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A series of recent decisions of the Central government has once again shattered the myth that the civil services in India are apolitical and...

Written by Madhav Godbole |
January 28, 1998

A series of recent decisions of the Central government has once again shattered the myth that the civil services in India are apolitical and neutral. All senior administrative appointments have become highly political though the government as also some senior bureaucrats continue to deny this. The cabinet secretary who was already on extension has been given further extension of three months so as to enable the new government to make the selection of the incumbent after the elections. Similarly, the term of the Director of the Intelligence Bureau has been extended till March-end. Another report said that the government was planning to approach the Supreme Court to extend the term of the present Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), who was already on extension of one year beyond his date of retirement, for a further period of two months to enable the new government to select the incumbent.

It is interesting to see that, in this same period, a new high commissioner for India was appointed inthe United Kingdom. A new Governor was appointed in Goa. The fact that it was a caretaker government which was doing all this did not come in the way of these decisions. And another report indicates that hectic legal consultations are being held to examine whether this government could give approval to the Tata Airline project. This clearly shows that, of all the decisions, the most “political” decisions are those which pertain to the highest administrative appointments in the government. It is a point to ponder whether it is a cause for jubilation or for serious worries.

The civil servants are already categorised as mine, yours and theirs. In most state governments, the civil servants now wear their loyalties to the leaders of political parties on their sleeves. Loyalties have now got divided not only among different political parties but within the factions of the same political party as well. With change of each government, there is a wholesale reshuffle of officers so as to appoint in strategic poststhose who are considered close to the ruling party. Several appointments in the Centre too can be unmistakenly traced to the influence of one party or the other.

This phenomenon came to the forefront with the concept of “committed” civil service propounded by Indira Gandhi in early 1970s. This came into prominence once again when the Chandra Shekhar Government came to power in 1990. The Congress, which was doing the back-seat driving, ensured that its nominees were appointed to crucial posts such as the chief election commissioner, directors of the CBI and the Intelligence Bureau. Even the Governor, Reserve Bank of India, and cabinet secretary were changed overnight. Several other secretaries in major ministries met with the same fate.

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In the case of J.C. Jetli v Union of India (1988), the Government of India took the position before the Supreme Court that the post of secretary to Government of India was highly sensitive and the person to be appointed must have full confidence of the government (of theday?). This was quite the antithesis of the principles governing the civil services. In the affidavit filed by the Centre, it was also urged that the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet must have unfettered freedom in selecting officers. Of course, it was not then visualised by the Congress that it will have to go into political wilderness so soon thereafter. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not pass any orders on these crucial issues and dismissed the appeals of both Jetli and the Government of India as, in the meanwhile, Jetli had been promoted as a secretary.

The Central government had convened a conference of the chief ministers in May 1997 to consider issues pertaining to effective and responsive government. One of the proposals was that the state governments should establish civil service boards on the same lines as the Government of India. The model of the civil service board adopted by the Central government has hardly anything to commend itself on this score. Surely, the proposals for givingextension of services of a large number of officers beyond the age of retirement did not emanate from the civil service board. All such decisions are taken on the whims and fancies of the so-called ACC against which there is no appeal to any higher forum. This has inevitably led to large-scale demoralisation in the services.

Yet another new development is equally disconcerting. The earlier attribute of anonymity of civil servants has now become a thing of the past. These are the days of seeking media glare and publicity. Officers now want to be associated as the originators of policies. Jockeying for higher positions and coveted ministries has become a free-for-all.

An equally worrying feature in the recent years has been the influence of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) as a centre of power overriding the normal channels of command and control. Each prime minister starts by propounding that he will keep his office as small and low profile as possible. This remains only on paper. Officers often cleverlyplay the cabinet secretary against the PMO and seek to get the best bargain for themselves.

Clearly there is need for greater transparency in regard to the decisions on how higher positions in the bureaucracy are filled in. There must be clear rule, regulations and guidelines for filling up the higher positions in the government both at the Centre and the states. The present practice of “you tell me the man concerned and I shall tell you the rule” must end. Why can’t the government decide, once for all, for example, whether the posts such as cabinet secretary or Director, Intelligence Bureau, will carry a fixed tenure of two or three year? Why the criteria for officers to be considered eligible for the post cannot be laid down through statutory rules? But this is precisely what the political executive would not like to do.

It is time we decided what kind of civil service we want. If the British model which was adopted in India is no longer considered suitable for our requirements, let us give it upconsciously and look for alternatives. There is nothing sacrosanct about continuing with the British system of civil service. But the present half-way house which contains the worst elements of the several alternatives must be jettisoned as soon as possible.

The writer is a former Union Home Secretary

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