New Delhi: In the face of mounting criticism over its handling of the alleged gang-rape and murder in Hathras, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s government in Uttar Pradesh last week removed Awanish Awasthi — considered the most powerful civil servant in UP — as the additional chief secretary of the state’s information department.
The government replaced Awasthi with former CMs Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav’s ‘Man Friday’, senior IAS officer Navneet Sehgal, as its handling of the media in the aftermath of the incident — banning journalists from entering Hathras for two days and “leaking” the phone conversation of an India Today reporter with the victim’s family, among others — drew widespread flak.
While the UP administration’s handling of the crisis has been under the scanner for almost a week, little is known about the officers who call the shots in the establishment led by Adityanath, who had no previous experience as an administrator before he took the reins of India’s most populous state in 2017.
ThePrint looks at the different, often competing, power centres in Adityanath’s UP.
Known to be the most powerful IAS officer in the UP government, Awasthi, from the 1987 batch, is often called “mini CM” in the state’s power corridors.
With the information department no longer under him, Awasthi is left with the home portfolio, which he heads as the additional chief secretary.
Some of the most controversial decisions of the UP government in recent months — the crackdown on anti-CAA protesters and suspension of SMS and mobile internet services at the height of the protests in December-January, or banning the media from entering Hathras and the midnight cremation of the 20-year-old Dalit woman by the police — are all said to carry Awasthi’s stamp.
On deputation with the central government until 2017, Awasthi was prematurely called back to UP when Adityanath came to power.
Sources in the UP administration told ThePrint that there are two theories on Awasthi being called back. One is that a powerful UP-cadre IAS officer in the Prime Minister’s Office wanted Awasthi, then a joint secretary in the social justice ministry, to take charge of the state as the principal secretary to the newly appointed CM. The other is that it was on Adityanath’s own demand. Awasthi had served as the district magistrate of Gorakhpur in 2002-03, the early years of Adityanath’s membership of Parliament from the constituency. It was at that time that the monk-turned-politician established a rapport with Awasthi — one that continues to this day.
If Awasthi is the “mini CM”, Bansal is labelled the “super CM”. The BJP general secretary or “sangathan mantri” is neither a civil servant nor a formal part of the UP government in any other capacity. A close confidant of Union Home Minister Amit Shah and a reticent party strategist, Bansal oversaw the BJP’s two sweeping victories in UP — in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as well as the 2017 assembly polls.
He is, however, known to be a parallel power structure in UP. Be it vital party issues such as distribution of tickets to candidates or key appointments of civil servants, including the DMs and SPs in the state, Bansal, an RSS man, is known to prevail on all decisions.
Sources say it is believed Bansal had a role to play in Awasthi not being appointed principal secretary to the CM, and instead being made additional principal secretary, even though the IAS officer was given some key departments to handle.
Shashi Prakash Goyal
It was Shashi Goyal, an IAS officer of the 1989 batch, who was appointed as the principal secretary. Like Awasthi, he too was serving at the Centre when the new government in UP was formed in 2017, and was repatriated to the state.
Known to be close to Bansal, Goyal, sources said, has been a parallel power centre to Awasthi. “See, Awasthi is not in the CMO, Goyal is. That means every file that comes to the CM is routed through him. It is through him that Bansal keeps an eye on the workings of the UP government,” said an IAS officer, who requested anonymity. In addition to being the principal secretary to the CM, Goyal handles departments such as civil aviation, estates and protocol.
The events in Hathras have added a forgotten troubleshooter to the list of power-wielders in the state. A 1988-batch IAS officer, Sehgal served as secretary to Mayawati for her entire five-year term between 2007 and 2012. Relegated to an obscure posting in the first few years of her successor, Akhilesh Yadav, Sehgal was roped in as principal secretary, information, by the Samajwadi Party government for crisis management when the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots struck UP.
Known for his astute media management, Sehgal slowly became one of Akhilesh’s most trusted officers — handling the ambitious project of the Lucknow-Agra Expressway, as well as ensuring good publicity for the government.
Sehgal’s prominence in the BSP and SP governments ensured he was at the receiving end of flak from the opposition, which accused him of corruption.
With Adityanath coming to power in 2017, Sehgal was once again shunted out from his position, as he was seen as a close aide of Akhilesh.
But as crisis struck the Adityanath government in the form of the Hathras incident, much like his predecessor, the chief minister turned to Sehgal, the crisis and media manager. The officer now holds the twin charges of MSMEs and information in the state, making him one of the most important officers in Lucknow once again.
As the chief secretary of the state, R.K. Tiwari, a 1985-batch IAS officer, is supposed to wield immense power. But sources in the UP government say that given that most of the power lies with Awasthi or Goyal, there is little scope for the chief secretary to assert himself.
“Given that he is the chief secretary, most files do come to him, but he does not enjoy too much influence in the government. What he does bring to the table, though, is institutional memory… While both Awasthi and Goyal were in Delhi for some time, Tiwari has been in UP. So the CM can turn to him for institutional memory,” said a former IAS officer who recently retired from the government.
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