A cooling-off period is unnecessary, but mostly the transition from civil servant to politician has not come easy.
Of late, we have seen many retired civil servants join political parties as a first step towards participating in active politics. While the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party has attracted a fair few, there has also been an exodus of retired civil servants to major parties like the Congress, BJP, JD(U), Trinamool Congress, etc. By itself, it is a positive development, as infusion of administrative expertise in political parties can theoretically lead to more balanced policies and better governance.
What are the main reasons for this? One is that, with better healthcare, retiring government servants do not consider themselves to be old or tired. Used to working between 10 to 12 hours a day, they want to be actively engaged. Given that their pension leaves them financially stable, they look to some vocation, such as joining politics. A second category of civil servants are actually interested in politics, and join a party as soon as they have an offer. A third category of civil servants want to join a political party hoping to get important government posts. There is also a fourth category — those who do not formally join a political party but become active players in its thinktanks. This is how they become close to the powers that be.
A retired civil servant is unlikely to be welcomed by middle- and lower-level party functionaries. The latter feel that while they have spent years serving the party, retired civil servants are inducted laterally at senior positions. Therefore, ex-bureaucrats face hostility from political workers and their position in the party hierarchy
is not secure.
Once, the late P.C. Alexander, who was tipped to become the president of India, told me that party leaders dropped him at the last moment as they felt that they would not like to pay obeisance to a person who had served as secretary to the prime minister. Natwar Singh was also sidelined, though he had done well as minister of external affairs. Yashwant Sinha performed well as finance minister, but was never given the position he deserved within his party. Ex-civil servants are generally treated as outsiders by politicians, but some former civil servants, like P.L. Punia, have done extremely well. They hold positions of high authority because of their ability to speak on political matters with deep understanding.
By and large, a civil servant does not possess the attributes of a popular and effective politician. The ability to address large audiences or mix with the common man does not come easily. It is also difficult to understand political nuances. At the level of secretaries, they are not used to travelling extensively in variable weather conditions. They do not find it easy to go from house to house, canvassing and asking for votes. They have long forgotten their days as sub-divisional officers when they went to the villages. It is also not easy for them to decide what to say when confronted with caste and community problems in the field. It needs a hard-skinned ex-bureaucrat to find his moorings in politics, as he is of no utility unless he belongs to a caste or community that can fetch votes.
Some former civil servants try to achieve prominence by revealing secret and confidential facts, which they got to know while in active service. Only those secrets that hurt the rival parties are revealed, while information about the leaders of the political party they have joined will not be disclosed. This is most reprehensible and must be discouraged by all political parties. It not only demeans the civil servant but also the party he has joined.
There have been debates on whether there should be a cooling-off period for civil servants before they join a political party after retirement. Such restrictions would be infructuous, as ex-civil servants would not formally join the party and could yet actively work for the same. Moreover, once a civil servant retires, he has every right to express his political views and join any political party he wants.
The neutrality of a civil servant during his active service does come into question when he joins a political party after retirement. But that is not much different from the present situation, when this accusation is made even before retirement, especially when a ruling party changes after elections. The first action of the ruling party is to change the senior officers from cabinet secretary down to all others occupying important positions.
They are believed to be in league with the political dispensation that has been ousted. Even civil servants of proven merit are set aside. So, the question of a cooling-off period before the retired civil servant joins a political party becomes irrelevant. Whatever political bias a civil servant has already exists through active service. However, during his service, no civil servant will grant undue favours to a political party because of the civil service conduct rules, vigilance organisations and an active media.
The writer, a 1965 batch UP cadre IAS officer, is a former Union defence secretary.