The recent transfer of Subhash Chandra Garg as finance secretary heading the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) led to speculation as to its causes. Transfers/postings and superannuation define the life of a public servant. There is nothing unusual in the appointing authority replacing one officer with another by exercising choice within the constitutional scheme for managing governance. However, the displacement of the architect of a core aspect of the Union Budget (the proposal to raise $10 billion from the sale of sovereign bonds overseas), during the Budget Session of Parliament, is definitely not routine.
Extraneous considerations in effecting transfers/postings, though hardly new to the bureaucracy, are a different ball-game altogether and affect the administration in multiple ways. It is not that those holding key positions are any less competent than others, but merit simply seems incidental in such appointments. What else explains appointments and extensions of retired and retiring bureaucrats to key positions by amending laws and statutory rules? These signal a trust deficit in the mind of the political leadership in availing the services of meritorious and upright serving senior bureaucrats. Not appointing them to key positions has a demoralising effect on administration. It is a clear hint that aspirants for prized assignments should learn the prerequisites — be compliant rather than insightful and courageous.
It is easy to observe how bureaucrats get manipulated by those at the helm of affairs. Therefore, it is increasingly difficult to find civil servants holding key positions purely on the strength of their transformative contributions in engineering and improving effective delivery systems or writing defining policy papers. Rather, the administrative reform and policy domains are shelters for incompetent officers, while those with even a discredited past can be found holding top posts due to their carefully-honed skills to be their masters’ voice. And once in position, nothing holds them back from compromising on public interest in order to secure their own continuance in service. Precedents set by them, unfortunately, become irresistible for fence-sitters looking for role models.
Wrongs committed for mutual gains by bureaucrats rarely get demystified nor are objectively brought to light. In this context, there are examples galore, but let me cite two which illustrate how administrative sanctity is affected in more ways than one, including the risk of creating a wedge between the government and Supreme Court.
At the time, I was joint secretary in the cabinet secretariat. In one instance, even after damaging inputs were brought to the notice of the prime minister and President, a person was appointed as chairman of the ST commission (2010). In another case, when a cadre and batchmate of the successor cabinet secretary was appointed as secretary to the PM (in 2011), a proposal was prompted by the PMO asking the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to place the newly-appointed secretary at 10th position in the Warrant of Precedence above the cabinet secretary.
Upon my return from a short training, when directed to take further action in the above matter, I was surprised to find that relevant norms had been side-tracked. The sole justification supporting the decision to elevate the new aspirant in the Warrant was that his predecessor had enjoyed that position. Approval granted by the cabinet secretary was also contrary to the apex court ruling, that any change in rules or placements in the Warrant that interfered with the position of Chief Justices or judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts could be done only with prior concurrence of the Chief Justice of India. The secretary to the prime minister was positioned at 23 after secretary to President and before other secretaries to the government of India. His re-positioning at number 10 would decidedly affect the Chief Justice and other judges of High Courts, positioned hierarchically at 14 and 17.
The approval overstepped other proposals held long in abeyance. It disregarded the fact that the previous principal secretary to the prime minister had been conferred the status of minister of state by the prime minister and that his placement above cabinet secretary was ad personam to him. Then too, approval had been taken by the incumbent cabinet secretary in the last fortnight of his tenure without seeking concurrence of the chief justice of India. The new secretary had neither been designated principal secretary nor conferred a rank equivalent to minister of state.
I resubmitted the file to the cabinet secretary elaborating the rules and procedures, while highlighting the risks of amending the Warrant without concurrence of the chief justice of India. I was hauled up for re-opening his decision and charged with embarrassing him before his powerful batch-mate. But it was my bounden duty to point out the serious anomalies — amounting to compromising the institutional integrity of the office of cabinet secretary. Thankfully, it was a stitch in time as the Warrant had not been amended yet: The proposal was returned to the MHA for specific views of the home secretary.
After a few days, the proposal was resubmitted by the home secretary with reiterations. I, too, emphatically reiterated the rules regarding positions. In a lighter vein, I told my counterpart in the PMO — who was instrumental in prompting the proposal — that while holding important positions, we should not behave like monkeys occupying tree-tops who consider themselves superior to those on the ground. Obviously, I was the “odd man out”. Some months later, when I was back in my home state of Odisha, I read a news item in The Hindu that the cabinet secretary did not yield to pressure to change the Warrant to place secretary to the Prime Minister above himself! Silence on vital issues and pliability usually get rewarded in terms of extensions, post-retirement assignments etc. Perhaps, it is futile to cry at spilt milk.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 22, 2019 under the title ‘Musical chairs’. The writer is a retired IAS officer and the article in part is an extract from his forthcoming book, Highlander’s Plain Speak