After a hiatus of two Covid years, the fourth edition of Aarambh will be held at the Statue of Unity, or the SoU, at Kevadia on the banks of the Narmada River in Gujarat. It is scheduled to take place from 28 to 31 October, with 443 participants from the 97th Foundation Course of the LBSNAA — the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy Of Administration — including 11 from the Royal Bhutan Civil, Police, and Forest services. Although most readers would be aware, it bears recalling that at a height of 182 metres, the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue is the tallest in the world. His biographer, Hindol Sengupta, describes him as “the man who saved India” — the title of the biography — by ensuring the time-bound integration of the 562 princely states into the Indian Union and laying the foundations of a strong, independent, merit-based civil service structure in the country.
As per the evolving convention, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to address the participants on 31 October, the (notional) birthday of Sardar Patel. It was due to Patel’s efforts that the ‘steel frame’ of India got the much-needed structural support at the most critical time of the country’s history. Even though it was clear by the end of World War II that Independence was inevitable, a powerful section of the British establishment was hell-bent on creating difficulties for a smooth transition. Thus, when Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India and erstwhile Burma, unilaterally decided to cancel fresh recruitment for the Indian Civil Service and Indian Police in September 1946, without a reference to the interim government in which Sardar Patel was the Home Minister, the latter convened a meeting of the premiers of all the 11 provinces. They were consulted about the need for the continuation of All India Services. Of the 11 provinces, seven — Bombay, Bihar, Central Provinces (CP), Orissa, Madras, United Provinces (UP), North West Frontier Province (NWFP) — endorsed the suggestion. Three — Punjab, Bengal, and Sindh — preferred provincialisation, and Assam was undecided. It wanted centralised recruitment and training but greater control over the cadre. Be that as it may, Patel summed up the proceedings with these words: “There was general feeling in favour of the formation of an All-India Service and hope that after the general scheme was framed, those who were at present not in favour would be convinced that adequate allowances have been made for the provincial sensibilities regarding control and would agree to join in.”
Why entrants must look to Patel
It must also be borne in mind that at the time when Patel was strengthening the edifice of civil services, M.K. Gandhi was not quite comfortable with the ICS — he preferred the ‘Hind Swaraj’ model with “village panchayats as the hub of economic and social activity”. Jawaharlal Nehru’s main concern was that officers selected for the Foreign Service should have impeccable manners and accents. It has been recorded in several memoirs of civil servants – including N.N. Vohra’s – that Nehru interviewed and selected Foreign Service officers personally. Besides, there was a lateral entry option for those who were royalty or well-connected with the establishment. Sengupta has accessed archival material to show how the home ministry under Patel ensured that the recruitment of all the superior civil services, including the Foreign Service was to be held only on the basis of a competitive examination under an impartial body.
Therefore, it is appropriate that all fresh entrants take their inspiration from the life and works of Sardar Patel. Unlike in the ’80s, when there were few books and monographs on Patel, there are now several biographies, including one by Rajmohan Gandhi titled Patel: A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi as well as a special edition of The Administrator. The wonderfully curated exhibition at SoU depicts the life and times of the former home minister, his transformation from a well-paid barrister to the organiser of the 1918 Kheda Satyagraha, his salient role in the freedom movement, but most importantly, his role in integrating the princely states. There are rare photographs of Sardar Patel negotiating with bejewelled maharajas and nawabs in his simple, homespun khadi as the Minister of States. It must be acknowledged as one of the most efficient and effective ministries India ever had. In the short period of its existence, from July 1947 to March 1951, Patel and his very competent Secretary, the redoubtable V.P. Menon, accomplished the merger of every single state, including 21-gun salute states such as J&K, Mysore, Hyderabad, and Baroda, to microstates where the territory was less than 100 square miles and the revenue less than a lakh of rupees per annum! As such, all officer trainees who have an eye for history and political economy would find a visit to the exhibition most rewarding.
Aarambh, an integral part of SoU
Let me now share the background of how Aarambh became an integral part of the celebrations at SoU on 31 October, observed as National Unity Day. Since 2014, Patel’s birth anniversary has been celebrated as the Rashtriya Ekta Divas (National Unity Day) by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to “re-affirm the inherent strength and resilience of our nation to withstand the actual and potential threats to the unity, integrity, and security of our country”. After the SoU was inaugurated by PM Modi on 31 August 2018, the LBSNAA was given the mandate to organise the first Aarambh programme for all the entrants to government through the Civil Services Examination. What is significant is that for over two decades, entrants were doing their foundation courses in three institutions: the LBSNAA in Mussoorie, the MCRHRDI (Dr. MCR HRD Institute of Telangana) in Hyderabad, and the RCVP Noronha Academy of Administration in Bhopal.
During his first visit to the academy in 2017, the PM was concerned about the creation of silos at the very commencement of their careers and directed that training and residential infrastructure be improved to ensure that all inductees be trained at the same institution. He was also keen that the youngest officers should connect not just with the senior-most civil servants but also with the heads of corporates and leaders in civil society as well as global think tanks and heads of bilateral and multilateral funding agencies. In early 2019, the Department of Personnel and Training gave a clear mandate to the academy that an immersive, interactive program called Aarambh should be introduced. The highlight of this programme — and the subsequent editions — was the very free and frank conversation between the officer trainees and the PM. This tradition of interaction continued, albeit in an ‘online mode’ in 2020 and 2021. This year, the officers will again get a chance of hearing the PM speak about his vision for India.
Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.
This article is part of the ‘State of the State‘ series that analyses policy, civil services, and governance in India.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)