With many top posts going to specialists from the allied services and the induction of a fresh batch of lateral entrants, the civil services are undergoing their biggest transformation since independence
PR Ramesh | 22 Oct, 2021
IN THE 19TH CENTURY, BRITISH MILITARY OFFICER Fendall Currie observed about the legions manning the Imperial Service in India that the “secretariatwallahs” kept the district officer “tied to his desk writing voluminous reports which nobody ever reads, and compiling returns and statistics of hopeless inutility.” Currie continued, “Ridiculous practices developed: letters were placed in docket covers and their contents were summarised at greater length than the original: documents were printed only to be sent a few yards down the corridor.” Fixation with form, rather than substance, and preoccupation with trivia were rampant. A secure career in the civil services of the Raj and long years of low competition in both talent and new ideas meant stagnation unsuited for its evolving political economy. Dotting the Is and crossing the Ts had become an obsession. Currie’s observations could have been as much about the working of the modern-day Indian civil services as on the moribund administrative machinery of the British Raj. More than a century-and-a-half later, speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021 at the launch of his book Method in the Madness: Insights from My Career as an Insider-Outsider-Insider, Parameswaran Iyer, among the revered civil servants of New India, emphasised how crucial competition is to incentivise talent and place a premium on new ideas among civil servants. His book, rich in anecdotes and tracing his journey in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and out of it, as a globe-trotting technocrat working on water and sanitation, and then back in India to head the world’s largest sanitation revolution and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme, the Swachh Bharat Mission, is a study in management, one that advocates domain specialisation for young IAS officers. “Competition is very important for progress…competition between different states motivated Collectors at the district level to do a thorough job in implementing the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan across all states. Competition was important because it helped everyone progress. But at the same time, this programme was more about changing the behaviour and not just about constructing toilets.” Iyer was hired by the Indian Government as a lateral entrant and put in charge of the world’s largest hygiene and sanitation-related behavioural change programme, a mission aimed at ending open defecation in the world’s second most populous country. This was one of Modi’s most successful programmes.
RINGING IN THE NEW
It may have been sheer coincidence. Or it may not have been. But on the very day the sale of the ailing Air India to Tata Sons was announced, the Union Government inducted a fresh burst of energy and ideas—through the second batch of lateral recruits—into the country’s hidebound bureaucratic ranks.
Together, the moves unambiguously signalled Modi’s intent to rejuvenate ‘governance’ and ‘administration’ by aligning them with the country’s new and rapidly transmuting realities and priorities. It was consistent with his perspective that in the first term, delivery of basic and essential services had to reach all as part of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, the core of Modi’s politics. In the second term, realising the minimum government, maximum governance mantra was to ensure the last-mile reach of core infrastructure to fulfil the aspirations of citizens. The Modi Government’s decision to offload Air India, the national air carrier, to a private player formally buried a Nehruvian legacy—that of according the commanding heights of the economy to the public sector. It also sent a strong signal that the Government was no longer prioritising running businesses; its priority was governance. And to do that, rebooting an outdated and inefficient administrative machinery, to learn new ideas and skills and implementing these in a speedy and timebound manner on the ground, was imperative so as to facilitate the efficient delivery of public services to citizens. Cross-cadre talent scouting and lateral hiring have become a hallmark of the Modi mission to rejuvenate the Indian civil service, cutting across the IAS and allied services, including the Indian Revenue Service (IRS), Indian Forest Service (IFoS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS), besides top institutions such as the IITs and IIMs.
As with the decision to offload the burdensome public carrier Air India, Modi’s initiative, through the three farm laws, was informed by a vision to revolutionise the moribund agriculture sector in a fast-changing national and global economic environment, pro-actively involving the private sector and specialised domain-knowledge of technocrats. It was meant to rapidly ring in modern on-farm and off-farm global best practices in processing, storage, trading and employment, expanding and amplifying allied sectors with a view to both buttressing the core farm sector and modernising it to leverage scale to exponentially hike productivity.
Modi’s objectives for Mission Karmayogi were clear. And despite the expected pushback from the IAS, it had a very sound basis. The stagnation among civil servants rendered them ineffective in handling complex issues and problems thrown up by the fast-changing political economy. The mission was to rid the civil services, especially the IAS, of the critical institutional inertia it has been suffering for decades, and in the process hampering progress. Given the rapid and complex changes in every sector of the economy and society, bureaucrats were increasingly irrelevant as key to the delivery of essential public services but had to develop into efficient facilitators of such services through the private sector, the non-government sector and civil society. At the current stage of India’s socio-economic development, a rethink on the role of the civil services in the implementation of state policy was necessary.
