From value-based politics to Swachh Bharat, we keep invoking Gandhi’s name but we have long buried his ideals. Seems it is the turn of Vallabhbhai Patel now. Even as we spend hundreds of crores of rupees on erecting statues in his name, and proudly refer to him as the ‘Steel Man,’ we are gleefully removing the bolts of the very steel frame built. How else can one describe the recent attempt at lateral induction into the All India Services without involving the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC)?
After an election, the elected representatives do not immediately get down to the task of governing the state/country. Victory celebrations, working out all the equations in cabinet formation, fixing a ‘muhurat’ for swearing-in, and ‘vaastu’ changes for the office much precede their taking charge. Even later, they keep themselves busy with party conferences, peoples’ durbars, political intrigues etc. If the governance of the country is still proceeding smoothly, and without interruption, it is because there is, underneath this unsettling exterior, a well-oiled administrative system, or the bureaucracy as it is sometimes disparagingly referred to.
The feeling that the bureaucracy is a stumbling block, and the desire to control it, is as old as the democratic system of governance in India. The politician looks longingly at the American model of patronage, where practically all the entire top rungs of the civil service change with every new government. Those who toe the line of the new dispensation continue, and those who differ find their way back to their original careers. It is perhaps as a step towards this transition that the central government recently advertised vacancies at Joint Secretaries level and invited applications from the open market.
Quite apart from all this, at the very foundation of the process of selection of civil servants is the role of the UPSC in our country. It is an authority mandated by the Constitution of India to function under the control of the President which, over seven decades, has proven its mettle admirably with an excellent track record.
Selecting persons fit for appointment to the various All India and Central Services has been, and continues to be, the primary responsibility of the UPSC. It is only after the process of selection is completed that the Government of India comes into the picture in matters such as allocation of officers to different states, and finalising their inter se seniority, depending on their performance at the training courses conducted at various institutions.
In May this year, a decision was taken to change the extant system according to which the allocation of IAS Officer Trainees to different states is proposed to be done after the completion of the foundation course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) – and not merely the question of cadre allocation and inter se seniority etc., as was the case earlier. One wonders who has the competence and requisite ability to handle the task hitherto performed by UPSC. And now comes lateral entry without involving UPSC.
This columnist is by no means of the view that lateral entries, per se, are bad. The induction of fresh blood at various levels and benefiting from the available market talent by infusing it into the decision-making levels in government is by all means a highly desirable, if not necessary, step. The need to have people who can think out of the box and have the ability to complement the system, especially in areas such as technology, environment, terrorism, use of nuclear weapons etc., cannot be overstated.
Scientifically trained and qualified experts, with up-to-date information and experience in the field concerned, have an important contribution to make to decision-making in such areas. It was precisely for this reason that the system of recruiting ‘Officers on Special Duty’ for acting as consultants in different departments of the Government of India has been there for a long time already. The administration of country has been enriched by many such entries in the past by the entry of many distinguished persons including Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia.
But, this time around, it is not as consultants that people from outside are being recruited, but as Joint Secretaries, and even that, in very crucial and important ministries! And it is not even as though these new entrants coming through the back door as it were need any extensive experience or notable expertise in any particular field. Graduates with 15 years at a “comparable level” experience in the private or public sector company are enough.
What is more, instead of UPSC a “select committee” will make the selection. It is not very clear yet who the members of that committee will be, and with what background or experience. The thing that worries one most is the word “motivated” used to describe a desirable qualification of the proposed entrants, reminding us of the “committed” of Indira Gandhi regime.
Over time, that word came to be understood as those who are committed to the policies of the ruling party. The fear is not unfounded since many institutions that were earlier known for their impartiality, political neutrality and pride of autonomy have, in recent times, been softening their rigid aloofness.
In the past, there were instances where some bigwigs from private sector laterally entered the system, performed specific roles such as privatising the power sector, and went back to their original careers. But now it looks as though such a system is being sought to be legitimised and institutionalised. It is also disturbing that a government which is admittedly committed to the policy of discouraging contract appointments, (for the reason that such appointments tend to disregard the imperatives of reservations, fairness, talent) and transparency in selection, should itself take recourse to such recruitment, and even that, at such crucial levels. The number (10) and contract period (3-5 years) in the announcement may be small, but it might be only a beginning. And successive governments may succumb to the temptation of expanding the scope of this process of recruitment. After all, nominated posts are nothing new to some political parties.
The bureaucracy is commonly described as the “eyes and ears” of the government. It is rather surprising, and unsettling, that the extant system is not party to this ‘reform.’ In fact, all the stakeholders, such as the UPSC, the service associations of the All India Services need to have been included in the process of arriving at that decision. It is indeed unfortunate that it was done unilaterally and through the issue of a mere notification by one department of the Government of India.
One is constrained to observe that the Executive, which our farsighted Constitution-makers placed on a par with the other two wings of the state, namely the Judiciary and the Legislature, should receive such shabby treatment at the hands of those charged with preserving, defending and promoting its interests.
For over seven decades, the system was admired, and applauded, by administrative systems all over the world, for several reasons including the fact that it was the only system that was accorded a special status by the provisions of the country’s Constitution in order that it should remain above temptation or fear. That such an abrupt and casual attempt should be made to deface its image has understandably caused apprehensions in some quarters that the death-knell may have been sounded for one of the most lasting and durable administrative systems in the world.
At a time when the three wings of the State have just begun to discover the rhythm of harmonious relations, thanks to seven decades of coexistence, that one of them should hear the bell tolling is rather distressing, indeed. One would not be surprised if Patel were turning in his grave.