Na tired, Na retired — How Modi govt uses Vajpayee line to hold on to retired IAS officers

Na tired, Na retired — How Modi govt uses Vajpayee line to hold on to retired IAS officers

From PMO to Niti Aayog, from cultural bodies to Railway Board, from apex security council to Ayushman Bharat — Modi’s India is now run by carefully chosen set of retired officers.

(Clockwise from top) P Iyer, Jaishankar, Amitabh Kant, Indu Bhushan, P.K. Sinha, P.K Mishra, Ajit Doval, Nripendra Misra | Illustration: Soham Sen

(Clockwise from top) P Iyer, Jaishankar, Amitabh Kant, Indu Bhushan, P.K. Sinha, P.K Mishra, Ajit Doval, Nripendra Misra | Illustration: Soham Sen

New Delhi: Last month, the Modi government re-employed two retired IAS officers as advisors in the all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). It wasn’t the first, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

Bhaskar Khulbe and Amarjeet Sinha — both IAS officers of the 1983 batch who retired recently — were re-employed on a contractual basis, and given the secretary rank. While Khulbe was already serving in the PMO, Sinha served as secretary in the rural development ministry from 2016 to 2019. 

With these extensions, Khulbe and Sinha have joined a long list of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trusted lieutenants, who continue to remain in active governance, especially in the powerful and centralised PMO, for several years despite retiring. 

Fierce loyalty, a clear understanding of the PM’s style of functioning, an alignment with his vision of “New India”, centralisation of power, continuity, and a focus on scheme-based governance — are said to come together to contribute to the PM’s over-reliance on a retired army of civil servants, even as the serving ones sometimes feel alienated or side-lined.

While the appointment of select retired officers as advisors in the PMO or other offices is hardly new — under the UPA government too, retired officers such as Pulok Chatterji and T.K. Nair were brought in as advisors to PM Manmohan Singh — most officers who spoke to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity said the frequency of such ex-officio appointments has clearly increased under the Modi government. 

From India’s economic policy to foreign policy, from the top office in the country (PMO) to its premier think-tank (Niti Aayog), from cultural bodies to the board that runs the Indian Railways (Railway Board), from India’s apex security council (NSCS) to the country’s ambitious health mission (Ayushman Bharat) — India under Modi is effectively being run by a carefully chosen set of retired officers. At least a dozen such key appointments are known to have been made since Modi became prime minister in 2014.

Nripendra Misra — the once-top civil servant

Just weeks before Khulbe and Sinha were appointed as advisors, retired IAS officer Nripendra Misra, who was until last year considered the most powerful civil servant in the country in his capacity as the PM’s principal secretary, was brought back by the government. 

Misra was appointed the head of the temple construction committee of the Ram Janmabhoomi Tirth Kshetra Trust — the body given the responsibility of building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, which for years has been the cornerstone of the BJP-RSS’ ideological underpinnings.  

Just a few days ago, Misra was also appointed the chairman of the Executive Council of the Nehru Memorial Museum.   

In an unprecedented move, Misra, who had originally retired from the IAS in 2004, was given cabinet rank by the government last year. However, months later he stepped down from the post, giving way to another of the PM’s retired lieutenants to take charge.

P.K. Mishra — the most powerful officer in the country

P.K. Mishra, who had originally retired from service in 2008, had been serving in Modi’s PMO since 2014 as the PM’s additional principal secretary. He too was given cabinet rank in 2019. 

After Misra stepped down, P.K. Mishra took charge as the PM’s principal secretary — making him the most powerful civil servant in the country 12 years after his formal retirement from government service. 

P.K. Sinha —  3 extensions and still going strong

Modi brought in yet another retired IAS officer, P.K. Sinha, into the PMO as his principal advisor — a post especially created for him — in 2019.  

Sinha, a 1977-batch IAS officer, was given three extensions by the Modi government when he was serving as the cabinet secretary — a post he held from 2015 to 2019, making him the longest-serving cabinet secretary in history. 

Ajit Doval — the national security czar

In addition to Misra, Mishra, Sinhas and Khulbe, another extremely powerful civil servant in the PMO is National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, a former IPS officer. 

In 2018, Doval became the de jure head of the national security architecture when the government amended the structure of the Strategic Policy Group — the first tier and nucleus of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) — to make Doval its head instead of the cabinet secretary.  

As its head, Doval was given the power to summon secretaries from any ministries to the SPG meeting — signalling a formal shift in India’s national security decision-making from the cabinet secretariat to the NSCS.   

Last year, the Modi government gave Doval a cabinet rank as well — making him the first NSA in India to be at par with cabinet ministers. 