The Government’s thinking on resetting the civil services had a firm foundation. In 2005, the Second ARC (Administrative Reforms Commission) had suggested an institutionalised and transparent process both at the Central and state levels. (The first ARC had suggested specialisation in the IAS way back in 1965.) In 2003 and 2004, the Surinder Nath and Hota committees had echoed this. Then, in 2017, NITI Aayog recommended the entry of personnel at the middle and senior management levels in the Central government. The lateral entrants were to be inducted to the Central Secretariat which otherwise enlisted only career bureaucrats from the All India Services and Central Civil Services.
The UPSC’s second advertisement seeking applications for the posts of joint secretary and director in Central government departments was, consequently, aimed at allowing lateral entry into the government secretariat through a work contract of three to five years, without any special quotas. The move has its origins in 2018 in the Modi Government’s decision to appoint experts from outside government to positions of joint secretary in different ministries and departments at the level of deputy secretary and director.
The first lateral appointments in the civil services were made on August 30th, 2018. At the time, eight recruits joined the services. In the second tranche of such recruitments, 31 have been selected. Currently, there are 393 director-level posts, 240 joint secretary-level posts, 41 additional secretary-level posts and 24 secretary-level posts in the non-IAS cadre. And there are 53 director-level posts, 133 joint secretary-level posts, 107 additional secretary-level posts and 105 secretary-level posts in the IAS.
The only Indian to have topped the combined Indian Civil Service (ICS) exams in its history—between 1855 and 1947—was KPS Menon in 1922 from Allahabad. By that year, ICS exams to fatten the bureaucracy of the British Raj with an Indian component were held in both London and Allahabad, before the Indian venue moved to Delhi. Over time, the University of Allahabad, established in 1887, came to earn the moniker “Oxford of the East” through its 13-decade history that had thrown up many notable bureaucrats who towered over post-Independence India, until its subsequent decline. The mightiest of the ICS, which was for most of the 19th century known as the Imperial Civil Service, comprised the elite governing class of the British in India, ruling over 300 million people. The elite members, until the 20th century when the ruling class decided to expand its numbers, were never more than 1,200 in number and predominantly British.
The British only began using the word bureaucracy in the 19th century, long after it was first coined by Vincent de Gournay in 1745. The French economist used it to refer to the administrative structure. The British Raj in India, however, remains among the best examples of how legions of bureaucrats, appointed under Section XXXII of the Government of India Act of 1858, were designed, nurtured and evolved through decades to preserve and protect their own interests until 1947. A recent essay on the ICS describes the recruits thus: “…the strength of the Service was restricted to the number ‘absolutely necessary to fill the supervising and controlling offices’ of the governing structure. The lower ranks of the administration were populated by a vast army of subordinate clerks and provincial staff, recruited in India to do the more humdrum tasks. But the hierarchy was headed and guided by the well-controlled hand of carefully selected ICS officers. These officers held all the key posts: they surrounded the Viceroy. They dominated the provincial governments and they were ultimately responsible for overseeing all government activity in the two hundred and fifty districts that comprised British India.”
Busting the romanticised myth of ICS officers of the time, it notes: “Stripped of its glamorous trappings, some of which had little reality away from the pages of memoirs and autobiographies, the job of most ICS officers was hard, unremitting, not particularly well rewarded and sometimes frustrating…Operating always on a shoestring, the British Raj could make only a limited impact upon the fabric of Indian life. The vast scale of the sub-continent, the ravages of disease and the vagaries of the climate were unrelenting constraints which inhibited change.”
As the years passed, the ICS became trapped in the slow and grinding wheels of administrative minutiae and mountains of laborious paperwork. In a lecture at Madras’ Gokhale Hall in 1981 on bureaucracy, CS Venkatachar, former ICS officer, emphasised the importance of differentiating between the state, the government and the administration. “For over a century, India was an administering state. The British said that India is only a geographical expression. Now we must distinguish between ‘administration’ and ‘government’; and consider both of these terms in relation to a third— ‘the State’. Administration is connected with the government but is also distinct from it. Administration ensures the daily life of the State and its sub division, by discharging the public services which both require. These concepts are not fully embedded in the minds of the people even after 30 years of Independence. Ministers of the executive act like political bureaucrats. Civil servants try to play the dubious role of politicians.”
