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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

Delays in choosing top bureaucrats belittles the job

Don't delay

Why doesn't government make up its mind sooner?

Last week M S Gill (right) took over as chief election commissioner from T N Seshan. There was nothing particularly surprising or unexpected about this appointment. Gill had served as an election commissioner during Seshan's tenure and had officiated as chief election commissioner during his absences.

Moreover, few would dispute that Gill is clearly the right man for the job. Unlike his colleague, the distinguished but somewhat more emotional G V G. Krishnamurthy, he consistently refused to be provoked by Seshan's hectoring, bullying attitude and kept his cool through the former chief election commissioner's most megalomaniacal excesses.

His own credentials are also impressive. A well-respected civil servant, he is an expert on agricultural issues and was favourite for the post of cabinet secretary when Zafar Saifullah got the job.

Given this background, Gill's appointment should have been a foregone conclusion. But nothing is ever that simple in India.

On the day that Seshan (left) retired, the government had still not nominated his successor -- there was talk of asking Gill to officiate till the new man could be named. Nor did anybody take it for granted that Gill would get the job. Several others were reported to be in the race, and judging by the tone of the press coverage, Gill was not even the favourite.

Finally, long after he should have done so, Law Minister Ramakant Khalap told the press -- on an unattributable basis -- that the government had chosen Gill. Even so, the nomination took its time in coming through and when Seshan stepped down, the post became vacant.

The suspense was avoidable and unnecessary. It had the effect belittling Gill who had to read speculation in the media day after day. It annoyed Krishnamurthy, who finally exploded with one or two remarks to the media (about his seniority as compared to Gill's) that he probably would not have made if it had not been for the tension.

Ultimately, the delay belittled the job.

The suspense surrounding the appointment of a new chief election commissioner is symbolic of the way in which things are now done in India.

In the case of nearly every major government appointment, the same attitude rules. I cannot understand why this should be so. In each case, the circumstances are much the same. The government only has to decide whether it wishes to give the incumbent an extension or choose one out of three or four contenders (at the most).

The identities of the contenders are no secret. In the race for cabinet secretary, there are usually two or three civil servants with the requisite seniority. The same is true for the selection of the foreign secretary. And yet, nobody even bothers to examine the issue till the last moment and even then, there is no guarantee that any decision will be taken.

While the delay has long been institutionalised, things got really bad in the P V Narasimha Rao era. Both Rajiv Gandhi and V P Singh were very clear that they wanted their own men in key jobs and were not shy of saying so openly. Rajiv made Seshan cabinet secretary over the objections of everybody who mattered because he wanted a loyalist in the job during an election year. And V P Singh was so certain that he wanted Vinod Pande to replace Seshan that he did not worry too much about the details of the seniority principle.

Unfortunately, Narasimha Rao's famous indecisiveness led him to avoid taking any decisions at all about personnel matters -- if he could help it. The race for cabinet secretary -- which Zafar Saifullah eventually won -- must rank as one of the lowest points in our administrative history.


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