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The Highest Bidda

As the Prasad extension shows, rules lose out to political expediency in the babudom sweepstakes

The Highest Bidda
P.Anil Kumar
The Highest Bidda
Last week, members of the higher echelons of the Indian bureaucracy were squirming like they have not done in the recent past. The reason: an unprecedented change in rules to accommodate serving Cabinet Secretary T.R. Prasad, 60, in his post for an additional two years. By making a special case for one individual officer, the government has created room for future cabinet secretaries to cite Prasad's case as a precedent. Incidentally, the superannuation age for all government officials has been fixed at 60 by the Fifth Pay Commission.

There is more to this decision than technical nitty-gritty. The decision has outraged the bureaucracy on two counts. One, now no one from the 1964 batch of the ias will be in the running for the top job. (The '65 batch has home secretary Kamal Pande, L.K. Advani's man to take over from Prasad.) Two, analysts say it's the most blatant bid thus far to politicise the bureaucracy.

Says a bureaucrat who was a contender till law minister Arun Jaitley, at a special briefing last fortnight, announced the cabinet's intent to keep Prasad—a highly-rated officer in his own right—in office: "For people like me, it means my retirement papers have practically been signed. For others, it's the crudest invitation to officials to continue in their posts, if they can organise the political muscle needed."

Says former cabinet secretary P.K. Kaul: "There has to be a uniform policy. Second, if the government plans to treat all services as equal, then what is the rationale behind this move? In a structured service like the ias, there can be no discretionary quota."

For a political party that had for years attacked the then ruling Congress for promoting a "committed bureaucracy" and favouring some officers over others, the road travelled by the bjp-led nda reveals the inherent contradictions the system throws up: it is one thing to make claims while in the Opposition and quite another to follow it up when you are in the hot seat, particularly in an era of coalition politics.

It also portends that alliance politics would continue to dictate such decisions in the nda combine in the days to come. Much newsprint has already been devoted to Andhra Pradesh chief minister and tdp chief Chandrababu Naidu's role in securing Prasad his extension. Political sources claim that of all the nda allies, Naidu is most keen to have his own men in key civilian posts since he understands that development projects can move only if the bureaucracy is with you. And he has 29 MPs to back his claim. To make that movement smoother, nothing like a 'Telugu bidda' and in that scheme of things, a cabinet secretary could be regarded as the man who holds the key to a government structure known for its vastness, choking red tapism as well as extreme complexities.

With Prasad from the 1963 batch set to continue, others are obviously crying foul. That in itself is nothing extraordinary—after all, not everyone can become a cabinet secretary. But several high-profile secretaries who were being referred to as potential 'cabsecs' are pulling out all stops to somehow get back into the reckoning. Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal has reportedly got in touch with the prime minister to press for the candidature of finance secretary Ajit Kumar. Badal is doubly peeved as another Punjab cadre officer, S. Boparai, also in the reckoning, has gone back to the state. Others left out include planning secretary N.C. Saxena, welfare secretary Asha Das and former urban development secretary Kiran Agrawal.Says one source: "It is for the first time that the country could have had a woman cabinet secretary, going in line with what has happened in the foreign office."

To be sure, it's not the first time that a cabinet secretary has been given an extension. Krishnaswamy Rao Saheb was given the job by Morarji Desai in 1978 but Indira Gandhi retained him. Later, S.S. Grewal, B.G. Deshmukh, T.N. Seshan, P. Rajgopal, Surendra Singh, T.S.R. Subramaniam et al have all got short-term extensions for varying terms. "Extensions," says a government spokesman, "themselves do not mean much. After all, the cabinet secretary is an official who has to have the complete confidence of the prime minister and it is his prerogative to appoint whoever he likes. Questioning that isn't really fair." In other words, it is acknowledged now that personal reputation and equation have a far more important role to play than seniority. "If seniority were to become the only criterion," adds the spokesman, "then you could have an incumbent who is no good, sits on files, does not take orders easily, is not willing to take risks. No prime minister would want that to happen."

Agreed. But the one significant difference in Prasad's case is that the rules of retirement have been changed for one officer's benefit. And the nda government's handling of the situation has been far from sophisticated. At his briefing, Jaitley said the cabinet had decided to amend service rules to "create an enabling provision" to give the government powers to grant extensions to the cabinet secretary "for such period as the government considers appropriate but subject to the condition that the extension would be up to the cabinet secretary reaching the age of 62". But officials saw it differently. Their understanding is that the cabinet had empowered the government to grant the cabinet secretary a maximum term of two years, the retirement day notwithstanding.

If Jaitley is correct, then Prasad retires in July 2003. If not, the cabinet secretary's term will end in October 2002. As yet, there has been no official clarification on the subject but according to one official, an announcement is expected 'soon', once the prime minister signs the minutes of the cabinet deliberations.

And Vajpayee had better be cautious since some ministers objected to the move at the meeting itself, saying it would set a bad precedent among other services. Demands for extension in other apex posts such as chief secretaries in states could also rise. The Supreme Court, in view of the political sensitivities of the cbi chief's job, had suggested a tenurial assignment. The court felt a tenure would give continuity to the incumbent—after all, implementing policy takes years, not months—and would give the person concerned the chance to leave his or her mark on office, as some officers have done in the past. Already, there is talk that the raw chief too needs a fixed tenure.

The government's decision is also strange in the light of the fact that the Administrative Reforms Committee set up by the Morarji Desai regime in 1978—of which Vajpayee was a part—had proposed a three-year term for the cabinet secretary, on account of just these factors. But clearly, like so many proposals from so many different committees, political expediency would continue to be the clinching factor.
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