation, heard by my colleagues, made me a minor celebrity in the Sixth Regular Recruitment Course.
Yashwantrao Chavan, Vasantrao Naik, Sharad Pawar and Vasant Dada Patil are other CMs I met quite often in the course of my duties. They were a cut above other politicians in their own party, the Congress. You could guess why they were chosen for high office. Each had his own strengths, possibly weaknesses, too, but I remember no occasion to fault them for insisting on their own wishes being treated as sacrosanct! They were men of steel but willing to listen to the truth and to reason.
I have contacts in Gujarat, mostly in the IPS since I was DGP of that state for four months during the communal riots of 1985. There was a Congress government in Gujarat then. Modi was installed as CM more than a decade later. The junior IPS officers had become senior by then. They provided me with a pen picture of Modi in office.
That he listened intently was a common observation. That he decided quickly and decisively was another. People appreciate a politician (or even an official) who takes decisions, right or wrong! On the debit side though, was the tendency to be ruthless with those who crossed his path, even inadvertently. If Modi wanted something to be said or done, it had to be said or done, even if the officer’s conscience was not comfortable doing so.
Today, more than half of the PMO and other critical positions in the Centre are filled by Gujarat-cadre officers. The remaining slots have gone to officers from other state cadres who had found their way to the ‘approved list’ based on their ACRs. Clearance from the Intelligence Bureau is an added input that is unofficially obtained in order to clear doubts about ideology and integrity. At one time, we were told of another unofficial source of information obtained by the PMO through a system called the 180° initiative that entrusted a few retired bureaucrats of the PM’s confidence to make their own quiet inquiries about the candidates!
There is no dearth of honest and competent officers in the IAS. At times, lateral entry for specialised jobs has been tried out, but even these highly valued experts have often been replaced by IAS officers of high calibre. The most striking example is of the appointment of Shaktikanta Das of the IAS as Governor of the RBI in place of the internationally acknowledged economist, Raghuram Rajan.
Instances of lateral entry into the government’s top echelons have occurred even in the time of the Congress. Dr Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, noted economist, and Bimal Jalan, a finance wizard, were all brought in from academia. The present government continues with the experiment and has even taken it to the cutting edge level by recruiting Joint Secretaries from the open market.
So why is Modi frustrated? Well, he is a man in a hurry. He wants results even before the task is undertaken! And he also wants undiluted loyalty and perhaps a dose of ideology thrown in. I am sure he will be able to find such marvels in this vast country without losing his cool!
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