The midnight drama at the Delhi chief minister’s house, wherein the chief secretary (CS) was reportedly roughed up by two MLAs in the CM’s presence is a first in the annals of the civil service. One has heard of humiliation of officers, but seldom involving the chief secretary. The CS is not an ordinary bureaucrat. He is the head of the civil administration in the state or union territory, an officer who represents not just his own service but all services within the civil administration. The buck stops with him no matter which department is involved. His word in sorting out contending arguments and dissension among officers is final.
Much more than, say, a secretary to the Government of India, the CS has to show leadership while overseeing that public interest is preserved in letter and spirit. It is his duty to run an efficient administration and give the CM fair and impartial advice. It is not for nothing that the CS has a commanding presence in the administration.
Because there can be no democracy and participatory governance without the rule of law, the authority to administer has to be integral to governance. Which is why the symbols of authority are given to every CS, in states and UTs. In Delhi, the CS has an even more challenging role — he has to report simultaneously to the CM and the lieutenant governor (LG) and walk a tightrope between the vision and concerns of both, even when they are not always on the same page.
To do this every day is not easy, but because of the immense authority vested in the CS to organise and get things done, it is not impossible either. But it will work only as long as both the CM and the LG understand and respect the role of the CS. If that is whittled down, the tremors will be felt across the services. An insult to the CS is seen as an insult to the official brotherhood.
Delhi is different in many ways. In the states, the CS is invariably the choice of the CM and there is understanding and mutual trust between them. If the CS is unbending or difficult, it is easy to make a change quietly and elegantly. In the UT cadre or the AGMUT cadre as it is officially known, that is not so. By and large, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the authority controlling the cadre serving the NCT of Delhi as well as Goa, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Daman and Diu, Puducherry, Chandigarh and the Andaman and Nicobar administration, does not stand in the way of the CM having a CS of his choice. Having said that, the officer knows his career is largely to be decided by the MHA and not by the CM of Delhi or elsewhere.
Therefore, it is not necessary for the CS to always find a way to meet the demands of the CM, which is a point of difference with other state cadres. CMs recognise this and make the best use of what they have been given.
Even so, anyone who becomes a CS hasn’t reached the position to pick fights or cause obstruction. Successful projects bring their own sense of achievement and leading a team of officers and staff, including doctors, engineers, teachers, inspectors and clerks, brings its own zeal to succeed. So no CS would thwart good ideas which are in public interest out of pique or just to score brownie points with the central government. On the contrary, an achievement is as much recognised as the effort of a chief secretary’s leadership as of the political executive.
Sheila Dikshit and then LG of Delhi, Vijai Kapoor — one a Congress CM and the other an appointee of the NDA government — succeeded in bringing the unit area of house tax, the new Cooperative Societies Act, construction of 42 flyovers and privatisation of the power sector despite standoffs and differences. The system, then and now, is far from ideal. But in whatever way you look at it, Delhi will continue to be the seat of the central government unless the capital of the country is relocated.
Until that happens, the NCT of Delhi will be governed in the truncated manner. But the beauty lies in the fact that if there is a will to function, it is possible for right-minded people to work together.
That brings one to the midnight altercation or assault, depending on whose version gets established. If the CS was called at midnight, it should have been a matter of criticality — something which could not wait. One cannot imagine that the release of an advertisement or rations to poor people, howsoever important, could not have waited till the following morning.
It is most unusual for a CS to be summoned, and that too repeatedly, without an agenda. Indeed if there was an agenda, the CS should have taken the senior-most officer dealing with the subject with him. That he went alone adds to the impression that this was an agenda-less meeting in the presence of 11 MLAs and perhaps, an effort to overawe the officer, a reprehensible tactic certainly.
Chaos and bedlam at the top will shake the load-bearing pillars — the political executive and bureaucracy — on which the edifice of governance rests. The two pillars need to hold the structure together, or else one would develop cracks and bring the other down with it or lead to a go-slow which would prevent doing things that matter the most. And that includes all the services that one expects a government to deliver efficiently and prudently. It is an administrative breakdown that must be quelled for the sake of the citizens of Delhi.