While many ex-bureaucrats & diplomats have succeeded in politics before, this phenomenon of joining parties just before elections has grown in recent times.
New Delhi: Last Tuesday, a senior Odisha-cadre IAS officer who had sought voluntary retirement from the services in September joined the BJP. Party president Amit Shah was present to welcome the officer, Aparajita Sarangi, into its fold.
“I want to work for people on a very large scale. Politics is the only platform which provides this kind of opportunity for me. The party’s motto and leader made me choose BJP, which not only assures development but ensures speed in development,” Sarangi told the media.
Sarangi, a 1994-batch IAS officer, was serving as the joint secretary for MGNREGA under the Ministry of Rural Development in the Central government, before she sought voluntary retirement. Elections in Odisha are due in 2019, alongside the general elections.
Sarangi is just the latest civil servant to retire early from the services to pursue her political ambitions. It’s a trend that has only got more and more common in recent years, and what’s more, most of these retirements occur just before elections.
Another prime example was 2005 batch IAS officer O.P. Choudhary, who resigned as the collector of Raipur earlier this year, and joined the BJP two days later. Within three months of joining politics to “serve the people”, he received a ticket from Kharsia constituency in Chhattisgarh, and is now awaiting the results of this month’s assembly polls.
It’s not just a phenomenon restricted to administrative officers. CBI joint director V.V. Lakshminarayana sought voluntary retirement from the Indian Police Service in March this year, citing “personal and family commitments”. Eight months later, he is planning to float a new party, and is reportedly in talks with the Lok Satta Party to form an alliance in Andhra Pradesh, which is set to go to polls alongside the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
In Uttar Pradesh, former diplomat Satendra Kumar, who hails from the Dalit community, joined the Congress last month. Senior party leaders said more civil servants will join the Congress in the run-up to the general elections.
Cops in Rajasthan
In poll-bound Rajasthan, at least three former as well as current IPS officers had been vying for Congress tickets. While Sawai Singh Choudhary, who retired from the post of DIG (training) got a Congress ticket from Khinvsar, the other two failed to get tickets despite publicly expressing their desire to quit the services.
The case of Madan Meghwal, SP (Crime Branch), is particularly interesting. Keen to fight on a Congress ticket from Khajuwala constituency, Meghwal sought voluntary retirement a day before the party released its list of candidates. However, a day after not being given a ticket, he moved an application to cancel his voluntary retirement and rejoin the service.
Meghwal, whose fate is currently uncertain, had five years of service ahead of him.
“I felt driven towards politics and the Congress ideology, so I said I wanted a ticket to fight the election. If the party thought otherwise, it is their prerogative,” Meghwal told ThePrint.
When asked if his publicly-expressed affinity for the Congress would land him in trouble with the ruling BJP, he said: “I don’t think governments have a vengeful attitude… If they do, what can I say?”
Another IPS officer, inspector-general Hari Prasad Sharma, also took voluntary retirement a little more than a month before the elections.
On the BJP side too, O.P. Saini, a retired IAS officer of the 1983 batch joined the party just before the final list of candidates was announced. He was given a ticket from Karauli.
Not a new trend
There are numerous examples in history of retired civil servants joining politics — what’s rarer is for serving officers to quit and join politics.
In the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, for example, there are at least four bureaucrat-turned-ministers — K.J. Alphons, R.K. Singh, Hardeep Singh Puri and Satya Pal Singh. Of these, former home secretary R.K. Singh and former Mumbai Police commissioner Satya Pal Singh joined the BJP just months before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, as did former army chief V.K. Singh, who also became a minister.
Other successful names in the list of bureaucrats/diplomats-turned-politicians include Yashwant Sinha, Meira Kumar, Ajit Jogi, M.S. Gill, Pavan Verma and P.L. Punia.
‘Massive scope for conflict of interest’
Former chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath has termed the trend of leaving the services and immediately joining a political party months or days before elections “unethical”.
Just like bureaucrats are debarred from taking up corporate jobs immediately after retirement in order to prevent conflict of interest, it was thought that they should be barred from joining political parties immediately as well in order to prevent conflict of interest, he said.
“There is massive scope of misusing their office to benefit a political party or to cultivate certain constituencies while in office,” Sampath said.
“In Punjab, for example, when we were in the commission, we saw several senior officers preparing the ground for their political career while in office… We saw this happening, so to clear our conscience, we recommended that the government make a two-year cooling off period for officers mandatory before they join a political party.”
In 2012, the EC recommended to the government that recently-retired or resigned IAS, IPS and all-India services officers be kept away from electoral politics for two years. The proposal was rejected by the government, which argued that disallowing former bureaucrats to immediately join politics could violate their right to equality enshrined in the Constitution.
According to Sampath, the government’s response was only to be expected. “Why would the government do anything? They are the beneficiaries of such practices,” he said.
An IAS officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said while there was no rule, it surely was a question of morals and ethics.
“Isn’t it obvious that your decision-making as an officer will be guided by your political ambitions if you are leaving the service to join a party right away?” the officer said.
Consider the case of 1992 batch IPS officer Dawa Sherpa, who was appointed additional director general of police of Gorakhpur zone in Uttar Pradesh in February this year. Sherpa had applied for voluntary retirement from the service in 2008, and proceeded on long leave until 2012.
During this four-year period, Sherpa formally joined the BJP, and wanted to contest elections as well. When that did not happen, he returned to the service in 2013 and was even given a promotion as deputy inspector general (DIG) the same year — even as others wondered under what rules he was allowed to return to the service.
Freedom granted by the Constitution
However, diplomat-turned-politician Pavan Verma refuted the conflict of interest argument. Verma joined the Janata Dal (United) after retiring from the service in 2013.
“There is no conflict of interest if you are leaving the civil service to join public life… In fact, if you are leaving the services prematurely, you are giving up a secure career for the sake of uncertainty and risk in public life,” he said.
Besides it is a case of free choice, he added. “If you feel that politics and public life will give you a bigger canvas and a better platform, one is constitutionally free to make that choice,” he said. “Subhas Chandra Bose resigned from the ICS to join the freedom movement too.”
A forest officer who spoke to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity agreed. “Among bureaucrats, politics is usually seen as the next big step…It is common.”
Asked if joining politics immediately after retirement from service breaks the myth of the political neutrality of officers, Meghwal said: “We have never allowed our political leanings to come in the way of our work…But that does not mean officers don’t have political views or are not influenced by political ideologies.”