Politicisation of the bureaucracy: Patel’s concern, Kharge’s letter & dissent within

The Modi govt's use of civil servants in its Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra contradicts Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel's stance that civil servants must stay out of politics

Former deputy prime minister of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (Photo: National Herald archives)
Former deputy prime minister of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (Photo: National Herald archives)

NH Political Bureau

In a recent controversy that has ignited debates across the nation, the Modi government's decision to deploy civil servants in a mega outreach programme, the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra, has raised concerns about a possible blurring of lines between public service and politics.

The move has sparked outrage among Opposition parties and prominent figures who argue that it contravenes the principles of impartiality and non-partisanship, and also violates the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, which bar government servants from taking part in any political activity.

For a clearer understanding of the issue, it may be helpful to recall here that India’s first home minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, often referred to as the 'Iron Man of India', hailed bureaucracy as the "steel frame of India" and was of the firm view that civil servants should not indulge in politics.

Addressing IAS probationers on 21 April 1947, marking Civil Services Day, Patel said:

I would advise you to maintain the utmost impartiality and incorruptibility of administration. A civil servant cannot afford to, and must not, take part in politics. Nor must he involve himself in communal wrangles. To depart from the path of rectitude in either of these respects is to debase public service and to lower its dignity.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, former deputy prime minister of India

Echoing what Patel said about the bureaucracy and politics in the late 1940s, the current chief of the Congress party, Mallikarjun Kharge, has also raised concerns over the politicisation of the bureaucracy and its implications for India's democracy and Constitution.

Kharge wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently, and accused the government of transforming government officers into political workers for the ruling party, a clear violation of the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, which explicitly forbids government servants from participating in political activities:

In view of protecting our democracy and our Constitution, it is imperative that the orders which would lead to the politicising of bureaucracy and our Armed Forces must be withdrawn immediately
Mallikarjun Kharge, president, Indian National Congress

The controversial move to deploy civil servants as 'Rath Prabharis' (special officers) in the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra, organised across all 2.7 lakh panchayats in the country, as per the critics blurs the line between "service and politics".

Former Planning Commission member N.C. Saxena expressed concerns over the move. “[I’ve] never seen such a publicity programme involving civil servants. It is blurring the line between civil service and politics. On the one hand all data systems which assess performance, like the NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) and NFHS (National Family Health Survey), are being undermined as seen in the recent resignation of the head of NFHS. On the other, such programmes are being created to publicise government performance,” he was quoted as saying by the Wire.

Former Union government secretary E.A.S. Sarma argued that such activities put the Modi government at an undue advantage over Opposition parties and amount to the misuse of government resources to influence elections.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's chief, J.P. Nadda, took to X (formerly Twitter) to defend the government's actions. He expressed bewilderment at the Congress Party's opposition to the government's efforts to reach the grassroots and ensure the successful implementation of schemes.

His response was not without a touch of sarcasm, as he alluded to previous controversies surrounding the use of warships for personal purposes:

It baffles me to see the Congress Party have an issue with public servants reaching the grassroots to ensure saturation of schemes. If this is not the basic tenet of governance, what is? Regarding opposition to a ‘Rath’ it is a fit use of public resources unlike using warships as personal yachts.
Jagat Prakash Nadda, president, Bharatiya Janata Party

Political observers say the controversy surrounding the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra underscores a fundamental tension between the "ideals" of public service and the "demands" of a democratic political system.

While the government argues that the outreach programme is essential to engage with the public and promote its achievements, critics maintain that it threatens the non-partisan nature and impartiality expected of the civil services—a foundation on which India's governance has long relied.

There is no doubt that the end result will have a far-reaching impact on the principles on which the nation's bureaucracy is built, and the role it plays in the country's governance.

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