Until early last week, it was almost certain that R M Premkumar, the 1968 batch IAS officer from the Maharashtra cadre, would succeed M M K Sardana as the new secretary in the ministry of company affairs. Premkumar, according to his batch mates, is a tough officer.
As chairman of the Food Corporation of India, he has given ample evidence of his forthrightness.
So, what went wrong? Why didn't Premkumar step into the shoes of Sardana, who retired on September 30? It seems Company Affairs Minister Prem Chand Gupta had different thoughts on this issue.
The minister had found Sardana too tough an officer to handle. And he was not prepared to deal with another officer just as tough as Sardana.
A minister has every right to have a say in the appointment of the secretary of his ministry. Thus, Komal Anand, the 1968 batch Haryana cadre IAS officer, currently holding the position of director general of CAPART in the ministry of rural development, became the compromise choice.
Premkumar now has to wait for the next round of secretarial reshuffles to get a secretarial posting in a Union ministry. There is yet another associated impact of Premkumar's failure to get the secretaryship of the company affairs ministry.
L V Saptharishi, a 1969 batch West Bengal cadre IAS officer, had been shortlisted to take charge of FCI as its chairman. Now that Premkumar has not got a posting in the ministry, Saptharishi, too, has to wait for some more time to become the head of FCI.
There was one more officer from the ministry of rural development who benefited from last week's secretaries reshuffle. Mano Ranjan, secretary in the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, was picked to succeed Binoo Sen who retired on September 30 as steel secretary.
J Harinarayan, an additional secretary looking after the department of land resources in the ministry of rural development (a 1970 batch Andhra Pradesh cadre IAS officer), was appointed as the new secretary to oversee the ministry of statistics and programme implementation.
The big surprise was, of course, the government's silence on what happens to Dipak Chatterjee, who completed his extended tenure as commerce secretary on September 30. But there were enough hints that Chatterjee's career with the government was far from over.
First, the government took the view that it would still prefer a bureaucrat to head the Competition Commission of India. Don't forget that Chatterjee had been appointed CCI chairman almost a year ago.
But a controversy arose over why a judge should not hold that position. Now it is clear that the government wants to nominate a bureaucrat to head CCI, after due consultations with the judiciary.
Second, Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath left no one in doubt at an internal meeting to felicitate the services of Chatterjee that the West Bengal cadre IAS officer's services would be used in some other way, may be after a gap of a few months.
There is, of course, a possibility that the judiciary may not agree to Chatterjee's nomination as head of CCI. But then the government has another option for Chatterjee.
The alternative proposal is to upgrade the post of India's permanent representative at the World Trade Organisation at Geneva and send Chatterjee there to succeed K M Chandrasekhar, who has returned to New Delhi as the revenue secretary, although there was some protest over the appointment since there were more senior officers belonging to earlier batches who were yet to get a key secretarial posting. Chandrasekhar belongs to the 1970 batch of IAS officers from the Kerala cadre.
But Chatterjee is proving to be a highly durable officer. As commerce secretary, his services were considered valuable by Arun Jaitley, when he was the commerce minister, and Kamal Nath, too, found it necessary to extend his tenure by three months beyond his retirement.
There are other ministers like Pranab Mukherjee who would back Chatterjee's candidature either as the CCI head or as India's permanent WTO representative at Geneva.
Last week's secretarial reshuffle and the current thinking on filling up key vacancies arising in the coming weeks show that little has changed the way appointments of senior officials are being made.
The Prime Minister's Office had created an impression soon after the formation of the United Progressive Alliance government that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was taking the decisions on appointing key officials in different ministries.
Singh may still be taking those decisions. But the ministers continue to have an equally important say in the final appointment. If a minister is not happy with a certain bureaucrat, there is no way he can be appointed.
There were and there are powerful forces within the government, which continue to wield considerable influence over the appointment of key bureaucrats.There has also been no significant movement towards a better and more transparent system of identifying the right bureaucrat for the right job. The achievement of that goal is as crucial to keep the bureaucracy motivated as to improve governance.