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Ex-Bureaucrats As Ministers: How Modi’s trust in civil servants is growing

Former civil servants are independently heading five key ministries of the new Modi government.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jun 09, 2019, 09.54 AM IST
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Jaishankar’s senior in the IFS and former Indian envoy to the United Nations, Hardeep Singh Puri, has lost his maiden electoral battle from Punjab’s Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency.
If the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in the hill station of Mussoorie is where civil servants begin their tryst with bureaucracy, some storied postscripts are being written on Raisina Hill in Delhi. These mark a transition — from an officer to a minister, from a babu to a neta. It involves two steps these days: gaining, crucially, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trust, and paying Rs 5, at an appropriate time, for a membership in the Bharatiya Janata Party.

At the swearing-in ceremony of the Council of Ministers last week, Modi surprised everyone when former foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was asked to take oath as cabinet minister ahead of party veterans such as Prakash Javadekar, Piyush Goyal and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. The retired Indian Foreign Service officer of 1977 batch now helms the External Affairs Ministry.

Jaishankar’s senior in the IFS and former Indian envoy to the United Nations, Hardeep Singh Puri, has lost his maiden electoral battle from Punjab’s Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency. But that did not stop Modi from appointing him in charge of two key ministries — Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, and Ministry of Civil Aviation. Also, former Union home secretary and IAS officer, RK Singh, is once again given independent charge of two ministries — Ministry of Power and Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

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Then, in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal is given two deputies — Puri and Som Parkash, a former IAS officer of the Punjab cadre. In another first, Ajit Doval, former director of Intelligence Bureau, has been given the rank of a Union cabinet minister in his second stint as National Security Adviser. With former civil servants helming five Union ministries and acting as deputies in four in Modi 2.0, a suspicion has been confirmed: PM Modi’s trust in bureaucrats is only growing.

It is well known that even when Modi was Gujarat chief minister (2001-14), he trusted a handful of bureaucrats to fast-track policy implementation. It is a model that he continued after assuming charge as prime minister in May 2014. Soon after, he invited batches of Union secretaries, additional secretaries and joint secretaries for regular pep talks to the lawns of his residence complex Panchavati on 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, apart from initiating structural meetings among small groups of secretaries. This underlined his belief that a good bureaucrat can deliver more than a typical neta. A hallmark of Modi Sarkar 1.0 was the empowerment of bureaucrats to break ministerial silos and speed up decision-making.

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In September 2017, Modi moved forward on it, bestowing key ministries on four former bureaucrats — Singh, Puri, KJ Alphons and Satya Pal Singh — ignoring the aspirations of many a party veteran. Politically, Modi could afford to do that, as his party had just won two-thirds majority in the electorally significant state of Uttar Pradesh, pushing potential dissenters to the background. Today, Modi with a 303-seat mandate, is applying the same formula with an even greater vigour and placing key ministries under former bureaucrats who have had no background in saffron politics. There’s, though, a reason behind each selection.

While Jaishankar is expected to chart a new path to engage India economically and diplomatically with the rest of the world, the continuity of RK Singh as minister of power is to prioritise affordable power supply, 24x7, among others.

But why was Puri made MoS in commerce, in addition to the two ministries he heads? The former diplomat is expected to bring to the table his expertise in trade negotiations at a time when more and more developed nations are going by politically expedient nationalistic sentiments, increasing trade restrictions.

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So, can a former bureaucrat necessarily do a better job than a politician? BJP's new MP from Odisha, Aparajita Sarangi, says former bureaucrats have an advantage "as they know the government system inside out".

"But I don't want to give a blanket statement saying all former civil servants will become good ministers. Yes, the expectations from former civil servants will always be high," adds Sarangi, who joined the ruling party last year after resigning from the Indian Administrative Service, 11 years ahead of her retirement. Another IAS officerturned-politician MGVK Bhanu told ET Magazine that civil servants have an initial advantage because they know sarkari processes inside out.

"But seasoned politicians always have a better understanding of what people want. They know the pulse of the people better," says the 60-year-old, who unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha poll from Tezpur in Assam on a Congress ticket. He has a word of advice for young officers: do not quit the IAS simply because some bureaucrat has become a minister.

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"Winning election is more difficult than getting selected for IAS," he adds. Bhanu has a point. While he managed a respectable 4.4 lakh votes, some former IAS officers suffered a humiliating defeat in the recent Lok Sabha polls.

For example, former Union secretary and anti-corruption crusader, Vi j ay Shankar Pandey, got only 2,056 votes (0.19% of the total votes polled) in UP's Faizabad constituency. Pandey fought on a Lok Gathbandhan Party ticket.

