Used to dealing with a weak executive, some officers have not been able to grasp the reality of a strong political leadership
“You will soon be talking to a new foreign secretary,” said prime minister Rajiv Gandhi announcing the sacking of the incumbent at a televised press conference in 1986. Foreign secretary AP Venkateswaran was a distinguished diplomat with 36 years’ service but was not getting along with Gandhi on various issues. Hence the swift and clinical retribution. Venkateswaran resigned immediately.
Some young officers of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) tried to protest but it all fizzled out. That was perhaps the last time a prime minister was seen asserting his office’s strength openly, demonstrably and most arrogantly. Gandhi could afford to flaunt the power of the highest executive office of the country. He was heading a government with 404 Congress MPs in the Lok Sabha.
Since then the relationship between the political executive and the bureaucracy has undergone a sea change. Delhi has witnessed only coalition governments – even a minority one – with all allies hankering for the spoils. With the prime minister on the back foot, everybody rushed in to fill the power vacuum. Thirty years of striking political compromises and managing contradictions took the sheen of off the prime minister’s authority so much that the counter to Rajiv’s public display of the arrogance of power came from son Rahul who in 2013 tore apart a copy of the ordinance cleared by prime minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet.
What was again in full public display was the diminished power of the prime minister and the executive.
In these three decades, the bureaucracy seems to have become used to working with weak and accommodating political executives, except for a few interregnums. Take for instance the trend of union ministers picking as their private secretaries officers known less for their ‘yes minister’ conduct but for their ability to mobilise industrialists for payoff. That more and more Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officials are being inducted as personal staff is a testimony to the changing remit of their jobs and their growing importance.
The trouble is that the bureaucracy is yet to take note of the fact that the BJP, leading today’s government, is not on the back foot thanks its numbers.
It is in this context that the ongoing feud among various government agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) is quite pertinent. At the same time, the standoff between the government and the RBI is also a spin-off from an emerging political culture where the bureaucracy has developed a proclivity to lead, rather than advise, the political executive.
Consider the example of CBI director Alok Verma who is reported to have stated on oath that his deputy Rakesh Asthana, along with Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Modi and an officer of the PMO, conspired to implicate Lalu Prasad to further their political objectives. Verma claims he was conscious of this political objective (Nitish leaving Lalu and joining the NDA bandwagon) and hence was “cautious”.
That is an absurd formulation from the head of an investigative agency whose job is to probe the crime and not its political ramifications. His position in the entire case reads like that of a politician, not a police investigative officer. That his political proclivities have taken better of him was evident when he gave audience to Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan who demanded a probe into the Rafale deal. Never in the history of the CBI had a director ever lent himself to such political manipulation as Verma did.
Verma was not alone. He was ably assisted by his juniors within the agency and his counterpart in ED, Karnal Singh, who launched a tirade against the finance ministry. In one of the most brazen attempts, an officer with dubious track record shot off even a letter to finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia accusing him of hobnobbing with racketeers. Adhia, known for his impeccable integrity and honesty, found himself needlessly embroiled in this free-for-all.
The way Verma’s deputy, Rakesh Asthana, was in open revolt of his boss was also unprecedented leaving the government no option but to bring the full might of the executive to bear upon the warring sides.
With the RBI which has been gradually assuming an adversarial role with the government, the context is different but the bureaucracy-executive equations are not. Take the manner in which Raghuram Rajan scoffed at prime minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign and commented on issues that were related more to politics than to economics. After the 2014 Lok Sabha election, he was consistently projected as the sole saviour of the Indian economy by a section of media and intelligentsia. When Rajan’s term was not renewed, this section cried blue murder and declared that the economy would be ruined.
The Modi government firmly asserted its right to choose Rajan’s successor and brought in Urjit Patel in a seamless transition. But the legacy of the past seemed to have infected Patel who seems to be more eager to play the role of the mentor to the finance ministry than an enabler. Once again, the RBI’s collective memory of dealing with weak governments in the past appears to have played a critical role in determining Patel’s conduct. But he found a government that was not going to be shy of letting him know calls the shots.
What is particularly disturbing is the manner in which the Congress in general and its president Rahul Gandhi in particular have been encouraging insurrection within the bureaucracy to subvert the Modi government. Look at his tweets referring to Patel’s spine or his utterances on the government move to send Verma on leave and its alleged connection with the Rafale deal. Rahul has been desperately doing politics by other means – fomenting trouble within the government. Some bureaucrats whose careers progressed in the three-decade-old culture of dealing with weak political executives are falling victims to his political chicanery.
There is an uncanny similarity in this strategy with that of UPA government’s attempt to topple the Modi government in Gujarat in the past. During Modi’s stint as the chief minister, the Congress provoked rebellion within the state bureaucracy and encouraged a section of IAS and IPS officers to turn against him. Modi not only successfully foiled that attempt but also emerged much stronger. It is clear he will put down such attempts with all the authority that the office of the prime minister of India brings with it.
The bureaucracy needs to quickly learn to re-set itself to work with a strong political executive and act as an enabler instead of assuming a larger-than-life role for itself.
[This comment has appeared on FirstPost.com in a slightly different version.]