Book Extract: The Paradoxical PM

What NDA says is civil servants must be politically neutral; what it has ‘done’, in fact, is to move 7 senior bureaucrats from Gujarat to PMO, for having shown their political commitment to Modi

Book Extract: The Paradoxical PM

Shashi Tharoor

Civilising the civil services

In Section I, I showed how PM Modi doesn’t seem to value the services and abilities of his cabinet too much, preferring to operate through a cabal of trusted bureaucrats. But Narendra Modi being Narendra Modi, even bureaucrats are not safe from being buffeted by his whims and fancies.

During his term as PM, he committed one of the worst acts of politicisation of the civil service in living memory. This was the government’s decision to disqualify those civil servants who had worked on the personal staffs of the previous government from serving in a similar capacity under the Modi government.

My own Private Secretary at MHRD, who had been recruited in a similar capacity by a new MoS in the Home Ministry, was abruptly transferred back to his parent cadre for this reason. This is a peculiar interpretation of the role of the permanent civil service in our democracy.

Ironically, early in its tenure, the Modi government promulgated an amendment to the All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968, by inserting assorted sub-rules under the All India Services (Conduct) Amendment Rules, 2014.

Under sub-rule (1A), every member of the service shall maintain:

(i) High ethical standards, integrity and honesty;

(ii) Political neutrality;

(iii) Promoting of the principles of merit, fairness and impartiality in the discharge of duties;

(iv) Accountability and transparency;

(v) Responsiveness to the public, particularly to the weaker sections;

(vi) Courtesy and good behaviour with the public.

Under sub-rule (2B), every member of the service shall:

(i) Commit himself [yes, good old linguistic sexism continues in the Government of India] to uphold the supremacy of the Constitution and democratic values;

(ii) Defend and uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of State, public order, decency and morality;

(iii) Maintain integrity in public service;

(iv) Take decisions solely in public interest and use or cause to use public resources efficiently, effectively and economically;

(v) Declare any private interests relating to his public duties and take steps to resolve any conflicts in a way that protects the public interest;

(vi) Not place himself under any financial or other obligations to any individual or organization which may influence him in the performance of his official duties;

(vii) Not misuse his position as civil servant and not take decisions in order to derive financial or material benefits for himself, his family or his friends;

(viii) Make choices, take decisions and make recommendations on merit alone;

(ix) Act with fairness and impartiality and not discriminate against anyone, particularly the poor and the under-privileged sections of society;

(x) Refrain from doing anything which is or may be contrary to any law, rules, regulations and established practices;

(xi) Maintain discipline in the discharge of his duties and be liable to implement the lawful orders duly communicated to him;

(xii) Be liable to maintain confidentiality in the performance of his official duties as required by any laws for the time being in force, particularly with regard to information, disclosure of which may prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of State, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, friendly relations with foreign countries or lead to incitement of an offence or illegal or unlawful gains to any person; and

(xiii) Perform and discharge his duties with the highest degree of professionalism and dedication to the best of his abilities.454

Phew! Quite a list. But is there, in fact, anything new about them? Wasn’t the civil service always supposed to behave this way? After all, were our civil servants ever meant to be discourteous, partial, corrupt or anti-national?

There was a time when, as Jawaharlal Nehru memorably observed, the colonial-era Indian civil service was neither Indian, nor civil, nor imbued with any spirit of service; but that was all supposed to have changed with the advent of Independence and the creation by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel of an indigenous ‘steel frame’ for the Government of India. Very clearly, all that these amendments do is to make explicit what has always been implicit.

Perhaps it is a reflection of our times that the government feels the need to spell out the obvious in such excruciating detail. But that’s hardly a crime, and the list of prescriptions and proscriptions is in itself quite unexceptionable—what the Americans call ‘motherhood and apple pie’, things that no one can oppose. All Indians would want their civil servants to adhere to the code spelled out in Mr Modi’s nineteen commandments. (Though nineteen does seem a bit much: as Clemenceau remarked in a different context, ‘even the good Lord only needed ten!’)

But there’s more than a bit of irony to the fact that it’s Modi’s government that, under sub-rule (1A) point (ii), urges ‘political neutrality’ on the civil service. After all, it is this very government that—in an action unprecedented in the history of Indian democracy—issued a circular decreeing that any civil servant who had served on the personal staff of a UPA minister was ineligible to serve in an NDA government.

While the UPA had earlier issued rules saying that no officer could serve more than ten years on any minister’s personal staff, the NDA circular made length of service, or indeed competence, irrelevant in its instruction: any personal staff who had served the UPA government in such a capacity for any length of time had to be removed from the offices of NDA ministers.

As a result, many officers of unimpeachable integrity and impressive service records were rusticated from the personal staffs of NDA ministers. Their sin was not a negative performance report or excessive length of service on personal staffs—no, their only deficiency was that they had been tainted by association with the preceding government.

This overtly political way of dealing with our civil service was a betrayal of the fundamental principles on which our bureaucracy was constituted. After all, governments may come and go, but the civil service is meant to be permanent and immune to the vagaries of changing political fortunes. Some senior civil servants in the mid-1990s ended up serving four prime ministers in five years, without ever changing their own jobs!

The NDA’s decision to make service to UPA ministers the sole ground for transferring officials establishes a new principle, that bureaucratic service will henceforth be seen as evidence of political allegiance. When the NDA loses power, the bureaucrats who served them will, by the same logic, be seen as having been politically committed to the Modi government—because the NDA chose them on that basis.