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Centralisation of power in the PMO 

Officers who spoke to ThePrint said there is a clear-cut reason for these extensions — centralisation of power in a carefully handpicked secretariat at the PMO.   

“There was a time when ministries and ministers enjoyed considerable autonomy in decision-making… With Modi coming in, that has fundamentally changed,” said a retired officer who served as a secretary in two ministries under Modi.

“When all the decision-making is happening in the PMO, you want to ensure that it is executed by a select and trusted group of officers.”

If one looks at the trend of extensions of certain officers simultaneously with the erosion of autonomy of other serving secretary-level officers, the logic becomes clear, the officer said. “The PM only trusts very few officers, and not the whole of the bureaucratic system, so he wants to centralise the powers of the whole bureaucratic system in the hands of these officers even if they have formally retired.” 

T.R. Raghunandan, a retired IAS officer and a batch-mate of Khulbe and Sinha, said that while re-employment of retired officers is indeed a prerogative of the government of the day, and is not a trend unique to the Modi government, it does reflect a degree of “insecurity”. 

“This suggests that you want to stick to a small group of people who don’t pose any threat to your ideology, and will not raise questions,” he said. “It is a fallout of distancing yourself from the bureaucratic system as a whole.” 

A senior official in the government, who did not want to be named, said very few officers can even adjust to the PM’s relentless style of functioning. 

“The PM can be very unforgiving when it comes to following up on execution… Not everyone can work in that fashion,” the officer said. “That is why you see that the PM’s messages to secretaries in other ministries can be harsh, but those in the PMO are mostly always in sync with the PM.” 

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Rewarding performance and nod to scheme-based governance

Amarjeet Sinha — man who ran rural housing scheme

While loyalty and personal rapport with officers is crucial in extensions, Modi is also known to reward performance with extended tenures. 

Take Amarjeet Sinha, for example. As secretary of the rural development ministry for four years under the Modi government, Sinha supervised the execution of key schemes like the MGNREGA and Modi’s pet rural housing scheme — the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana. It paid the BJP rich electoral dividends in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. 

The PM’s style of governance has also seen a preoccupation with the idea of domain expertise. To encourage domain expertise, the PM has not only attempted to institutionalise lateral entry in the civil services, but also brought in two former civil servants who had sought voluntary retirement from the IAS many years ago to spearhead his pet schemes. 

Parameswaran Iyer & Indu Bhushan — powering PM’s pet plans

While Modi brought in Parameswaran Iyer as secretary in the department of drinking water and sanitation in 2016, he brought in Indu Bhushan as the CEO of Ayushman Bharat National Health Protection Mission in 2018. 

As secretary, Iyer has powered the prime minister’s pet Swachh Bharat Mission project in rural India, and has subsequently also been given charge of the Jal Jeevan Mission — another high-powered Modi project. 

Both Iyer and Bhushan were brought back to government to spearhead pet government schemes despite seeking voluntary retirement from service given their wide-ranging and exhaustive experience in their respective fields. 

“But even in their case, rules of retirement of officers will not apply since they are not technically in service,” said the officer who is still serving.

“The message from the PM is that if you know how to deliver, bureaucratic rules of voluntary retirement or regular retirement will not apply to you.” 

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Reforms in mind 

Amitabh Kant — pushing reforms through Niti Aayog

Over the years, the NITI Aayog has come to be the most forceful and prominent route of economic, administrative and governance reforms in the country. 

Reforms like doubling farmer’s income, providing a model Agricultural Land Leasing Law for states, how to achieve Swachh Bharat, popularising digital payments among MSMEs, reforming medical education, introducing Ayushman Bharat, reforming the Medical Council of India, privatisation of railways, highlighting the need for the strategic sale of Air India, lateral entry in civil services have all either been conceptualised by the NITI Aayog or spearheaded by it.

While the NITI Aayog has emerged as the nucleus of all reforms in the Modi government, it is headed by Amitabh Kant, another retired IAS officer. In 2019, he was given a two-year extension as its CEO. 

“His extension reflected two things — one that he enjoys the confidence of the PM completely, and two that the PM values continuity in policy-making greatly,” said a senior official in the NITI Aayog, who retired recently.

While Kant is neither an economist nor a public policy expert, the fact that he has continued to hold this position for this long shows that the PM wants people who can execute his vision, the official added. 

S. Jaishankar — an unprecedented appointment

Another sphere where Modi has sought to push reform through a handpicked retired civil servant is foreign policy. Soon after he returned to power with a massive mandate in 2019, Modi shocked many by appointing, in an unprecedented manner, former foreign secretary S. Jaishankar as the Minister for External Affairs. 

