New Delhi: The civil service is the steel frame of government and governance in India is a famous cliché.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is giving that cliché a reality check — the solid steel frame is being shaken, stirred and given a makeover like never before in its seven-decade history.
A push for the lateral entry of domain experts, forced retirements of officers in bulk, concerted attempts to break the stranglehold of the IAS, experiments with the time-tested recruitment rules of civil servants, and instances of “protest resignations” of officers — the Indian civil service is undergoing an unmissable churn under the Modi government.
For those directly affected by this churn — the once all-powerful civil servants — the message is loud and clear. The rules of the relationship between the political class and the permanent civil service are being changed by a strong, majority government headed by a powerful leader who believes in being in control.
The churn is part of a well-articulated agenda. In its election manifesto released before the 2019 polls, the BJP stated: “To transform India into a developed nation, we need to work with the guiding principle of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ and we will bring reform in the civil services and implement it in a manner to achieve.”
Translated into action, it means the Modi government has no patience for the corrupt, the slackers, the naysayers, the entitled or the sceptics. It rewards loyalty and performance, perhaps in that order. It has no space for those viewed with suspicion.
It is, in a sense, a serious attempt to realign the country’s civil service systems with the Prime Minister’s idea of a New India.
The first whiff of change
That it cannot be business as usual was clear in Narendra Modi’s first term itself. The quiet induction of the controversial 360 degree appraisal format, the abrupt, unexplained and frequent transfers of officers from one ministry to another, the introduction of biometric attendance in government offices, the concentration of power in a PMO manned by handpicked loyalists — all conveyed the fact that Modi would not let India’s steel frame remain isolated from his all-pervasive style of governance.
If civil servants were enamoured by Modi’s “Disruptor-in-Chief” image in the beginning, the 360-degree appraisal format was to become their first rude shock. Initially buoyed by their enhanced status — direct communication with the PM, the diminished status of ministers in decision-making and the cultivation of a new work ethic that was seen as unconditionally rewarding to doers — the first seeds of change were sown with this controversial reform introduced in 2016.
Under this, at the secretary and additional secretary level, the Annual Confidential Report (ACR) is not the only parameter to judge the performance of a senior officer. It includes a complete fact-check about the approach towards work and general behaviour of the individual officer, based on confidential reports from peers, subordinates, and even outsiders who have dealt with the officer.
While some saw the reform as having some merit, most felt that the corporate-style evaluation for civil servants was extremely vulnerable to misuse.
“It is a very non-transparent process, which goes against the principle of natural justice because no officer knows why they are being empanelled or rejected,” chairman of the Uttar Pradesh IAS Association Pravir Kumar, had said.
While the UP IAS Association may be the only forum to have gone public with the criticism, officers across the country continue to question the mechanism in hushed whispers even now.
But the 360-degree appraisal was just a trailer of what was to come when the BJP returned to power with a bigger mandate.
The impermanence of the permanent civil service
Days after coming back to power, the Modi government forcibly retired 27 IRS officers who were facing charges of corruption, sexual harassment and fraud under a hitherto rarely used rule.
While their colleagues in the government were still coming to terms with the sudden firing of senior government officials, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) — which comes directly under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) — made it clear that the whip would routinely be cracked on all civil servants working at the Centre.
In a letter sent to all ministries and Public Sector Units (PSUs), the DoPT made a monthly review of “tainted” officers across the central government mandatory — enforcing a mechanism for the continuous scrutiny of officials for the first time.
The fact that the Prime Minister brought up the issue in his Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort underscored the importance of the anti-graft drive in his scheme of things.
“You must have seen, in the last five years, and this time after coming to power, we have dismissed several people who enjoyed cushy positions in the government,” he said. “Those who used to be roadblocks in our endeavours (to eradicate corruption), we told them to pack their bags (because) the country doesn’t need (their) services.”
The government has since fired 22 more “corrupt” officers from the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and has brought another 284 more from the Central Secretariat Service (CSS) under the scanner for compulsory retirement — and suddenly, the “permanent bureaucracy” is no longer “permanent” for the dishonest, corrupt and inefficient.
“So far, the message is positive in that the government is basically saying that it has zero tolerance for non-performers and corrupt officers,” said a senior IAS officer. “But what makes us worried is that the government cannot be a court unto itself… There is no clarity over what procedure is followed, whether the person fired gets a chance to defend themselves.”
The officer added, “Senior officers cannot just be asked to leave, and then run around in CAT and other courts trying to prove their innocence.”
