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Has the rule of One become despotism?

By Ram Ugrah
July 16, 2014 14:27 IST
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets President Pranab Mukherjee after administering him the oath of office at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Photograph: PTI PhotosThe civil services seem to have gone sour under the NDA government. Ministers exercise executive power in a partisan manner. Consequently, a regime of favouritism holds sway over the corridors of power, feels Ram Ugrah.

The late Sardar Patel, in his famous speech in the Constituent Assembly, vociferously argued that if his proposal was not accepted that India needs a strong and independent civil service which faithfully carries out government policy impartially and fearlessly without any prejudice, he would quit!

Regardless of what Patel envisaged the role of the civil services, governments of the day continue to falter to implement the policy, maintain law and order and follow the rules.

But this concept that the first home minister of India visualised for the civil services seems to have gone sour today under the BJP-led NDA government. Ministers exercise executive power in a partisan manner.

Consequently, a regime of favouritism holds sway over the corridors of power. As things are developing now under the new regime, the civil service is being 'saffronised.'

After the first round of distributing ministerial berths among the new faces in his cabal, Narendra Modi is a busybody fixing up mandarins with apparent proximity to the Sangh Parivar and BJP.

In order to curry favour, they are bending over backward to manoeuvre plum postings in the administrative set-up. There is a beeline of them hankering to grab alluring assignments on Raisina Hill or abroad.

A moot question in this scenario arises whether civil servants can associate themselves with political parties in power. The rules say no, but a blind eye is turned to many having connections with the RSS and BJP.

From babudom to politics, it has been a road well-travelled for many a bureaucrat bitten by the political bug while still in service. Many party men donning the garb of government servants are continuing their political activities. Is it ethical? Is it legal?

Despite the rules prohibiting the participation of government servants in political activities it is often violated with impunity. The violations, however, invite no punitive measures.

Rule 5 (1) of the Central Civil Service (Conduct Rules) 1965 clearly states, 'No Government servant shall be a member of, or be otherwise associated with any political party or any organisation which takes part in politics nor shall he take part in, subscribe in aid of, or assist in any other manner, any political movement or activity.'

After Independence, we borrowed from Britain the concept of a neutral civil servant, who served his successive political masters with equal fidelity and equal contempt. When ministers were not as competent or efficient as they should be, the permanent officials rocked the cradles of government, and the cleverer of them knew how to oblige ministers and oblige themselves.

That is why Mr Modi, in his first majoritarian step, brought in a retired IAS officer and appointed him principal secretary, bypassing the rule book through the first-ever recourse of promulgating an ordinance which is not only unprecedented but seems unjustifiable.

Another retired IAS officer, who reportedly acquainted the PM with the basics of handling babus and governance in Gujarat, has been inducted in the specially created post of additional principal secretary. A Gujarat PCS officer, who has been with Modi since 2001 in Gujarat handling appointments, is now the OSD in the PMO.

Modi ministers, on the other hand, are reportedly deciding who would be the joint secretaries or additional secretaries from a panel on which they got their candidates included. In contrast, the previous BJP-led NDA government had not dared to amend the rules prohibiting the participation of government servants in RSS activities despite the RSS demands to allow central officials to do so after a similar ban on state employees in Gujarat was lifted in 2000.

It is notable that the conduct rules are also applicable to party workers holding positions in government. Even the late Brajesh Misra, firstly a contractual official, was bound by these service rules. He ultimately resigned from the BJP in March 1998 before taking charge as principal secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Sudheendra Kulkarni, an emissary of the PM as OSD in the PMO, also had to take a cue from the Brajesh Misra case and followed the same service rules. He, however, had then argued that sitting on the podium during the BJP's national executive meeting in Nagpur was not a violation of service rules, and that since he drew only a token monthly salary of one rupee, he would not be equated with a government servant. The ministry of personnel, however, disputed this claim.

To the consternation of his ministers apart, Modi has reflected his primacy by exceptionally discarding the rights even of Home Minister Rajnath Singh as well to have his private secretary engaged earlier. This authoritarian diktat is reported to have referred these issues to the Cabinet.

All of a sudden, the government came out with another politically motivated and questionable step to destabilise the existing gubernatorial arrangements with threats of removal, replacement and shuffling before the completion of their tenure.

It is inexplicable and a cause of Constitutional concern. The BJP probably thinks their nominees in Raj Bhavans will govern their much trumpeted claims of governance.

The Modi government should be aware that the governor of each state is appointed by the President under Article 155 of the Constitution. Under Article 156 s/he holds office during the pleasure of the President and is accountable only to him. The accountability achieves special significance under Article 356 of the Constitution when it is the governor who advises whether or not there is a failure of the Constitutional machinery in the state over which s/he presides.

Democratic governments under a system of laws requires that laws and rules are administered without prejudice and without showing undue favour to anyone. There can be no partisan application of laws, rules or policy. The worst effect of the emasculation of the civil service is felt during an emergency.

Modi has turned himself into a calculating practitioner of authoritarianism under a Constitutional government. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Justice R M Lodha took strong exception to the government 'unilaterally' segregating former solicitor general Gopal Subramaniam while approving the appointment of three others as Supreme Court judges.

'In the last 20 years, I have fought for independence of the judiciary and for me this is one subject that is non-negotiable... I will be the first man to leave this chair if I know independence of the judiciary has been compromised. I will not hold my office even for a second then,' Justice Lodha asserted.

Earlier, Gopal Subramaniam slammed the government for blocking his appointment and stated that 'My independence as a lawyer caused apprehension that I will not toe the line of the government.'

Ahoy! It seems that the rule of one has become the modern form of despotism.

Ram Ugrah is a Lucknow-based journalist.

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