6 years on, PM Modi’s core team is in the grip of IAS, IPS, IRS officers from Gujarat

6 years on, PM Modi’s core team is in the grip of IAS, IPS, IRS officers from Gujarat

From the PMO to investigative agencies and key regulators, civil servants from the Gujarat cadre — or those with a connection to the state — wield much power in Modi govt.

(L-R) P.D. Vaghela, G.C. Murmu, Rita Teaotia, and P.K. Pujari | Credit: ANI, Twitter/ @diprjk, Youtube, Twitter/@wecindia

(L-R) TRAI chairman P.D. Vaghela, CAG G.C. Murmu, FSSAI chair Rita Teaotia, and CERC chair P.K. Pujari are all IAS officers of the Gujarat cadre | Credit: ANI, Twitter/ @diprjk, Youtube, Twitter/@wecindia

New Delhi: Last week, the Modi government appointed P.D. Vaghela, a 1986-batch IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre, as chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

With this, there now are four key regulatory bodies headed by officers of the Gujarat cadre, or the cadre of PM Narendra Modi’s home state, which he led as chief minister from 2001 to 2014.

Vaghela, a trusted hand of PM Modi, is known to have played a crucial role in the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2017, and also served as the commissioner of commercial tax in his home state.

Vaghela was set to retire last month, but will now serve as TRAI chairman for the next three years. His immediate predecessors in the regulatory body were senior officers such as R.S. Sharma, who enjoyed a five-year tenure, and Nripendra Misra, who went on to become the Prime Minister’s closest and most trusted civil servant for five years from 2014 to 2019.  

Earlier this year, the central government appointed another officer of the Gujarat cadre, G.C. Murmu, as head of the most important government audit body, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) — a position he can occupy until 2025. 

Before this, Murmu served in different positions in the finance ministry — from which he retired as secretary, department of expenditure, in 2019 — as well as the first lieutenant governor of the newly-formed union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC), another important regulatory body, is also headed by a retired IAS officer from Gujarat, P.K. Pujari, who has held the post since 2018.

In 2019, Rita Teaotia, a Gujarat-cadre officer of the 1981 batch, was appointed as chairperson of the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

The trend is not limited to regulatory bodies, which are often headed by retired officers. 

Much has been said about civil servants from Gujarat taking up crucial positions in active governance since 2014, when Modi first came to power in Delhi. It is a trend that has not only continued in his second term as PM but has grown in strength.

From the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to key ministries, investigative agencies and the top tax collection authority of India, many critical positions in Delhi’s power corridors are in the grip of officers with a connection to the PM’s home state.

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PMO — Mixed bag of IAS, promoted IAS, non-IAS officers from Gujarat

The PMO is headed by P.K. Mishra, a 1972-batch officer of the Gujarat cadre who had served as principal secretary to Modi when he was the chief minister. Brought to Delhi when Modi became Prime Minister, Mishra served as additional principal secretary to the PM — a post especially created for him — for five years before he took over as principal secretary to the PM last year.

Accorded the rank of Cabinet minister last year, Mishra has been known as the man who calls the shots in the PMO since the exit of his predecessor, Nripendra Misra, in 2019.

However, it is not just direct IAS recruits who are part of Modi’s core team. 

Earlier this year, surprising many, the Appointments Committee of Cabinet picked Hardik Shah as the Prime Minister’s personal secretary. 

Shah started his career as a junior engineer in the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) before he became an IAS officer in the state in 2015. Handpicked by Modi, Shah was brought to Delhi on central deputation in 2017, and appointed as private secretary to the Union ministers of environment, forest & climate change, and information & broadcasting. 

In 2019, Shah was brought into the PMO as a deputy secretary. With the exit of Rajeev Topno, another Gujarat-cadre officer, from the PMO this year, Shah, 46, was elevated as the private secretary to the PM. He is the youngest officer to serve in this position.