It is, however, not all arbitrary. Most officers believe that the ones shunted out by the government so far have all had dubious records.
“Nowhere in the country do you have permanent jobs except for in the government,” said Satyananda Mishra, a former DoPT secretary. “If over time, an officer becomes corrupt, unproductive or just incompetent, why should the citizens keep paying to keep him in the government?” he asked.
The procedure to forcibly retire people is “well-settled,” but was just not implemented in the past because “there was too much sympathy for incompetence and wrongdoing”, he added.
‘Attempts to cultivate a committed civil service’
The sword of forced retirements hanging around the necks of even the most senior officials in the Government of India, however, cannot be seen in isolation.
Since last year, the Modi government has sought to change the recruitment rules of civil servants in the country — attempting to add what some officers say is an element of subjectivity to an otherwise objective and time-tested selection procedure of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).
As per current practice, the UPSC independently selects candidates through the Civil Service Examination, who are then allotted services — IAS, IPS, IFS, etc. — on the basis of the ranks secured in the exam. In the last year, however, the government has made attempts to give weightage to the performance of selected candidates in the mandatory combined foundation course, and allot services and cadres to them thereafter.
“It would be very dangerous to tinker with the recruitment rules of civil servants,” says T.R. Raghunandan, a retired IAS officer. “It would lead to complete capture of the system by the Right and give rise to a committed bureaucracy.”
The phrase “committed bureaucracy” was coined by Indira Gandhi, but comes up often in conversations among civil servants nowadays. “Even before this government came to power for the second time, we were told to start planning for its second term,” said a senior IAS officer. “While at one level, it suggested that this government is thinking long-term, but on another, it felt as though we are expected to blindly be committed to their agenda even before they form the government.”
Other reforms too suggest that the attempt is to align civil servants to the government’s agenda. In the last five years, newly-recruited IAS officers are sent to the central government to work as assistant secretaries in various ministries, instead of being sent to their cadres directly.
While the government’s intention is to expose the fresh recruits to the workings of the central government from the very beginning, critics say it is a way to orient the young officers to the thinking of the BJP-led government at the Centre.
The grand lateral entry reform
In June 2018, a tiny job ad appeared in the inside pages of some newspapers. The advertisement for just 10 jobs in the central government sent ripples across the civil service.
For the first time, the government was institutionalising the opening up of the hitherto closed ranks of the civil service. Of 450 posts of joint secretary in the central government, 10 were being opened up for laterally recruited domain experts. Yet, the decision stirred a huge national debate that continues to pervade any conversation on the civil service even a year later.
While the government would take a year to carry out the recruitment process — the nine selected lateral entrants to different ministries in the central government are yet to join even though they were formally appointed last month — the development instantly caught the attention of the commentariat and even political players.
“It is an opportunity to attract and retain the best and brightest from across the world that have a sector perspective and boost the ministry or department’s capabilities and proficiency,” Amitabh Kant, CEO of the NITI Aayog, wrote. “Civil servants together with fresh inputs from lateral entrants can provide synergies to policy and implementation like never before. The role of civil servants becomes even more vital since for lateral inductions to get immersed in the government system will entail a steep learning curve,” he said.
Several others hailed the move and saw it as an opportunity to break the stranglehold of what they saw as India’s “twice-born bureaucracy”, which traces its roots to the British Raj.
“In the civil services, you are selected on the basis of a 30-40-minute interview and marks scored in an exam,” said Mishra, the former DoPT secretary. “It is not a scientific procedure…A lot of people who just get marks in an exam are not cut out for policy-making.”
“Why should they remain in the system and have an uncontested say in matters of governance?” Mishra asked.
The government has already announced its decision to expand the lateral entry scheme, and appoint 40 lateral entrants at the director and deputy secretary level.
But several questions over the credibility of the selection process have been raised. “For me, it is not that important if such reform is brought about. As long as the UPSC is doing it, it is okay,” said former secretary in the central government Anil Swarup. “But the government should not have a say in who is getting what service.”
It is a concern shared by many.
“Lateral entry is not quite a new reform,” said Raghunandan. “Previous governments have done it too without making a song and dance about it… The fear now is that there could be a selection of people of a particular ideology, and that is worrying.”
Serving officers say there are other problems too.
“We have no problem with the lateral entry, we are not scared of competition,” said a member of the IAS Association. “But what has the government done to prevent conflict of interest? Why is there no cooling-off period stipulated for these people?”