WHEN FLAWS PERSIST
These maladies were aggravated in the post-Independence IAS decades later, with “discharging the public services” becoming a significant casualty. After 1947, the weight of nation-building and socio-economic development of the new nation fell on the Indian bureaucracy, a task it measured up to satisfactorily until later, when red tape and politicisation weighed it down in a quagmire of inefficiency and ineptitude. As one bureaucrat put it, after a number of years of service, the “law of inertia” tended to show up very strongly among the ranks of IAS officials.
That genetic imprint of the British Raj ICS was passed on indelibly to the administrative structure of independent India. Sprawling Lutyens’ bungalows in Delhi—these were later converted to accommodate MPs before a housing crunch made it imperative to construct smaller, multi-storeyed accommodation and hostels for them—were a hallmark of the senior bureaucracy. The elitist trappings of office continued to persist for decades apart from the recruitments of the newly free India even in a more democratised environment where the educated middle class was aspiring to be part of the administrative machinery. One bureaucrat of 1980s vintage posted as district magistrate in a Hindi-belt state recalled how he moved into a bungalow sitting in the middle of a three-acre verdant campus designed more to distance and alienate him from ordinary people and accentuate his ‘status’ rather than facilitate the ease of efficient administration and services delivery to the public. When his family of two moved in with a few suitcases and many books, they were presented with a support staff of 15 employees meant to embellish this ‘status’, including a cook, batman, gardener, house help, cleaner and so on. He described it as “obscenely decadent and slothful”.
Modi began downsizing soon after he took over as prime minister. The post of Central Vigilance Commissioner, a preserve of the IAS for long, went to KV Chowdary, chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes. The top post in the Enforcement Directorate went to Karnal Singh, an IPS officer
Senior IAS officers in the nation’s capital had it even better, as the years of Indian bureaucracy wore on from the initial decades of passionate nation-building and socio-economic development. Interestingly, CS Venkatachar had himself at one time lived at both 3 and 5, Race Course Road when he was part of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s senior staff. In more recent times, it became an entitled lifestyle that began to smother efficiency in public service rather than energise it. By the end of the 1970s, and more so in the 1980s and the 1990s, it was a well-known fact that by 6PM senior bureaucrats, with the exception of the most hard working, would be out of office and headed towards the preferred watering holes at the India International Centre or the Gymkhana Club to heatedly debate the idea of India, gender inequality, gender discrimination and neo-capitalism with colleagues (mostly from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Ambedkar University backgrounds) and to rub shoulders with politicians, whether or not they chose to learn and interact with the fundamentals of the nation. They also had a pronounced snigger aimed at those from the IITs and IIMs. This became part of institutionalised ritual, making a senior bureaucrat remark laconically that if lack of punctuality were a virtue, the IAS suffered from a terminal affliction. That was part of the bureaucrat’s DNA as much as the liveried, turban-sporting tea-server and the warm hand towels in the office. Another fixture was the self-effacing chauffeur carrying the shopping bags of the memsahib—the spouses of male bureaucrats—consciously pacing himself five feet behind the boss’ wife at regular upscale shopping centres of the time, after dropping the boss off at his watering hole or at the Gymkhana for a round of sport. From tennis, the fashionable sport later became golf. And the Golf Club, naturally, was a favourite post-work parking spot, but only after hard-won battles checkmating a rival at work for the highly coveted membership.
The early recruits to top bureaucratic posts during the 1950s, many from the famous University of Allahabad, were Anglicised in worldview and attitude, spoke English fluently, read Sanskrit and indulged in the favoured pastimes of their British predecessors, including bridge and tennis and prolonged tea ceremonies. AU, as the university was then called, was a key catchment area for suitable ‘uppah’ class Indian bureaucrats. The porcelain crockery and steel cutlery-wielding class was by and large an Indianised mirror image of the stiff ‘uppah’ lip bureaucrats of the Raj. For decades, through to the early 1990s, AU dutifully continued to churn out cadres for the great Indian bureaucracy, with at least two dozen recruits or more every year. In the mid-1960s though, an aggressive student movement against English—a compulsory subject for undergraduate courses until then—led to English being dropped as a mandatory subject. Around the same time, the Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology separated from the University of Allahabad. Somewhat simultaneously, the number of recruits from AU for the IAS and Central services began to drop. Patna University, meanwhile, became the new hunting ground.
But other concerns had begun surfacing (these were deeply worrying) in the subsequent decades of the bureaucracy and its domination of a seemingly sloppy administration and services delivery to citizens. Cloying personal affiliations and hanging onto the coattails of individual political mentors in order to further one’s career became the norm. Merit and talent took a backseat, even as an utter lack of domain knowledge in new postings and responsive ideas to resolve New India’s socio-economic conflicts came to characterise the bureaucracy.
