Bengal Chief Secy Row: ‘Death Knell’ for ‘Neutral’ Civil Service?

If protocol is followed, civil servants won’t be dragged into the Centre-state crossfire, writes Vivek Katju.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Is the former West Bengal Chief Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay affair the last nail in the coffin of the concept of a neutral civil service which is theoretically an essential element of the constitutional and administrative scheme of India, including its federal structure? The word ‘theoretically’ has been deliberately used. For, the concept of ‘neutrality’ of the civil service was gradually eroded by the political class with the complicity of the administrative class over many decades. By now it is dead, though the idea’s final rites have yet to be performed.

India’s political and administrative classes are different, but both are essential for governance. The governance structure is theoretically based on the political class, as representing a sovereign people, choosing the ideological path and approving policies.

The administrative class is to provide technical advice, which is an important input in policy-making. Once policies are framed, they are, where necessary, translated into laws, rules and regulations — and these are then to be implemented by the administrative class objectively, without political interference.

The implementation also, in many cases, requires the approval of members of the political class holding office, for they are accountable to the legislature for the entire governance process. However, while giving these approvals, those holding office are supposed to act justly and impartially.


Political Neutrality of Civil Service in Nehru’s Era

The basic principle of governance in India’s democratic system is that the distinction between political leaders and officials is fundamental. Officials are not supposed to be swayed by political considerations of the ministers but give advice objectively, irrespective of its political consequences. Naturally, it is for the ministers to consider this advice through the political prism, which includes their appreciation of what would be acceptable to the legislature and the people. Thus, it is perfectly in order for a minister to tell officials that while their advice looked at the technical aspects it would not be acceptable to the people. Indeed, the political input is vital for sound governance.

These propositions were largely adhered to during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. One manifestation of that — the principle of political neutrality of the civil service, which was being followed — was the absence of large personal offices of the prime minister and Cabinet ministers.

Thus, the advice given by the ministries reached the prime minister directly from a ministry, and was not vetted in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Matters which required coordination were handled by the Cabinet Secretary, and he was the principal bureaucrat advising the prime minister and the Cabinet.


‘Expansion’ of PMO Post-Nehru

After Nehru’s death, the Prime Minister’s Office greatly expanded. While it was staffed by officers who sought to maintain a distinction between the political and the official aspects of policy-making, it was inevitable that the political dimensions of the prime minister did impact the thinking of the senior officials manning the PMO.

The fact is that, in PN Haksar as secretary to the PM in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the distinction between the political and the official became obliterated.

This is borne out by the evidence contained in Jairam Ramesh’s excellent study Intertwined Lives on the Indira Gandhi and Haksar official relationship. It reveals, inter alia, that all through the period of the split in the Congress in 1969, Haksar was playing a pivotal political role, including drafting and vetting letters of an entirely political nature; these letters were those that Indira Gandhi was sending to senior Congress functionaries on party matters (pp. 147-150; Intertwined Lives). Significantly, during this period, Haksar was a serving Indian Foreign Service officer on deputation to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

How a ‘Neutral’ Civil Service Was Weakened

Over the decades since PN Haksar merged the political and official role, more and more civil servants began to do so. In many but not all cases, the vehicle to do so became postings in the offices of ministers as special assistants. The same phenomena became common in the states. Thus, some officers began to be associated with some politicians; their official fortunes waxed and waned with the political fortunes of their patrons.

Worse still, the notion that chief secretaries or directors-general of police forces in the states could be politically neutral and could continue despite changes in governments, were simply given up. Indeed, chief secretaries and directors-general of police began to change with changes in government as a norm.

Thus, those officers who deliberately decided to remain neutral were largely kept out of ‘sensitive’ assignments. Interestingly, some officers, admittedly few, developed the skills to be ‘politically’ useful to a wide array of political leaders. Their skills were transferrable, as were their ‘loyalties’. This was both during their careers and post-retirement in constitutional and statutory institutions. Many, if not all, political parties indulged or encouraged in weakening the idea of a neutral civil service.


Why Both Centre & States Should Follow Protocol

It is against this backdrop that the recent highly-unfortunate episode of Alapan Bandyopadhyay has to be evaluated.

Whatever may be the state of political play between the Centre and a state, it is incumbent on a chief minister to show all due courtesy to the prime minister, whenever he visits the state for whatever purpose.

It would also be wise for the Centre to adhere to established protocol on meetings between the PM and a CM during such visits.

A departure in either case is harmful.

Certainly, the ebb and flow of politics can and should be within the ambit of established norms. In this context, did Bandyopadhyay suggest to the CM that at least he should attend the meeting, and, if so, was he overruled by her?

If established norms are followed, then civil servants will not get dragged into the crossfire of Centre-state politics. If the concept of a neutral civil service is adhered to, then civil servants will not get involved in political fights. That is not the case now, for the political class has almost come to assume that officers holding senior positions are politically associated — and that seems to have happened in the case of the Bandyopadhyay.


Was Bengal Chief Secy’s Transfer Order Avoidable?

His peremptory transfer order was avoidable. Other means of expressing unhappiness, even grave unhappiness, could have been considered. What was the advice given by the senior-most civil servants in Delhi? After all, the chief secretary of a state heads its administrative set up — and action against him of such a nature would necessarily impact the state. At the same time, Bandyopadhyay should have responded to the Centre’s order by placing his views before the Cabinet Secretary, or he could have approached the judiciary seeking a quashing of the order.

He should not have ignored it as he seems to have done. Further, by accepting to be chief advisor to the West Bengal government, immediately after taking retirement, Bandyopadhyay has acted ‘politically’ too.

By now, the chance of a compromise, between the Centre and West Bengal, on the Bandyopadhyay issue looks remote. It seems to be heading to the courts.

Amid the COVID crisis, the country needs the political class’s unity and the administrative class’s balance. One can only pray for both. And call for a completely neutral civil service even if that is a cry in the wilderness and will evoke the charge of naïveté.

The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  IAS officer   Modi Government   Bureaucracy 

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