“If IAS officers cannot work in the private sector for two years after leaving the government, why provide this privilege to lateral entrants?” he asked. “Is it because the government is worried that nobody would join them if they lay these rules?”
While several officers have been anxious regarding these questions, the IAS Association has so far not made any public statement on the lateral entry reform — betraying a reluctance among officers to question the government.
But a more fundamental question also remains. Would a handful of lateral entrants hired on a contractual basis be allowed to make any real interventions in governance when the corridors of power continue to be dominated by the IAS?
According to Mishra, the lateral entry can work “only if they (lateral entrants) are allowed to work”.
“The worry is that they may become just as good or bad as the system… What can 9-10 people who are appointed for 3-5 years really do?” he asked.
The lateral entrants themselves remain hopeful. A lateral entrant appointed by the government said, “This is the first time an institutionalised lateral entry is taking place in the Government of India, but it’s not like it hasn’t happened before. The perception that we will not be allowed to work or anything is unfounded. There has to be a two-way understanding that we are there to help in certain areas, and we will require help in some areas.”
Constant pressure and surveillance
If there is one service that has been at the centre of the Modi government’s experiments with the civil service, it is the IAS. Once known to have an unchallenged, uncontested hegemony in the hallowed echelons of power, the Modi government has consistently attempted to dismantle its stranglehold in governance.
“Be it by promoting officers from other services, getting lateral entry or getting these biometric attendances, the attempt has been to show IAS officers that they are no longer the big bosses,” said a senior IAS officer.
Ever since it came to power, the Modi government has sought to reduce the empanelment and appointment of IAS officers in the central government, instead promoting and empanelling officers from other services, which had for years complained of discrimination in the rules of empanelment.
Surely, it has not been a one-way street with fewer officers willing to come to the Centre on deputation. “The supply side is shrinking because life was much better for bureaucrats earlier,” said a joint secretary-level IAS officer who did not wish to be named. “We had a lot more freedom to get projects through… Now, there is constant surveillance, monitoring and tremendous pressure to get stuff done quickly.”
“No bureaucrat likes to work in a pressure cooker condition,” he added.
Another officer pointed out that if one is not “a handpicked loyalist”, they are always seen with suspicion. “Even things like who enters our room is constantly watched and reported,” the officer claimed. “Why this constant surveillance?”
While there is tougher surveillance and more pressure to deliver, there is also the perception that “a free hand” is given to those seen as performers. “You would notice that the PM handpicks performers from different places and gives them a free hand,” said a secretary-level officer. “One of the most important things this government did was to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act… The underlying motive behind it was to ensure that officers don’t under-perform in fear of prosecution.”
“The point is that the PM does give mixed signals to the bureaucrats… In one meeting, he will tell secretaries to act as the PM, and the next minute there would be news of forced retirements,” the officer added. “It is one way of keeping everyone on their toes.”
Surely, for some officers, the Modi style of governance has been so unpalatable that they have decided to leave the service altogether — giving rise to a new trend of “protest resignations”.
In July, former finance secretary Subhash Garg offered to resign from the government soon after he was abruptly shunted out of the finance ministry. While the Modi government has frequently transferred secretary-level officers — sometimes rather dishonourably — such a high-profile resignation from the civil services had not been seen in the last three decades, some of his colleagues said.
Subsequently, three officers, much younger than Garg, resigned from the service arguing that democratic principles were being compromised under the Modi government — an unprecedented statement from serving officers of the IAS.
Two of them, however, cited ideological reasons for the decision, while a third resigned for having been posted to the Northeast.
The first of them was G. Kannan, a young officer of the Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram and Union Territories (AGMUT) cadre who left the service, publicly expressing his reservation and disillusionment with the actions of the Government of India in Jammu and Kashmir since 5 August.
Days later, Karnataka cadre officer S. Sasikanth Senthil resigned from the IAS, arguing that it was “unethical” to be an IAS officer when the “fundamental building blocks of diverse democracy are being compromised”. The same day, Kashish Mittal, an AGMUT cadre officer posted in the NITI Aayog, resigned after being posted to the Northeast.
As with most changes brought about by Modi, the reforms in the civil service too remain polarising. While some believe that the system — a relic of the colonial era — is in dire need of radical reform, others fear an ideological and political capture of the civil service. What is indisputable though, is that the fundamental blocks of the Indian civil services are shaking under the Modi government. For better or for worse, it is too soon to tell.