The licence quota raj and its attendant red tape kept the ordinary citizen in thrall between yellowing, dog-eared pages of hardbound files tied together with rope, on the most basic of services to be delivered. Many decades later, this seemingly terminal affliction was captured in a pithy thumbnail sketch by economist Kaushik Basu. In his memoir, Policymaker’s Journal, the former Chief Economic Advisor recounted, tongue-in-cheek, the many “minutiae” and trivial battles that tended to underpin the senior bureaucratic ranks. These included pecking order rights in special washroom access (he had to battle with the staff of three finance secretaries to gain access to the special washroom, even when he attended a meeting called by the finance minister), hand towels, and even on the all-important question of whether the brand of tea served should be changed. At a meeting, Basu decided to keep note of how many times the word “sir” was used. According to him, a senior official said sir “on an average 16 times every minute” whenever a minister was present. He calculated that 13 per cent of the official’s speaking time was spent in repeating the word. Quite apart from the derision he had for those from IIT and IIM backgrounds, the IAS officer nursed a huge chip on his shoulder when dealing with those from the Allied Services, never mind that he landed up where he did by the sole virtue of a few marks more in the civil services examinations. India has a 4,000-member-strong Allied Services officer cadre. The buzz in the corridors of power is that the recent tussle in the Election Commission had a lot more to do with one IAS officer’s refusal to put up with a Chief Election Commissioner from the ranks of the IRS. Another preoccupation was the increasingly career-friendly and weaponised “dress code”. Officially, there was none, except an unstated key rule, especially for the senior bureaucrats: hang on to the coattails of any important political mentor to shine up your career graph. Accordingly, once past the goalpost and into the secretary ranks, most of them chose to mimic their ‘mentors’ in the political class, especially ministers under whom they shone in their career, even following them into various ministries despite a perceptible lack of domain knowledge, swinging from food processing to revenue to shipping or water resources.
Parameswaran Iyer was hired as a lateral entrant and put in charge of the world’s largest hygiene and sanitation-related behavioural change programme. It became one of Modi’s biggest success stories
The pre-superannuation period was usually used by most civil servants to profitably lobby with mentors for a key posting at some commission or statutory body. Irrespective of their career review, the trajectory was decided by their proximity to the president of a political party or a political secretary. Some postings in select ministries were passports to a plum post-retirement job in a well-known corporate house. One bureaucrat attached to Madhavrao Scindia is known to have moved to the capital with him, becoming a fixture in his ministry. Introduced later to Pranab Mukherjee, he moved into the finance ministry and later still into the Rashtrapati Bhavan, finally clinching a coveted posting as head of the CIS. Political mentors were a freeway to a stellar career graph. As were political motives, whoever exercised them. Zafar Saifullah became India’s first and only Muslim Cabinet Secretary between 1993 and 1994 and was widely known to have been elevated so that then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao could send out a positive message to the minority community after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In 1998, the IK Gujral Government ignored the rule book that said retiring bureaucrats could get extensions only in “public interest” or “administrative exigencies” and granted a whole year’s extension to water resources secretary Mata Prasad. Although others were granted extensions around then, Intelligence Bureau (IB) Director Arun Bhagat and Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian secured only two months and three months extension, respectively. Gujral was accused of “playing the caste card” in the case of Prasad, who was a Dalit. Irked top bureaucrats claimed at the time that Gujral had toyed with making Prasad Cabinet Secretary. But while Gujral was accused of playing the caste card, Rao had ignored the claims of the seniormost bureaucrat, MS Gill, in elevating Saifullah, playing the community card.