Last year, a young IAS officer from Chhattisgarh, OP Choudhary, left the elite service when he had 23 more years to go and joined the BJP to fight, arguably, the most difficult seat of the state, Kharsia, where the party had never won before. Choudhary lost in the assembly elections, and was subsequently denied a Lok Sabha ticket too. In the past, a handful of career bureaucrats -IAS officers Yashwant Sinha and Ajit Jogi, IFS officers Meira Kumar, Natwar Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar, and IRS officer Arvind Kejriwal -have won elections and made a mark in politics.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh was also an industry and finance secretary though he was not from the IAS. He contested the Lok Sabha poll only once, from South Delhi in 1999, but lost.

The general tendency among bureaucrats is to hold on to power, without being jolted by the ups and downs of electoral or party politics. This has resulted in the emergence of super-babus at the Centre and in states, dominating the agenda of the day and often overshadowing senior ministers.

For example, the influence of IAS officer V Karthikeyan Pandian on Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, or of former Central Secretariat Service officer and incumbent principal secretary Gautam Sanyal on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is exceptional.

The classic case of a bureaucrat dictating politics and policy has been that of Shashank Shekhar Singh, a pilot-turned-civil servant, who became a super minister when Mayawati was Uttar Pradesh chief minister between 2007 and 2012.

After a landslide victory, Mayawati created a controversial post - the cabinet secretary - for Singh. He was also given the rank of a cabinet minister. Understandably, senior officers of the day did not take it kindly, saying the post itself was unconstitutional as it would render the coveted position of chief secretary, always held by an IAS officer, redundant. At that time, there were rumours in the corridors of power that Singh, as pilot, must have staged a mid-air turbulence and then a safe landing to earn Mayawati's goodwill.

That must have been just tattletale but it points to something real: it is not easy for most bureaucrats to accept one among them as their political boss.

That is why an invisible challenge for Jaishankar, Puri, RK Singh, among others, could well emanate from within the babudom. Of the many curveballs the bureaucrat-turnedneta has to face, the trickiest is in taking the old turf of bureaucracy along.

As IAS officer, you work in a limited way… politics gives a wider canvas: Aparajita Sarangi
As an IAS officer (for 25 years) I was lucky to get the best of postings, both at the Centre and in my state, Odisha. As joint secretary in the Union Ministry of Rural Development, I was given the important task of handling the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).

But, as an IAS officer, you can work only in a limited way. Politics gives a much wider canvas. Your horizon gets bigger.

So I decided to quit my job last year, when I had 11 years of service left.

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Aparajita Sarangi, 49, is a 1994 batch Odisha cadre IAS officer.Aparajita Sarangi, 49, is a 1994 batch Odisha cadre IAS officer.

I looked at various options. The Congress was a total no. The BJD (Biju Janata Dal) is a regional power, but it’s dying a natural death. The BJP was, therefore, the obvious choice. Two things in the party attracted me. First, the strong leadership of PM Modi and, second, its development-oriented approach.

I was given a tough seat to contest from. The ruling BJD had won Bhubaneswar for the last 20 years. It’s also the capital city, which means the ruling party had major influence there. My job was to break that. This time, the BJD gave ticket to a new candidate (a former IPS officer). But people trusted me, and I won the seat.

On whether civil servants become better ministers, let me say that it’s easier for civil servantsturned-politicians to handle ministries, as they know the government system inside out.

I don’t want to give a blanket statement, saying all former civil servants will become good ministers. But yes, the expectations from former civil servants will always be more. (Sarangi defeated her nearest rival, BJD’s Arup Mohan Patnaik, by a margin of 23,839 votes).

Winning election is more difficult than getting selected for IAS: MGVK Bhanu
It will be wrong to say that someone will be a better minister simply because one had a background in civil services. Yes, civil servants have an advantage as they know how the government functions and how to implement policies. But seasoned politicians have a better understanding of what people want. They know the pulse of the people better.

An IAS officer has a direct contact with people when she is a deputy commissioner (or district magistrate). But that’s a short part of your career, at best five years.

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MGVK Bhanu, 60, is 1985 batch Assam cadre IAS.


After that, you lose touch with them. As a senior officer, you don’t go to the block level. So, you lose your connect.

If you compare an IAS officer and a full-time politician fighting an election, I would say, politics is much harder. I won’t hesitate to say that winning an election is more difficult than getting selected as an IAS officer through a written examination followed by an interview.

I joined politics (after retirement) because I wanted to continue my work in the area of development. This is my second innings. But I won’t advise young IAS officers to join the political bandwagon just because someone has become a minister. The IAS too gives a big opportunity to work for people. So, young officers must not just quit the service. Politics is not an easy path. Only those who are sincere and highly committed to work at the grassroots on a sustained basis must venture into it.

(Bhanu, originally hailing from Andhra Pradesh, lost to BJP’s Pallab Lochan Das by a margin of 2,42,841 votes).
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