PMO’s Bid for UPSC Overhaul May Turn Candidates Into Stooges

The recent bid for a change in process of cadre-allotment in the civil services has raised questions about cronyism.

4 min read
PMO’s Bid for UPSC Overhaul May Turn Candidates Into Stooges

True to its commando style of working, the Prime Minister’s Office has thrown yet another cat among pigeons by proposing to make major changes in the civil services recruitment system for reasons which have not been shared till now, but which, like demonetisation, will presumably be part of a midnight revelation at a later date.

A cryptic communication by the Department of Personnel and Training to various ministries implies that the PMO proposes to change the existing system, under which candidates selected by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) are allotted a service (and a state cadre in the case of All India Services), before they join the Foundational Course.

Now, the candidates will have to wait for their results/‘performance’ in the Foundational Course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) in Mussoorie, to know which service and cadre they will be assigned.

The communication seeks comments/inputs within a week and makes it clear that the PMO intends to bring about this change before the Foundational Course begins this year.

Before one raises questions on the merits of this bewildering proposal, it is important to highlight some aspects of the way the prime minister and his office function.

Modi, the Superstar in His Own Dramas

For one, it views the government as a grand TV soap where each episode has to be marked by high drama in which the PM plays superstar.

Be it demonetisation or the roll out of Goods and Services Tax or Swachh Bharat or Make in India, exploiting the theatrical potential of the decision or the scheme is its most important dimension – however weak or thin its substantive content may be.

Secondly, decisions have to be taken as a cloak and dagger operation with any sharing of information being on a ‘need to know’ basis so that any attempts to defer or change them are forestalled at the preliminary stage itself. Ministry corridors have to keep guessing which of the prime minister’s men or women are the ones who count. Keeping everyone guessing is part of the game of ‘Government-Government’ that the PMO plays.

Three, consensus, if any, has to be built after the basic decision has been taken, not before, and that too only to rationalise a decision already taken. Four, a ‘know all’ PMO knows the solutions to problems even before a problem has been defined. Answers precede the questions they are meant to answer.

Attempts to Corrupt a Credible System

The present instance is a classic example of this mode of functioning. No one knows or can say what problem with the existing system of service/cadre allocation is sought to be fixed, particularly when the UPSC has over several decades established a very robust merit-based system of selection.

While periodic attempts at ‘de-eliticising’ the system to correct the alleged bias in favour of urban, westernised, anglophonic, upper caste, public school educated candidates has subtly changed the character of the civil services, the robustness of the selection process, the fairness and objectivity in judging ‘merit’ has never been in doubt.

No instances of cronyism, of manipulation of results, of yielding to pressures and influences have ever come to notice, and as an institution the UPSC has maintained its credibility under difficult circumstances.

RSS’s Attempts to ‘Infiltrate’ UPSC

In the absence of any information as to the real purpose of the proposed change, one can only speculate that the opacity of the decision-making process could well be a cloak for a more sinister agenda. It was Mrs Indira Gandhi who introduced the concept of a ‘committed’ (read ‘pliant’) civil service and while, even she did not dare to change the recruitment system, the present government has no such qualms.

It is learnt that there are a large number of coaching centres which have close connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the RSS has for long wanted those steeped in its ideological worldview to infiltrate the civil services, particularly the IAS and the IPS. However, the UPSC selection system makes such infiltration difficult.

On the other hand, if the final allocation of service/cadre was based on an assessment done by the faculty of the Mussoorie Academy, it would be easier to pack the more important services with those who show the ‘right’ kind of attitude, show greater ‘nationalistic’ fervour, and are willing to crawl when asked to bend.

Even if the intent is not as sinister as it might appear, the idea of judging suitability for a particular service on the basis of ‘performance’ during a 100-day foundational training course is bizarre.

Not only will it encourage the worst kind of toadying and craven behaviour among probationers, it will also mean that the faculty, instead of focusing on improving training methods, will have to develop skills for judging suitability and aptitude – a completely different ball game.

A training institution cannot and should not become a recruitment centre – that is fundamentally perverse.


What is it in our collective makeup that gives us a compulsive itch to pull down institutions that were founded by our Constitution makers? These institutions, that were made with such care and meticulous attention to institutional design, so that they would endure, strengthen and remain relevant to successive generations.

For a prime minister who lays such store by the legacy of Sardar Patel, this effort to undermine the civil services structurally defies all logic. One only hopes that this time around better sense will prevail.

(The author is a former IAS officer. The views expressed above are of the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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