Thursday, 9 January 2014

An Adarsh lesson for babus: Don’t flirt with political bosses

There has been a noticeable silence from the bureaucracy over the decision of the Maharashtra government to go soft on the politicians indicted by the J. A. Patil commission on the Adarsh Housing society scam, even as proceedings against the officials allegedly involved continue.
Contrast this with the outraged reactions when retired coal secretary P. C. Parakh was named in the first information report (FIR) in the coal block allocations case. Or when young IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal was suspended for taking on the sand mining mafia in Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh. Serving and retired IAS officers demanded that safeguards be put in place to ensure that bureaucrats are not victimised for bona fide decisions and actions they take in the course of their work.
The contrast in responses is natural. Parakh and Nagpal were seen as honest officials being persecuted for legitimate decisions. The officers named in the Adarsh scam are seen as having benefited from illegal actions.
Important though this difference is, dare one suggest that the bureaucracy’s silence in the Adarsh case is a tad misplaced? The issue is not whether the officers are innocent or not; the issue is the patent double standards that the Maharashtra government has adopted.
The state government sees no duplicity. The politicians, chief minister Prithviraj Chavan quibbled, had merely extended political patronage and not indulged in any criminality. He is perhaps technically correct. After all it is the bureaucrats who initiate files, make notings and, in some cases, sign on decisions. Politicians merely indicate what they want done.
In Andhra Pradesh, eight IAS officers are facing criminal charges in cases of alleged corruption by former chief minister, the late Y. S. Rajashekhar Reddy. Some politicians are also in the dock, but the officers became more culpable because they had done the paperwork.
Look also at what happened when Parakh’s name figured in the coal block FIR. The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement which detailed the movement of the file related to the allotment of coal blocks to Hindalco. The statement said that the Prime Minister merely signed something Parakh had proposed. Worse, information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari and external affairs minister Salman Khurshid said ministers could not be going through every word and notation on a file before signing it.
This has a clear message for the bureaucracy – when push comes to shove, politicians will stand by their own and disown official. This is not just an end to the days of anonymity of the bureaucracy – the unwritten code that existed in the fifties and sixties that ministers would take responsibility for decisions they had signed off on. It is an indication that politicians now expect bureaucrats to take the rap for everything, much like drivers have to own up to hit-and-run accidents committed by their rich employers.
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? Unpalatable as it may be, the truth is that the bureaucracy has brought upon itself a lot of the problems it is facing today. Indira Gandhi has rightly been blamed for politicising the bureaucracy, but could it have happened to the extent it has unless bureaucrats also played ball?
The onus of change, therefore, cannot be on politicians alone. Why would they initiate change in a system that works for them all the time? It is the bureaucrats who must now put the political establishment on notice – that they will no longer be willing accomplices or supine doormats.
But this will mean doing a lot of things differently.
It will mean not taking verbal orders, especially if they are illegal. There is a convention that verbal orders are recorded in a note without delay. The fact that the Supreme Court had to recently give an order insisting on this practice shows how rarely it was being followed.
It will mean using the various protections that service rules offer to resist pressure and do one’s job with integrity.
But above all, it will mean bureaucrats presenting a united front to the political establishment.  Many bureaucrats succumb to pressure because they cannot fight the system alone. They need to have the confidence that their colleagues and seniors will stand by them. This solidarity cannot be episodic but has to be sustained.
Harassment in the form of frequent or clearly vindictive transfers can be checked by the cabinet secretary at the Centre or the chief secretaries in the states. But often they do not pull their weight adequately. If the head of a service refuses to stand up for those under his charge, who will?
Political bosses find ways to get around stubbornly upright officers by using other pliable officers. A senior officer can use his position to browbeat a junior. And a willing-to-be-compromised junior can put the senior in a spot by drafting a note or manipulating a file in a particular manner. Ashok Khemka, the controversial Haryana cadre IAS officer, has accused two other officers of conspiring with the state government to harass him because he tried to block some allegedly dubious land deals of Robert Vadra. One of the two officials, he has alleged, had a role in approving these land deals. Clearly, for every upright officer, there are several others who not only facilitate wrongdoing but also the harassment of conscientious and principled colleagues.
The Adarsh case should be a wake up call for all those bureaucrats who either willingly collude with the political establishment for rewards ranging from comfortable/lucrative postings to material gain or silently acquiesce in wrongdoing.  At the first sign of trouble, the politicians will abandon them and leave them holding the can. And then their colleagues are not likely to rally around them.
There are two lessons for the bureaucracy. One, don’t get into too a cosy relationship with the political bosses; stay within the boundaries set by the Constitution.  Two, stand by your own, especially when upright colleagues are being harassed or facing pressure.  But the second will not be possible without the first. No Supreme Court order or administrative reform measures will work if bureaucrats willingly break ranks to flirt with their political bosses.

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