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Mandarins who rule Punjab

TIMES of terrorism brought the ‘‘supercop’’ to Punjab. Times of peace have brought the ‘‘superbureaucrat’...


February 2, 2003

TIMES of terrorism brought the ‘‘supercop’’ to Punjab. Times of peace have brought the ‘‘superbureaucrat’’. Almost a week after the not-so-young, but clearly dashing, Mukul Joshi, IAS officer of the Punjab cadre, was asked to proceed on leave for being found in ‘‘suspicious circumstances’’ with the chief secretary’s wife, Kalpana Ratra, IAS officers across India are debating this new blow to the steel frame. The Haryana police have behaved with apalling crudeness in bursting in on Joshi’s private life and adopting idiotic moral policing. Yet in Punjab, Joshi is talked of as another example of the flamboyant and superbly privileged stereotype of the IAS officer of the Punjab cadre. The UP IAS officer may be emasculated by Mayawati. In Bihar he may be a byword for corruption. But in Punjab, the IAS officer has always been fearsomely macho. He satisfies the Punjabi craving for a Real Man at the top. In the countryside, even an SHO is ‘‘mai-baap’.

‘‘Ten years of president’s rule,’’ says Captain Kanwaljeet Singh, general secretary and spokesperson of the Akali Dal, ‘‘has transformed the Punjab bureaucrat into a czar. He is much more powerful than his counterparts in other states because during the terrorism years, the bureaucracy usurped the role of ruler instead of implementer.’’ When Queen Elizabeth visited Amritsar in 1997, the cabinet minister designated to welcome her expressed fears that the local civil servant may not let the minister even enter

the airport.

Chandigarh, in the foothills of the Shivaliks, is the playground for these plutocrats. Boredom sits in the air of Chandigarh as solidly as the monoliths of officialdom. The city is a monument to the arrogance of Le Corbusier and Nehru who thought they could create urban civilisation by laying out a dementedly planned landscape of block-like buildings, regulation trees and lifeless boulevards. There are excellent facilities for sport but the roads are nameless, residential ‘‘sectors’’ are faceless, indeed brutally hierarchical with the elite occupying the mountain face and the lower classes consigned to the flatland. Walk around Chandigarh at night and you’ll think it’s a film set: only buildings and no people.

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Yet Chandigarh is home to a massive bureaucratic cadre: it is a bureaucrat’s city. No less than three state governments have their capitals here and they lead a Gymkhana club life. At the Chandigarh Golf Club, amidst lush greens and gloved waiters, Secretary sahibs sip glasses of mid-morning beer while their bored beautiful wives trill ‘‘Hellew jee’’ in Victorian Punjabi. Sometimes golf takes up the whole day and the sahibs often don’t go back to office because in Chandigarh the colour of the sunset is the colour of whisky. Booze is the oxygen of the Punjab civil servant and by some estimates Punjab has the same per capita consumption of alcohol as the whole of Australia.

In a small state like Punjab, every DC is reportedly in direct touch with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, neglecting to go through his seniors. A World Bank official tells how a junior officer once openly called his seniors ‘‘corrupt’’.

‘‘There is a complete dilution of hierarchy as a result of political favours,’’ says Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Development and Communication. ‘‘There are mass supercessions. Many meritorious officers are superceded by those who are politically favoured. In a small town awestruck by power, where there is hardly any civil society, the favoured bureaucrat is free to do whatever he wants.’’

Chandigarh’s morality is irritatingly prurient. On Valentine’s Day when Gedi Route (the city’s Lover’s Path) was crowded with young people brandishing red balloons, police beat some of them up. In Punjab University watch and ward staff patrol the gardens to punish kissing or hand-holding.

Yet at night when landlords of Bhatinda and industrial tycoons of Ludhiana come sweeping up in their Pajeros to attend private parties, pot and booze become the reigning deities. Schizophrenic small towns are voyeuristic. The private life of Joshi and Ratra is nobody else’s business. But in Chandigarh, it looms large.

