This is the second in the series of articles titled “The Way Forward” following “When and How Did It All Go Wrong?”
Election Commission is under fire. In the first of its kind, the Chief Justice of Madras High Court made the following observation during a hearing:
“You are the only institution that is responsible for the situation today. No action against political parties taking rallies despite every order of the court. Your election commission should be put on murder charges probably.”
Even though the Supreme Court subsequently held that such observations were not in order, it was indeed a reflection on the functioning of this august institution.
What prompted the Election Commissioners to act in a manner that there is an all-around condemnation of their partisan attitude and ineffective management of COVID in states where they were “running” the administration on account of elections?
There must have been a number of factors and fear was one of them. This fear was on account of what happened to one of the Election Commissioners, Ashok Lavasa. Ashok would have taken over as Chief Election Commissioner had he chosen to stay back and not joined the Asian Development Bank.
However, Ashok ‘fell from grace’ as he had the ‘temerity’ to express an independent opinion that did not suit the government. Hence, his family members were hounded. Ashok chose the safer path of no-confrontation.
The cases against his family members were closed. He left for the ADB and the next in seniority has now become the Chief Election Commissioner. The message, however, was loud and clear. Toe the line or else.
What happened not very long ago in CBI in the case of two ‘meticulously selected’ IPS officers to head the CBI is another case in point. Rupak Dutta, an IPS officer with impeccable credentials and with a long tenure in the CBI was inexplicably not considered for the post of Director and shifted and attached to the Home Ministry.
Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana were brought to the CBI after due clearance by Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) but the former was dumped on the basis of the report of the same CVC.
Was competence and integrity not the criteria to select officers on these critical and sensitive posts? Shouldn’t someone be held accountable for clearing officers who allegedly had “dubious” credentials? Or did they become “dubious” subsequently? Much worse is the fact that Alok Verma who refused to toe the line continues to be hounded.
Both Alok Verma and Ashok Lavasa were considered to be honest and efficient but they perhaps didn’t turn out to be pliable. They are not the only ones that faced the music for their ‘independent’ thinking but these have come to be known because of their profile.
Many Secretaries and other officers in the Central Government who were selected after due diligence (that included 360-degree evaluations) were shifted from their assignments and some have been unceremoniously repatriated because they refused to fall in line or were found inconvenient.
Iqbal Singh Chahal, currently Municipal Commissioner, Mumbai who is winning accolades for his stellar role in handling the COVID crisis, was chased out of the Central Government.
Vrinda Sarup, with huge experience in the school education sector, was shifted out suddenly. J S Deepak, the then Secretary, Telecom, was attached to the Ministry of Commerce in an overnight order while he was representing the country at an international conference in Barcelona.
Why was C K Mishra shifted out of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare? And if he wasn’t good enough, how did he end up getting the Ministry of Environment and Forest? Why was the most experienced officer in school education, Reena Ray who was posted as Secretary, School Education suddenly repatriated to her cadre?
These and many more such officers were selected after due diligence. Then, why this game of musical chairs? None of them protested. They didn’t because they can’t protest. It is not in the nature of civil servants to protest.
Moreover, they can’t afford to incur the wrath of those in power. They are also aware that if they dared to protest, no one will support them. Contrary to the general perception, IAS officers do not protect each other. They protect their own individual turf.
There are exceptions though as was in the case of Mr Harish Chandra Gupta when some serving officers chose to take up his case risking their own future. (A chapter, “Fighting it Out” in my recently released book, “Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant” outlines the details). A number of officers are also thick-skinned. It doesn’t affect them even if they are pilloried in public.
Fear is one of the major factors that determine the behaviour of a civil servant but certainly not the only one. The other factor is the ‘reward’. A clever government uses it very well.
Every government has ‘misused’ this power of ‘rewards’ but some have mastered this art. How else do you explain rewarding the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who faced with sexual harassment case with Rajya Sabha seat?
The sexual harassment complaint was mysteriously closed through a compromise. (One wonders how can there be a compromise in such a case. If there were wrong allegations made against the Chief Justice, the person should have been hauled up and, if the allegations were correct, action should have been taken against the Chief Justice).
The concerned Chief Justice had presided over certain sensitive cases and given judgements in favour of the government. Civil servants are routinely rewarded through post-retirement jobs.
Even those holding constitutional posts are made ‘weak’ through such carrots. It is very difficult to resist these temptations and the ‘giver’ knows this weakness of the ‘taker’.
If the spirit of 2014 has to be revived, as it should be, this ‘hounding’ and ‘rewarding’ will have to stop. Instead of pliability and allegiance, merit, efficiency and honesty, have to become the prime criteria of posting officers.
It was so in 2014 when officers were selected purely on merit. And, they delivered. There have to be persons who not only have their own mind but have the courage to speak their mind out.
This is not to say that there aren’t outstanding officers in the government now. There indeed are. There are extremely capable officers amongst the present crop of Secretaries to the Government of India. However, the ecosystem has to be such wherein officers can speak freely and frankly.
The spirit that pervaded during 2014-16 (so evident during the quarterly tea sessions hosted by the PM) needs to be revived. The officers will have to be encouraged to speak and ‘rewarding’ will have to beyond allegiance and pliability.
And, follow the age-old dictum on leadership: Praise in public, criticize in private. To the “awardees” and potential “awardees”, it doesn’t matter because some of them have already sold their souls for such “awards” but to a silent majority, it does. Nothing could be as debilitating as public humiliation.
First Published: IST