February 18, 2020
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Officers Under Siege

The chief secretary's ouster has irked the state bureaucracy and focused attention on its strained ties with the Sena-BJP government

Officers Under Siege
Sure, Sharad Upasani seems to be the ideal bureaucrat. Grey hair, safari suit, spectacles and a yen for playing strictly by the 'conduct rules'. Some call him the perfect 'yes-man', but apparently that was not good enough for the Maharashtra chief secretary. When the government decided to replace him with Bombay Port Trust (BPT) Chairman Dinesh Afzalpurkar, Upasani went on a three-month leave, waiting for others to draw attention to the war between the bureaucracy and the Shiv Sena-BJP government.

Upasani's case, as a senior bureaucrat put it, is the "symptom'' of a disease that is "whittling the entrails of government''. It focuses on a bureaucracy used to dealing with Congress regimes since Independence and which is now coming unstuck with a new order. When the Shiv Sena-BJP came to power, the most troubled tribe, besides Congressmen, were the bureaucrats. Those who thought they would do a Humphrey Appleby ( Yes, Minister ) found the new ministers both inexperienced and suspicious. "Besides being new to the job, they are also suspicious that we are the push buttons of the Congress. With a few exceptions, most of them have had no exposure to public life. Their suspicion bars them from relying on our advice,'' says a bureaucrat who was transferred soon after the new government took over.

The move to replace Upasani coincided with the resignation of Avinash Dharmadhikari, deputy secretary to Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, and came at a time when another senior bureaucrat Aruna Bagchee went on leave. It also led to protests from former civil servants who expressed their displeasure in a missive to the chief minister. "Basically what we needed to make public is to whom the chief secretary is accountable: to the chief minister or to an extra-constitutional authority,'' says K.B. Srinivasan, a signatory to the letter. Srinivasan, a former state chief secretary, decried the appointment of Afzalpurkar, saying an officer "under a cloud'' would create more problems for the government than it already has. There is a CBI inquiry pending against the BPT chairman.

"To brand the senior-most officers as being aligned to any one political party or political leader will undercut the system, ''says the letter from senior bureaucrats, including former cabinet secretary B.G. Deshmukh. It goes on to say: "The phenomenon of the emergence of a dominant extra-constitutional authority has happened at the Centre as well as in several states. It is well known that this has had an

adverse impact on the smooth working of the administration. The emergence of such an extraneous centre of power and authority in such a visible manner is happening for the first time in our state.'' The letter, of course, refers to the local power centre remote-controlling the government: Sena chief Bal Thackeray.

At home since January 17, Upasani says, "I don't know what I will do next. I am due to retire in September. I had health problems and felt that this was the time to take all the leave I could.'' Conduct rules, as he calls it, do not permit him to talk. Upasanipays little heed to criticism of people like former municipal commissioner S.S. Tinaikar who wanted to know why others should protest while he remained silent. Sources in the bureaucracy say that intrigues in the Thackeray household and external pressures finally pushed Joshi to make a decision he tried hard to stall. Joshi himself made light of the matter: "Upasani had sought leave on health grounds, Bagchee's had nothing to do with the government and Dharmadhikari had made his position clear.''

Joshi's former deputy secretary agrees. "It is absolutely wrong to connect Upasani's decision with mine. The only link is coincidence. I am quitting for higher reasons,'' said Dharmadhikari, shortly after he put in his papers. A two-page statement clarified his position: "I have finally decided to listen to the dictates of my inner voice and my conscience which ask me to resign from service and join public life.''

The BJP is already dangling a ticket before Dharmadhikari. Though he is a self-professed activist, seeking higher callings, Dharmadhikari's action has not helped the government's image one bit. And when noted social worker Anna Hazare goes on a fast-unto-death to get Upasani reinstated, the government-bureaucracy row cannot be ignored. As Tinaikar said: "If a bunch of former bureaucrats protests, the government may ignore it. But when Anna Hazare fasts, they better sit up and take notice.'' 

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