THE BIG RESET
Sometime in early June 2014, just days after he took over as prime minister in an entitled and cliquish Lutyens’ Delhi environment, Narendra Modi had summoned the 77 secretaries of the various Union ministries for a direct interaction with him, a first for many of them. He had a solid plan: to revamp, energise and rework the relevance of the “Great” Indian Bureaucracy by making it a vibrant part of service delivery to citizens in a new environment of a rapidly transforming India, socio-economically, politically and on the information access front. The unprecedented growth and participation of the private sector, non-government sectors and civil society in services delivery to citizens, in tandem with economic liberalisation, had rung in a very complex matrix that had forced the bureaucracy more into the role of a facilitator than that of a core citizen services delivery machinery that it had performed in earlier decades. It needed a significant reset in the administrative service based on a rapidly evolving situation, locally, nationally and globally. And a decisive break from venal, knee-jerk responses like “reply in triplicate” or “come back after lunch time” to key issues of citizen concern, prolonging resolution through decades. Suddenly, bureaucrats of all ranks were being made accountable for their work time and were forced to clock in on time both at entry and exit points and the dog tag ID card became a tell-tale gauge of work ethic and efficiency rather than a mere status showpiece. Secretaries, ditching their lazy morning schedules and evening entertainment timetables, were forced to set the example that even ministers followed. Suddenly, tabs were being kept on the performance of the civil servant, with a premium on innovative and speedy, smooth delivery of solutions to issues of public concern. At that June meeting, the prime minister had reportedly asked those present, “Tell me how you run the government,” even while urging them to directly get in touch with him on ideas and suggestions, circumventing the ministries and entrenched pecking orders within them. The Group of Ministers (GoM) for resolving issues, a practice started by the United Progressive Alliance (Pranab Mukherjee had headed many of those before moving on to become president and their meetings, reported through strategic leaks to the media of ‘classified’ GoM minutes, often became a sort of backdoor lobbying by bureaucrats among the public for competing interests, another avenue to ingratiating oneself with corporate interests and cushy post-retirement postings), was summarily dismantled and committees of secretaries were set up for finding solutions to issues under the direct oversight of the prime minister.
Later, in mid-2017, Modi had followed up on his plans for the bureaucracy with another unprecedented move. He directly interacted with administrative officials of the Central Government below the secretary grade, those who actually backgrounded and contextualised issues so that their seniors could make an informed decision on resolutions. Again, Modi appealed to them to directly approach him, if necessary. This was the first of many such meetings that went on to build Mission Karmayogi whose objective is to overhaul and strengthen the main frame of the Indian bureaucracy and its working, making it a receptive, sensitive machinery that responded constantly and consistently to fundamental change and transformation in social, economic and civil society concerns. The mission is to establish a revolving door to enable lateral entries and thus to break the hegemony of the IAS on the administrative machinery by encouraging and enlisting recruits from other cadre services, especially in the ministries and sectors where domain expertise is imperative. The objective is also to ensure transparency in promotions in the bureaucracy and to eliminate lobbying as a normalised process of career elevation.
Before Modi’s initiative, lateral entry was only attempted for key departments like Economic Affairs (Manmohan Singh and Bimal Jalan) or in specialised ministries like Atomic Energy. Reforming the stagnating bureaucracy was never a consistent priority
Modi is not the first head of the Indian executive to sense how imperative it was to reboot the bureaucracy and inject fresh rigour, vibrancy, new ideas and quick, sensitive responses to a multitude of complex changes. But he may be the only one who has turned his single-minded focus and political resolve to the vexed issues plaguing the administrative machinery. The idea of rejuvenating it was attempted, but only in fits and starts, in both the 1980s and 1990s. In other years, a revolving door enabled lateral recruitment to induct technocrats such as Manmohan Singh, Vijay Kelkar, Bimal Jalan, Rakesh Mohan, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Arvind Virmani. Rajiv Gandhi attempted bringing in lateral entrants into the government but faced much blowback from an entrenched administrative army at a time when popular imagination of the bureaucrat was fired by the English political satire Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. A well-known dialogue in the former, referring to the self-serving, static trajectory in policy implementation indulged in regularly by senior bureaucrats, goes something like this: “When we ask the minister, he says policy is an administrative question for you and when we ask you, you say policy is a political question for the minister.” The secretary’s reply is a pointed exercise in civil service jargon and migraine-triggering wheels within wheels.
THE SARDAR WAY
In October 1946, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel convened a crucial meeting of provincial premiers (equivalent to chief ministers of states today) and floated the idea of a new cadre called the Indian Administrative Services and the Indian Police Service to replace the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Police (IP). This was aimed at enlisting enough Indian officers for the new services in tandem with several senior British officials leaving India. Post-Partition, many senior officials also left for Pakistan. At the time, enlistments were made by the Federal Public Service Commission, which is today done by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). Patel sought constitutional guarantees for those staying back and—despite intense criticism and disgruntlement from former ICS and IP officers, many of whom had arrested Congressmen when working for the Raj—asserted that no aspersions would be cast on their patriotism but all of them, as with the new recruits, were expected to unequivocally contribute to the work of nation-building. Patel also came in for criticism in the Constituent Assembly for seeking to retain “enemies of the nation” as top officials of the new administrative machinery. Even Jawaharlal Nehru is believed to have expressed doubts about how successfully the newly established services—to recruit, train and select senior bureaucrats to man the massive administrative machinery and police service—would work.