How hypocritical of the very same government to mouth pious homilies about civil service neutrality!

These new rules appear to be a fresh example of the politicians’ PR disease, ‘watch what I say, not what I do’.

What the NDA says is civil servants must be politically neutral; what it has ‘done’, in fact, is to move no fewer than seven senior civil servants from Gujarat to the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi, presumably for having shown their political commitment to Mr Modi while serving under him there.

India is a democracy with a fragile tradition of respect for personal privacy. Surveillance, telephone tapping and interception of communications, are all too easily misused for political purposes that lie well beyond law and order or national security. While previous governments, besides the aberration of the Emergency, have been more or less respectful of individual privacy rights, the track record in Gujarat of the progenitors of the original Snoopgate is hardly reassuring.

Capital spies

One of the hallmarks of authoritarian governments and rulers everywhere is the increase in surveillance of innocent citizens by a paranoid state. The last time we had to deal with this sort of thing was during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency about half a century ago, but Narendra Modi’s government has shown that it can resort to blatantly unlawful snooping whenever it wants to.

Let’s take one of the most egregious examples of this dangerous phenomenon as practised by this government.

On 2 March 2015, Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) Shamsher Singh of the Special Branch of Delhi Police Headquarters was found sniffing around the Tughlaq Lane residence of then Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi, asking inane and suspicious questions. Confronted by the Special Protection Group (SPG), which protects the premises and the staff of Rahul Gandhi, to whom he was taken by the SPG, he produced a questionnaire he was carrying.

This required him to obtain various particulars about Rahul Gandhi like the colour of his hair and eyes, birthmarks, any disabilities or preferences, the type of clothes he wears, his shoes, photographs and the names, addresses and phone numbers of his associates.

On 12 March, a beat constable came by the house, and on the 14th, two police officers, an Additional DCP and an ACP, again visited the residence of Rahul Gandhi at 12, Tughlaq Lane, New Delhi. They spent about seven minutes at the residence enquiring about the whereabouts of various Gandhi aides.

The Congress party erupted in indignation at these developments, alleging that this was a misuse of the Delhi Police personnel by the government to obtain personal information about a prominent political opponent. Given that not long ago, the ‘Snoopgate’ scandal involved a brazen misuse of Gujarat state machinery for the surveillance of the movements of a private citizen, a young woman, the Congress’s fear was that the same process might be at work at the Centre.

The party dubbed the affair ‘Snoopgate2’ and demanded an explanation from the Prime Minister and the Home Minister. After all, Rahul Gandhi is protected by the SPG, and has been since his childhood; why would the Delhi Police need such information about an SPG protectee, and if for some innocent reason it did, why not just ask the SPG? And why did the police need the telephone numbers and addresses of Shri Gandhi’s associates and friends?

Faced with this controversy, the then Delhi Commissioner of Police, BhimSainBassi, held a press conference to state that this was a routine enquiry; a beat constable had gone not only to the residence of Rahul Gandhi but also to the residences of VeerappaMoily, PC Chacko and other political leaders.

The police commissioner argued that the information being sought was to prevent spontaneous demonstrations at the Congress leader’s residence, to ensure his security and the maintenance of law and order. He explained that various vulnerable persons could not be easily identified by police officers, and it was for this reason that photographs and other descriptive details were being sought. He averred that there was no pressure from the Prime Minister or the union government to spy on Rahul Gandhi.

This seemed reasonable enough, on the face of it, except for a few inconvenient details. The beat constable’s routine security visit to the homes of various political leaders was on 12 March, the Shamsher Singh episode was on 2 March. The Congress stressed that it was objecting to the latter, not the former.

Why conflate a routine visit on the 12th with a suspicious episode on the 2nd, if not to confuse and mislead the press? And can anyone seriously suggest in the Information Age that any sentient Delhi policeman would have difficulty identifying Rahul Gandhi without details of his hair, eyes and birthmarks?

That was not all. ‘If spontaneous demonstrations against Shri Rahul Gandhi or other VIPs are to be prevented by police,’ the Congress pointed out, ‘information must be collected regarding those persons or organisations who are likely to conduct such demonstrations’, not about Rahul Gandhi and his friends.

For the Commissioner of Police to suggest that the enquiries were being made for the ‘safety and security of vulnerable persons’ like Shri Rahul Gandhi was, to put it mildly, inconsistent with the fact that he has been an SPG protectee for nearly 20 years and is protected under the SPG Act, which leaves no role for the Delhi Police in ensuring his security and safety. How could the Delhi Police justify its spying on Rahul Gandhi in the name of assessing the security of an individual for whose security it is neither responsible nor accountable?

The statement by the commissioner of police that similar information was being also sought in regard to Veerappa Moily, PC Chacko, other senior Congress leaders and senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani further raised Congress hackles: why was the police collecting information about senior Congress and Opposition leaders, and also of BJP leaders known to be opposed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi? In any event, both Veerappa Moily and PC Chacko denied having received any security questionnaire from the police, weakening the authorities’ alibi even further.

India is a democracy with a fragile tradition of respect for personal privacy. Surveillance, telephone tapping and interception of communications, are all too easily misused for political purposes that lie well beyond law and order or national security. While previous governments, besides the aberration of the Emergency, have been more or less respectful of individual privacy rights, the track record in Gujarat of the progenitors of the original Snoopgate is hardly reassuring.

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