Since his appointment, Jaishankar has facilitated reforms in the very functioning of India’s foreign office. While on the one hand, Jaishankar has initiated fundamental restructuring of the Ministry of External Affairs — making it more in sync with the needs to Indian foreign policy-making today — on the other, unlike before, he routinely addresses foreign audiences, unequivocally articulating a more deft vision of India and its interests in the world. 

Vinod Kumar Yadav — civil servant to CEO

Yet another extension that underscores the emphasis placed on reform by the PM is that of the railway board chairman.

In January, the government gave a year-long extension to Vinod Kumar Yadav as the Railway Board chairman at a time when the government has announced radical reforms in the railway services. 

Yadav, who is tipped to be the first CEO of the Railway Board, will oversee key reforms in the Railways such as trimming of the board, the merger of its cadre and increased privatisation among others. 

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Other key appointments 

Shaktikanta Das — ‘Modi’s demonetisation man’

The government appointed another retired IAS officer, Shaktikanta Das, as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) — an office that no retired civil servant had held in the last five years. 

This was done after two RBI governors — Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel — left the country’s central bank on an unceremonious note. 

As economic affairs secretary in the finance ministry, Das reportedly led the Modi government’s secret mission of demonetisation, and subsequently defended the controversial decision even as there was deafening silence from the RBI governor Patel on the issue at the time.

Since his appointment, Das has aimed to reduce the friction between the Ministry of Finance and the country’s central bank, when it comes to the contentious matter of interest rates. 

Bipin Rawat — India’s first CDS

This trend has extended even to the Indian military.   

Last year, in one of the biggest military reforms in the country, the Modi government created the post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), to ‘bring convergence’ in the functioning of the Army, the Navy and the Indian Air Force. The government appointed then serving army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat to this post a day before he was set to retire. 

Raghvendra Singh — culture to history

This year, the government once again departed from usual practice and appointed former culture secretary and retired IAS officer Raghvendra Singh as the director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). 

It comes at a time when the government is seeking to rapidly intensify work on its controversial Museums of the Prime Ministers project.  

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Bending rules 

On several of these appointments, the Modi government has circumvented existing rules to ensure that those it wishes to retain in the government beyond their formal retirement can continue without facing any legal hurdles. 

In 2014, the Modi government amended the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Act — which explicitly prohibited a chairman from being employed by the government after serving in this capacity — overnight to ensure that Nripendra Misra, who served as its chairman, can be re-employed in the government. 

Then in 2019, to retain P.K. Sinha, an All India Service Rule, which says that the government cannot grant extensions to a cabinet secretary beyond four years, was amended.

In general, government rules do not allow for extensions without due process or justification. 

According to Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) rules, “No proposal for extension of service/re-employment beyond the age of superannuation should ordinarily be considered.” 

Further, the rules state, “Extension of service/re-employment can be justified only in very rare and exceptional circumstances.” 

Extensions can be justified only when other officers are “not ripe enough” for the job or the officer in question is of “outstanding merit”. Both these conditions need to be sufficiently established for an extension to be granted to a retiring officer. 

But rather than highlighting the government’s scant regard for convention, these rules and their routine circumvention underscore their own redundancy, and the increasing need for reforms in the civil services, says Nitin Pai, co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution, a centre for research in public policy. 

“Such cases highlight the fact that rules that governed the civil services in the 1960s cannot govern them in 2020,” he said.

“There is no escaping from the fact that civil services need to reform at a time when people live longer, when governance needs deep expertise that cannot be achieved in a year or a year-and-a-half long tenure, when talented outsiders can be brought in the government to execute certain schemes.”

Fundamental changes in governance structures  

However, the PM’s penchant for extensions, creating new posts for select officers and elevating retired officers to cabinet ranks is leading to fundamental changes in long-standing governance structures in the country, officers say. 

Nripendra Misra, P.K. Mishra and Ajit Doval’s elevations to cabinet ranks, for example, for the first time brought retired civil servants to the level of ministers in the government — a move that former IAS officer Raghunandan explained as “undermining the trust in the PM’s own political team”. 

It is a view shared by others. 

“The traditional system has been to always have the bureaucracy work under elected ministers… But these changes mark a shift in the fundamental governance structure of the country,” said a senior official in the central government.

“When this government came to power, the era of group of ministers and empowered group of ministers etc saw a steady decline… But when officers in the PMO were given cabinet minister ranks, the shift was formalised and institutionalised in some way,” the official added.  

“To be sure, extensions are not new…They happened during UPA years as well,” he said. “But what is new is that these are done routinely now — that signals a change in how bureaucratic structures in the country are viewed. Retirements have now been made a formality that can easily be evaded to reward loyalty or merit.” 

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