Then there is Sanjay Bhavsar, often referred to as Modi’s shadow. Originally a Gujarat Administrative Service officer, he was brought to the central government as an officer on special duty (OSD) in 2014. After two years of serving as OSD in the PMO, Bhavsar was promoted to the IAS in 2016.

OSDs are posts that are technically open to lateral entry since they do not necessarily have to be occupied by career bureaucrats. Ministers often appoint political workers to these positions.

Other top officers who have been appointed as OSDs in the PMO include the PM’s old hands from Gujarat who are not IAS officers. These include Hiren Joshi and Pratik Doshi, who handle communication and information technology, and research and strategy, respectively. Both Joshi and Doshi were given the rank of joint secretary this year.

Other ministries

But it is not just the PMO, which is known to call all the shots in this government, that is staffed by officers from Gujarat.

This year, Katikithala Srinivas, a Gujarat-cadre officer of the 1989 batch, was picked as secretary to the Appointments Committee of Cabinet (ACC) — the body that decides the appointments to all the top posts in the central government, and includes the Prime Minister (who is the chairman) and the Minister of Home Affairs. 

The position allows him to handle all the top appointments in the central government, the policy on regulation of officers’ tenure, inter-cadre deputation and transfers of All India Service officers, the appointment of election observers during Lok Sabha and assembly polls, and empanelment of officers of the IAS, IFS, IPS, among other tasks.  

Until 2016, the ACC also included the minister of the ministry or department to which an officer was to be appointed, but not anymore. The ACC currently includes Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Katikithala, all of whom have a Gujarat connection.

Others in the list include Guruprasad Mohapatra (secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade or DPIIT), A.K. Sharma (transferred from the PMO to the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises this year in the face of the deteriorating economic situation), Anita Karwal (picked as secretary, school education, in the ministry of education this year), and R.P. Gupta (special secretary in the NITI Aayog, where he is third in hierarchy after Vice-Chairman Rajiv Kumar and CEO Amitabh Kant). The post of Niti Aayog chairman is held by the Prime Minister. 

Earlier this year, PM Modi’s confidant, Bharat Lal, a 1988-batch Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer of the Gujarat cadre, was appointed as the additional secretary of the Jal Shakti Ministry, in what was seen as a clear indication of the focus being accorded to the newly-created ministry.

Lal, who was the Gujarat government’s resident commissioner in Delhi from 2010 to 2014, was then known to be Modi’s pointsman in the national capital.

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The policemen from Gujarat 

 The trend of Gujarat-cadre officers holding key posts also extends to paramilitary forces and investigative and law-enforcement agencies, where at least two IPS officers from the western state play leading roles. 

IPS officer Rakesh Asthana, who traded allegations of corruption with former CBI director Alok Verma in 2018 before the faceoff led to the ouster of both from the agency, now heads the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Narcotics Control Board (NCB) as their director general. He was given a clean chit by the CBI in the corruption case earlier this year.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA), which is empowered to deal with terror-related investigations across the country without needing any special permissions from states, is headed by Y.C. Mody, a Gujarat-cadre IPS officer of the 1984 batch.

The taxmen 

While their cadre clearly gives away the “Gujarat connection” for IAS and IPS officers, it is harder to establish with services that do not have cadres — for example, the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). 

P.C. Mody, an IRS officer of the 1982 batch, currently serves as the chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT). Mody, who was recently given his second extension as the chief of the CBDT, is the second incumbent to have headed the income tax department in Gujarat before coming to Delhi for the top post — the first being his predecessor Sushil Chandra, who is now an election commissioner.

An IAS officer who spoke to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity said while Gujarat-cadre officers have continued to be absorbed into the central government, one should expect this trend to go down.

“Yes, the PM has brought in most of his trusted officers from Gujarat to the Centre, but one cannot forget that he has been in Delhi for the last six years… In this time, he has come to work closely with several officers from other cadres, and some of them are his most trusted officers today,” the officer said. 

“Of course, given that some officers from Gujarat hold crucial positions, they will enlarge their network in Delhi, but, over the years, one will see the PM’s core to be a distinctly Delhi team without a very large Gujarat influence.”

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