Public Condemnation of Civil Servants will not serve any purpose

A former IAS officer having served as Secretary to Government of India in two ministries raises some uncomfortable questions about the buzz created by the top brass in the Government

Anil Swarup
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AnilS Swarup

Anil Swarup, Former IAS Officer

A Union Minister recently courted controversy by claiming that many of the officers appointed through Union Public Service Commission are “dacoits”. Is it appropriate for a Central Minister to make such statements? Did the statement made by the Prime Minister in the Parliament terming IAS officers as “Babus” set the tone to make such statements? When Prime Minister Modi made that statement, a question posed to me, “Did you feel insulted by the comment of Prime Minister Modi made in the Parliament recently about IAS officers who he alleged were occupying all prime positions?”

PM Modi, while speaking in the Parliament, had remarked as follows: “Sab kuch babu hi karenege. IAS ban gaye matlab woh fertilizer ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega. Yeh kaun si badi takat bana kar rakh di humne? Babuon ke haath mein desh de karke hum kya karne waale hain?”

My response was simple, “I did not feel insulted at all”. However, as a former IAS officer, having interacted with PM Modi on a number of occasions, I said I was surprised at his comment. My response actually got articulated in a number of tweets that followed.

“If the Prime Minister uses the words he does for the IAS in the Parliament House, those IAS officers that had worked close to him need to seriously introspect as they have created such a deplorable impression of the IAS”. I went on to add in the following tweet that “He has a right to hold an opinion. It is a commentary on those IAS officers that come in touch with him and those that occupy positions at the PMO. They have to introspect and correct this impression through their conduct and otherwise”. I go on to explain why I say this further in my next tweet: “In my interactions with Narendra Modi he came across as a person who respected the civil service. I think he still has a lot of regard for the IAS. PMO has a number of IAS officers. Hence, his outburst in the Parliament using pejorative terms like ‘babu’ is surprising”

Though technically there is an Appointment Committee of the Cabinet that takes the final calls on all senior level of appointments, we are all aware that this call is taken primarily by the Prime Minster himself on the advice of officers in the PMO. The statement made by the PM was therefore surprising on many counts.

The pejorative word used by the Prime Minister for IAS officers was in a particular context. He wanted to place on record the contribution by the “wealth creators” in the society and to give them their due recognition. This was in order. But why did the PM have to disparage the IAS to encourage the wealth creators? I tweeted on this aspect as well : “You don’t have to call someone bad to prove that someone else is good. Comparisons are odious”. Modi is otherwise very balanced in his outpourings even when he is angry.

As Prime Minister he continues to be assisted by an army of civil servants in the PMO. A number of these officers are serving or retired IAS officers. In my capacity as Secretary to Government of India, (for four years from 2014 to 2018) I had the occasion to interact with him on a number of issues. He was always very courteous and respectful, welcomed and even encouraged differences of opinions. He placed a lot of faith in the IAS and appreciated good work that was being done. In case of Coal, he publicly acknowledged the role that I had played in successful conduct of coal block auctions. He was appreciative of many other IAS officers as well. Then what went wrong post 2018? If I heard him correctly, he had even appreciated the role played by the civil servant during difficult COVID times.

If he genuinely felt that the “babuon ke haath mein desh de karke hum kya karne wale hain?” then who stops him taking the country away from “babus” who have allegedly taken the country in their own hands. In a series of tweets, I agreed with him. I said, “Totally agree with Narendra Modi when he questions the ‘occupation’ of all key positions by IAS ‘Babu’” but wondered “why was an expert with international credibility and from across the Atlantic replaced by an IAS Babu as RBI Governor?”. I go on to ask further in the next tweet, “which IAS Babu advised him to replace an expert, experienced in the insurance sector by an IAS Babu as Chairman, Insurance Regulatory Development Authority (IRDA)?”

Just a few days before the statement in the Parliament, the Prime Minister had picked up a very competent IAS Babu, replacing an “expert” (who had been specifically drafted to head the flagship scheme, Ayushman Bharat and was there for three years) when the job could have been given to another more “competent” non-babu. Similarly, another IAS Babu who had enormous experience in the Power Sector was given extension as Chairman, Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) when a non-Babu expert could have been brought to replace him. There are many more competent and not-so-competent IAS Babus manning sensitive posts and not-so-sensitive posts both before and after their retirement. In one particular case, PM Modi got the Act amended to see that Babu occupied a critical post in his office.

So, what exactly went wrong that led to this public out-burst? (Some of the outburst was factually incorrect as most of the CPSUs are not headed by IAS Babus).  The Babus that surround him will certainly have to introspect. The PM, as an ardent follower of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, had a lot of faith in the Civil Service. He, in my personal experience, was always measured in his comments. Was this outburst just to boost the morale of the “wealth creators”? Does he sincerely believe that the “country has been handed over to Babus”?

The Indian Administrative Service does require an overhaul. What we have today are bright individuals, some whom accidentally evolve as leaders. As I mention in my book, “Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant”, there is a need to “look at the manner in which recruitment takes place, the in-service training, transfers, assessment of officers, incentives and disincentives by the ways of selections to critical posts”. Till such time this happens, the PM will have to make do with what is available. There are civil servants available with different combinations of attributes: competent, incompetent, effective, ineffective, honest, dishonest, efficient, inefficient, pliable, malleable, obsequious, straight-forward, forthright, servile, with and without spine, visible, invisible, daring, pusillanimous, vocal, committed, indifferent, positive and negative. The choice is that of the PM. Public ridicule, if it was one, may not help. The answer also perhaps lies in another question by way of tweet: “Why not set up a truly independent institution to select ‘experts’ in positions that are presently occupied predominantly by retired IAS Babus. This will also prevent jostling for such assignments by those that are due to retire soon”.

(Author is a former UP Cadre IAS officer, having served the Union Government as Coal Secretary and School Education Secretary)