The position of the chief secretary is arguably the most crucial civil service post in any state. Normally, the senior-most serving Indian Administrative Service officer in the cadre is expected to be posted and officers senior to them, who are on central deputation, can be overlooked. Apart from suitability, the only statutory requirement is that the officer should be on the Apex Scale of the IAS, which is generally granted upon the completion of 30 years of service. As such, the political executive in the state ordinarily has a large pool of officers, spanning seven to eight batches of the IAS, to choose from.
Until a few years ago, seniority was the norm, unless the officer sought to be superseded had only a few months of service left, or was patently unfit for the job, on the basis of service record and reputation etc. This custom is now honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
Outliers of the seniority principle
The trend was perhaps triggered by P. Rama Mohana Rao, an IAS officer of the 1985 batch, who had been the Secretary to the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa since 2011 and continued till mid-2016. In June 2016, when Jayalalithaa retained power, he was appointed as chief secretary superseding 22 IAS officers, up to till 1981 batch — setting an unthinkable precedent. He was eased out in December 2016, after the Income Tax Department raided his residence, perhaps the only instance of a serving chief Secretary being raided.
In June this year, H. K. Dwivedi, IAS officer of the 1988 batch took over from the controversial West Bengal chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay of the 1987 batch, jumped over nine IAS officers, up to and including the 1984 batch. The latter was appointed as chief secretary in October 2020, over the heads of eight serving officers, from the 1983 batch downwards.
In Punjab, the successive governments of Parkash Singh Badal as well as Captain Amarinder Singh, since 1997, have ignored the seniority principle, except in a couple of cases. When Captain Amarinder Singh came to power in March 2017, he appointed a 1984 batch IAS officer, superseding four officers, belonging to 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1984 batches. When the same officer was shunted out in June 2020, a 1987 batch IAS officer was appointed chief secretary, superseding one officer from the 1984 batch and two from the 1985 batch. The officers overlooked are given the fancy tag of a “Special chief secretary”, although they discharge merely the functions of an administrative secretary, for all intents and purposes. They report to the chief secretary, an officer junior to them, who is also their “reporting authority” in the Annual Confidential Reports/Performance Appraisal Reports.
Since the exit of Captain Amarinder Singh, this officer has been replaced by a 1990 batch IAS officer on 23 September 2021, superseding one officer from the 1987 batch and two each from the 1988 and 1989 batches.
In Rajasthan, 1989 batch IAS officer Niranjan Kumar Arya was appointed as the chief secretary in November 2020, superseding as many as 10 IAS officers. Even today, he has nine serving IAS officers senior to him, including one posted in the central government.
Enjoying chief minister’s confidence
Numerous examples can be quoted from virtually all state cadres. Those in favour of the chief minister picking up an Apex Scale IAS officer, irrespective of their seniority, argue that the chief secretary must enjoy the complete confidence of the top political executive. In a democratic polity, where people have given the mandate to the chief minister to implement their developmental agenda, they are well within their rights to pick the most suitable officer from among the available pool of eligible senior officers. The chief minister cannot be expected to be shackled by the seniority list gradation.
The purists in the civil administration, however, maintain that supersession of officers, apart from causing humiliation to those overlooked, also demoralises the Civil Service in general because nobody is sure when one could be thrown out of the chair of the chief secretary, while posting an officer who might be many batches their junior. While there can be no objection, in principle, in ignoring the deadwood and officers with poor service records and questionable integrity, ignoring good officers, without any ostensible cause, goes against the fundamental tenets of a neutral and merit-driven civil service. Moreover, unguided discretion in the hands of the political supremo will only serve to destabilise the linchpin of the civil administration, causing imperceptible but inevitable attrition of the steel-frame, before its potential breakdown.
In the analogous situation of appointing Director General of Police (DGP) in the states, the situation was even more chaotic, until the Supreme Court stepped in to inject some method into the madness. The heart-burning of the superseded officers is even more here since the IPS is a uniformed service. The norms laid by the top court in the selection and appointment of DGPs are not only simple but also fair and just. Well before the anticipated vacancy in the post of DGP arises, the state government is expected to send a panel of six senior-most serving IPS officers of the cadre, with at least six months of residual service left, to the Union Public Service Commission. The latter examines the panel, in consultation with the chief secretary and the serving DGP of the state, and returns a shortlist of three IPS officers. The state government is then free to pick anyone among them.
Arguably, the post of chief secretary in the state is at least as important as that of the DGP. In a federal democratic polity, where the All India Services, including the IAS, are mentioned in Article 310 of the Constitution, there must be transparent norms in the appointment of the chief secretary of state. This can also be justified on legal grounds as the post of the chief secretary of practically every state has been notified under the statutory regulations framed under the All India Services Act, 1951, as a “cadre post” that is to be filled up by the senior-most IAS officers. As a matter of fact, the Modi government, through the Department of Personnel and Training, ought to have taken up the initiative to codify a similar procedure into statutory regulations, as in the case of DGPs. Till that happens, or the Supreme Court steps in, we shall continue to witness the capricious pick-and-choose mechanism, which sometimes makes it appear as if a “fit” chief secretary is merely a slipper that the chief minister finds comfortable to wear.
KBS Sidhu recently superannuated from the IAS, 1984 batch of Punjab cadre. He tweets @kbssidhu1961. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)