A determined Patel, however, pushed on. The first IAS training centre was set up at Metcalfe House in Delhi in April 1947 after the key criteria, including experience, education and mindset, were outlined for enlistment of the officers. It aimed at setting up one of the world’s best bureaucratic services. A top panel was subsequently formed under AD Gorwala, ICS, to expand the goals and objectives and determine how to go about achieving them. Patel’s ‘Magna Carta’ for protecting the rights of the bureaucracy was unfurled in the Constituent Assembly on October 10th, 1949. Referring to the bureaucracy as the “custodians of national interest”, he said, “If you want to have an efficient all-India service, I advise you to allow the services to open their mouth freely…to express their opinion without fear or favour. But I see a tendency today that in several provinces the services are set upon and told: ’No, you are servicemen, you must carry out our orders.’ The Union will go—you will not have a united India, if you have not a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security that you will stand by your word and that after all there is a Parliament, of which we can be proud, where their rights and privileges are secure.” Decades after Sardar Patel’s passionate argument for a strong new steel frame of bureaucracy manning the administrative machinery of the new republic though, the bureaucracy appears to have forgotten its moorings. Narendra Modi is the first since Patel to have shown determination and political will, despite criticism and disgruntlement, to reboot and rejuvenate the administrative machinery of a transformed India.
Modi began downsizing—dumping smokescreen words like ‘rightsizing’ used in earlier governments that were primarily aimed at placating disquiet among bureaucrats over the shake-up in their ranks—soon after he took over as prime minister. The post of Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), a preserve of the IAS for long, went to KV Chowdary, who was the chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT). The top post in a body like the Enforcement Directorate (ED), till then manned by the IAS, went to Karnal Singh, an IPS officer. Former ED heads were all from the IAS, including MK Bezbaruah, Arun Mathur, Rajan Katoch and others. Officers from the Central Secretariat service were made joint secretaries.
Even Nehru had expressed doubts about how successfully the new services would work. A determined Sardar Patel had pushed on. Decades after his passionate argument for a strong new steel frame of bureaucracy, the bureaucracy appears to have forgotten its moorings
Before Modi’s initiative, lateral entry was only attempted for key departments like Economic Affairs (Manmohan Singh and Bimal Jalan are prime examples) or in specialised ministries like Atomic Energy. Despite lateral recruits such as Manmohan Singh becoming prime minister, reforming the stagnating bureaucracy was never a consistent and focused priority with governments before Modi came to power. Singh’s own recruitment into the Congress-led UPA Government was part of an occasional indulgence that had more to do with proximity to the leadership of the ruling party and visibility in Delhi’s power corridors than any well-thought-out mission backed by a strong political will. Zafar Saifullah, Cabinet Secretary to Narasimha Rao, had never been empanelled for joint secretary, additional secretary or secretary at the time of his elevation. He had held various posts, including Member Secretary of the Minorities Commission of India, Advisor to the Governor of Haryana, Secretary, Rural Development, Government of Karnataka, and so on. Rao’s priority was clearly the political message he hoped to send out to the minority community, since, when the call came, Saifullah was actually occupying a low-profile post as chairman of the India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO) at Pragati Maidan.
Sardar Patel’s words of wisdom on how the political class should deal with the civil servant likely fell on deaf ears when Rajiv Gandhi helmed the executive. In an unforgettably shabby treatment, in 1987 he sacked foreign secretary AP Venkateswaran at a press conference. When a Pakistani journalist asked Gandhi about the contradictory statements coming out of the Ministry of External Affairs over his proposed visit to Islamabad, the prime minister shot back perfunctorily, “Soon, you will be talking to a new foreign secretary.” Venkateswaran, with an illustrious career spanning 35 years in the diplomatic service and considered among the best of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), was present at the briefing and quit the IFS subsequently. Much later, when asked about the incident, he said that Gandhi appeared keen on humiliating him despite all the facts on his impending visit to Islamabad for a SAARC meeting being with the foreign secretary. In 2013, when this act of Rajiv Gandhi was compared with that of Rahul Gandhi tearing up a Government ordinance that had offered protection to convicted lawmakers from disqualification, the IFS officer had quipped, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.”
That, indeed, is the dire fate Modi is determined to avert for the civil services, an entity that Patel had once hailed as the core of nation-building.