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‘‘When I first came to this department,’’ says Nirmaljeet Singh Kalsi, M. Tech from IIT, now in the IAS and director of the Information Technology Department, ‘‘I had trouble dispelling the notion even among junior officers that they were mere civil servants. Not kings.’’

Kings enslaved by Bacchus. Locals joke that instead of a milk bar in the Secretariat there should be a liquor vend. ‘‘The Chief Minister’s chosen coterie,’’ says a politician, ‘‘are all alcoholics for whom zar, zoru and zamin are the chief virtues of manliness.’’

‘‘The kaka culture of Patiala,’’ says former IAS officer I.S. Bindra, ‘‘is one of extreme decadence. There is plenty of money and nothing to do. People brush their teeth with drink. When bureaucrats start trying to keep up with this set, corruption sets in.’’ A certain divisional commissioner of Patiala was reportedly so intoxicated that on several occasions revenue cases had to be adjourned because the officer in question was too drunk to attend court. A retired IAS officer tells a story of how a senior serving officer was carried out from a party in Chandigarh in the wee hours of the morning. A lady officer saw another senior bureaucrat being supported by his subordinates on his morning walk.

Why do bureaucrats drink to excess? ‘‘There is a deep meaninglessness,’’ says Kumar, ‘‘A bureaucrat today is selling off the state and enriching himself. He must hand over education to panchayats, health to private owners, literacy drives to NGOs, policing to mohalla committees, so what is he left with? A deep sense of hopelessness.’’

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A confidential career planner points to several key weaknesses in the Punjab IAS. These are: declining ethics, technological obsolescence, growing collusion with business houses, lobbying, sell-outs for plum postings, compartmentalisation, divisions, jealousy and infighting.

However the debonair B.R. Bajaj, IAS and husband of Rupan Deol Bajaj, says it is extremely unfair to paint all officers with the Mukul Joshi brush. ‘‘There are many bright and upright officers here. There are graduates from IIT who are making a dramatic difference. But there is no doubt that the administration is becoming personalised. Meritorious officers are being sidelined.’’

Bureaucratic factions have emerged. The fact that an officer as senior as a DSP himself went to ‘‘investigate’’ Joshi on an anonymous ‘‘tip-off’’, that the press was summoned by a ‘‘mysterious’’ phone call and the fact that the IAS have hardly rallied to the side of a brother officer, shows that Joshi, the Chief Minister’s blue-eyed boy, was clearly the victim of his rivals. ‘‘I can’t say anything,’’ pleads Joshi on the phone. ‘‘No comment. There’s an inquiry. There are groups…’’

On the banks of the Sukhna lake, gossip rages. Being Principal Secretary, Excise, Joshi was apparently favouring a certain Pithoragarh-based liquor cartel, thus enraging rival cartels who have allegedly framed him. Rogue MLAs and dodgy advocates huddle in the lobby of the Mount View hotel. There are sordid tales of prostitution rackets, mujras with Russian women and all-night partner-swapping. Civil servants have been known to fund election campaign of MLAs. The PPS scam revealed how many sarkari posts were up for sale. Ministers and bureaucrats are often intermarried. The Chief Minister’s wife, Preneet Kaur, is the daughter of a civil servant. KPS Gill is Preneet Kaur’s uncle. Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, the human rights activist is Amarinder’s uncle and his wife, Daljit Kaur Jaijee, is an IAS officer. Preneet Kaur’s sister is the wife of former IPS officer turned Akali leader Simranjeet Singh Mann. Thus civil servant and politician together form a feudal ruling clan.

Punjab conquers her civil servants. Earnest Leftists from St. Stephen’s step into Patiala and emerge as wine-sodden princes. Scholarly graduates from the London School of Economics step into Chandigarh and acquire the famous libido of the Indus.

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First published on: 02-02-2003 at 12:00:00 am

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