The chief secretary is asked to attend a meeting with the chief minister at well close to midnight, made to sit between two ruling-party MLAs. Within a few minutes, there breaks up an altercation, whereupon the top bureaucrat is allegedly assaulted. He reports the matter to the police, who raid the CM’s house that witnessed the untoward incident and seize the CCTV cameras. Almost three months later, the CM and his deputy are bombarded with dozens of questions about the incident.
If this 2018 incident in Delhi is not bizarre enough, there was more to follow. Officers and staff allegedly assault a minister in the secretariat and then decide to boycott meetings taken by their political bosses. The netas retaliate by issuing subpoenas and warrants from the safe environs of the legislative assembly, forcing the officers to obtain restraining orders from the judiciary. The drama continues to be played out.
To those of us who have served in Delhi before—in fact I was the CS with three different CMs–it is difficult to believe that civil servant-politician relations could ever come to such a pass. It’s true, though—let us accept—that Delhi has enough grounds for such conflicts.
Except for a few years after Independence, Delhi has always been a ‘diarchy’, with governance being shared between the Centre’s representative and the ‘state’ functionaries. Even in day-to-day matters power is shared between these two, with the lieutenant governor, as the Centre’s representative, having near veto powers.
It was way back in the 1990s, the chief executive councilor was replaced with an elected CM in Delhi. Yet, the basic position has remained the same. A system such as this has conflicts built in; it is the sagacity and wisdom of the people who run it that can save the situation. In fact, it has been so—except for the last few years.
Union territories, especially those that have elected legislatures, are diarchies, but conflicts between civil servants and politicians are common elsewhere as well. What’s more, they do not just at the top level. In well-run states with wise and experienced CMs, it is the political functionary that keeps these conflicts within check, but there is always a potential for conflict.
It is widely believed, and rightly so, that it was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who ensured that the civil service be set up in the form in which it is today, with constitutional safeguards to protect their independence and integrity besides carry out merit-based recruitment. Not that the Iron Man didn’t face opposition: he was forced to tell the constituent assembly: “I tell you, do not quarrel with the instruments with which you want to work. If you have done with it and decide not to have them at all, even in spite of my pledged word…,” he threatened to take them with him and go.
The civil service concept in India dates back to ancient times. From Aryan times to the Kautilya’s Arthashastra to Gupta age on to Mughal and British periods and now the modern times they have always been a pillar of strength to these great cultures. So in the modern age they were a great help to the Sardar as he consolidated the unity of India in the first few years of independence.
‘I wish this to be recorded in this house’, he told Parliament on Oct 1, 1949, ‘that during the last two or three years if most of the members of the services had not been serving this country efficiently, practically the union would have collapsed.’ This is true for much of the last seven decades of Independence as well.
Minister and his/her secretary act as two pillars of parliamentary form of government and weakness of any one of them adversely affects the performance of government. Theoretically political and permanent executives perform different roles in government, but in practice their work is often overlapping and it is difficult to differentiate one from the other; so the seeds of conflict are built in.
My first experience with a political leader was within a few years of joining service. In 1971, I was the district magistrate of the UT of Tripura in the Northeast. There was an elected CM and a Lt Governor at the head. I was also in charge of the Bangladesh refugee camps. As part of my job, I had to take VIP visitors around the camps.
I was taking Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, around one of these camps. I was next to her with the CM and the Lt Governor just a few steps away. Having been a student at Santiniketan, Ms Gandhi knew some Bengali but that was of the sophisticated West Bengal style—a little different from that spoken by the refugees who were from Chittagong andDhaka.
The PM asked one refugee ‘Ki Holo?’ (What happened?) and the refugee replied, ‘Punjabira aishe chilo’. Though what the refugee had said was literally ‘Punjabis had come!’, I translated as ‘Pak army had come!’ as close to the real meaning of what he wanted to convey. At this the CM, who was rather poor in English and Hindi, rushed up and admonished me, saying, ‘Don’t mislead the prime minister! He has said Punjabis!” Ms Gandhi looked daggers at him: “He means Punjabis of the Pak army and not Punjabis like him!’
What a boost to a young budding civil servant! I always wonder that with politicians like Ms Gandhi at the top, relations between civil servants and politicians can seldom be muddied. You might say exceptions like Ms Gandhi just prove the rule, but I have dozens of such incidents to narrate.
To take only one and that too similar to what happened recently to the CS in Delhi, I will narrate a similar experience with a former CM of Delhi, now the foreign minister. She called me at nearly 10 o’clock at night and wanted me to come to a particular police station to which she had decided to make a surprise visit. Police is a subject reserved in Delhi for the Lt Governor and the CM should only butt in with his knowledge and approval. When I told her this, she understood and exempted my presence and said she would visit the police station anyway. The point is not what she did, but that she understood and accepted the position of the CS.
It is such an understanding that has administration going in the country. I hope for a correction of the situation in the capital, where the bureaucracy and the political leadership continue to be at loggerheads. Otherwise, it will be a sad day for the capital. It is important that sagacity and wisdom prevail on both sides. The current paralysis in administration in the capital can end with both parties giving up their rigid stance.
(The writer is a former Chief Secretary, Delhi, and Secretary to the Government of India.)