“Too much of Democracy” statement by Amitabh Kant took the media by the storm. I also couldn’t believe it and my first reaction was that it was a misquote. However, soon the video wherein he had made that statement came to light. What also came to light was the context in which such a statement was made. He himself went on to clarify his statement. I cannot recall any instance in my entire carrier when a statement by a serving civil servant led to so much reaction in the media and the public.
Perhaps it was on account of the visibility that Amitabh Kant enjoys in his capacity as Chief Executive Officer, NITI Ayog, a pretty high-profile organisation itself. I have known Amitabh Kant in my professional capacity and I have absolutely no doubt that he is truly wedded to democratic norms. However, public statements by all civil servants (perhaps every high-profile individual) stand the risk of being misconstrued. Hence, it is always better to be cautious about what gets stated in the public domain, especially in the super-charged environment where-in anything can be interpreted to suit one’s convenience.
I recall having gone through a similar situation when occupying the hot seat of Coal Secretary, Government of India in 2015 though the environment then was not as charged as it is today.
‘Why to blame only netas, 5Cs also hinder decision making’: Coal Secretary. This was the headline of a leading daily that generated a tsunami of reactions. Perhaps almost everyone felt it, but no one had the courage to state it. It all began with small comments that I made on Facebook and Twitter:
‘Pace of development is not so much impacted by the dishonest as by inhibiting factors that prevent the honest from taking decisions.’
This is what I truly believed, and it went viral on the net though it was still a storm in the teacup. However, the subsequent explanation in a closed personal group on the Facebook created a tsunami as it impacted the holy cows of governance in the country:
‘We very conveniently blame politicians for all the ills. However, isn’t it true that 5 Cs (namely CBI, CVC, CAG, CIC and Courts) contribute substantially in creating an inhibiting environment for quick and effective decision making that impact development? Ironically all these institutions are not occupied by politicians but by civil servants.’
There was a deluge of reactions, almost all of it in support of the aforementioned statement. An ex-Cabinet Secretary remarked, ‘Anil Swarup is spot on. To make matters worse the C’s have begun playing more and more to the gallery in the last few years.’ A Secretary, known to be close to the powers commented, ‘You have made very bold statement on FB. Kudos!’ Another Secretary was equally forthright, ‘A truly bold statement, Anil. Cheers! You are changing the images of ‘bureaucrat’.’ An ex-ambassador to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) quipped, ‘Well done, Anil. You have hit the nail squarely on the head.’
A retired IPS officer who had worked with the CBI agreed with the statement, ‘With my fairly long experience of CBI, I fully endorse the view of Anil.’ Another IPS officer, heading a central paramilitary force, also commented, ‘He’s correct…We have often discussed this point. Ours is the only country where the aforesaid entities, rightly called commentators, are considered more important than players! Or, put differently, conductors of post-mortem more important than the doctor carrying out the diagnosis.’
Interestingly, one of the Cs mentioned was the CAG. An Ex-DG, CAG went on to congratulate me for raising the issue, ‘Congratulations ... for raising pertinent issues hindering good and fast decisions in Government.’
Some cabinet ministers rang me up to congratulate me for raising the issue.
I had flagged an issue appropriately while I was still in service. Some of the persons manning these institutions had gone overboard to ‘play to the gallery’, killing initiative amongst those they left behind in the civil service and rendering decision making increasingly more difficult. No wonder governance has suffered and continues to suffer from the devastation caused by a CAG in the not-so-distant past and the likes of him. This was palpable in the Ministry of Coal where I sought to construct something after the massive destruction caused by the demolishing squad.
I had absolutely no qualms about the initial statement I made with regard to the factors inhibiting the pace of development. I have always believed that without recognising the inhibiting factors, correctives steps cannot be taken effectively. Hence, there was no question of retracting or modifying what I said because I truly believed in what I said. There could, however, be a legitimate question about my making subsequent statement/clarification wherein I identified the agencies that were indeed inhibiting decision making. There could be a point of view that the subsequent statement/explanation could have been avoided as it embarrassed some of those occupying these “haloed” institutions.
However, the statement that created a “Tsunami” was not made in the public domain but in a private one. It somehow got leaked. But there was a lesson for me. For a civil servant, nothing is private. Hence, I chose to be careful subsequently even in my private communications. However, it didn’t deter me from expressing my point of view in every file that came to me. All this was purely “official”, nothing private or public.
—Anil Swarup is a former coal secretary, the government of India, and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)
First Published: IST