Patna: When the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government took power in Bihar in 2005, then BJP MLA Bhola Singh, who later served as the Begusarai MP, told Nitish that he would make a good chief secretary but not a good chief minister.
It was veiled reference to the chief minister’s proclivity for civil servants as opposed to peers in his own party, the JD (U), and ally BJP.
In the 14 years he has held power in the state, barring a seven-month period in 2014, little has changed in Nitish’s style of functioning — the chief minister continues to rely on civil servants loyal to him rather than career politicians.
Officials pointed out that some civil servants have held onto their positions of power right through these 14 years. As a result, a powerful faction holds fort in the state at the expense of state ministers and even other officers not part of the coterie.
Take the case of Maheshwar Hazari, the state minister of planning and development. Until September, Hazari held the housing ministry but had differences with his department’s secretary Chanchal Kumar, an IAS officer who has been with Nitish since the chief minister’s days as railway minister in 1998-99. It was Hazari who was shifted out while Chanchal remains.
In 2016, IAS officer Sudhir Rakesh put in his papers and opted for the voluntary retirement scheme (VRS). Kumar, known to be an officer who successive chief election commissioners trusted (he was given the charge to conduct polls in West Bengal), cited personal reasons for his decision.
“But then everyone knows that Sudhir quit due to the arrogant behaviour of a junior IAS officer in the CM’s office who insisted that he show a mock presentation he had prepared for a CM’s review meeting,” said a serving IAS officer who did not wish to be named.
Nitish’s powerful officers
The Nitish government has its set of IAS officers who have been at the heart of its policy-making for over a decade. The chief minister has also retained some of them, either in official capacity or through his party, after they have retired.
Former Bihar chief secretary Anjani Singh was appointed advisor to the CM when he retired in 2018. He is a very powerful civil servant who has Nitish’s ear. Former IAS officer R.C.P. Sinha was all-powerful until he retired and was made a JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP.
The other powerful civil servants include Amir Subhani, who has been heading the home department for over a decade. When it comes to infrastructure such as ensuring power connectivity or constructing roads, it is IAS officer Pratay Amrit.
Another IAS officer Nitish relies on is Anand Kishor, who was recently shifted to the urban development department to revamp Patna’s drainage system after the Nitish government faced flak for the way it handled the deluge in the capital following heavy rains last month.
Critics say the trend of retaining a civil servant in one post is “dangerous”.
“Prolonged stay of an official at one post gives rise to autocracy. It is a dangerous trend in which officials get identified with one politician instead of the state,” said RJD MLA Alok Kumar Mehta.
“Many officials identified with a regime get punished when the regime changes. It will be much better if the transfers are routine and on the basis of competence rather than loyalty,” Mehta added.
“It’s bad for bureaucracy,” former chief secretary of Bihar and Jharkhand, V.S. Dubey, told The Print.
“As a bureaucrat one expects you to be neutral. But over the years, one tends to shift loyalties towards the chief minister. Nothing else matters. And these officials sometimes behave as if they are Gods,” said Dubey.
“This is not to say that all of them are incompetent,” said the serving IAS officer quoted above. “Many of them deliver. But they also have an overbearing effect on other officers.”
Critics also question the way the officers are promoted. “There have been cases in which district magistrates (DMs) have been promoted as commissioners in the same region,” said another retired officer. “It is not done, as commissioners review decisions taken by DMs. Practically, the commissioner would be reviewing his own decision.”
JD(U) minister Shyam Rajak, however, defended the chief minister, saying the trend lends stability.
“Officers occupying one post for prolonged periods actually helps the government in functioning,” he said. “It only helps stability and work in the department and trust is a key factor that should be there between the political class and the executive.”