By TS Sudhir
Andhra Pradesh’s Minor Irrigation Minister TG Venkatesh has always loved going after the high and the mighty. Let’s talk about the ‘high’ first.
Venkatesh is an industrialist-turned-politician. As proprietor of Rayalaseema Alkalies, which manufactures bathing soaps among other products, he had introduced a scheme over a decade ago to discourage the drinking habit in his factory in Kurnool. His company would deposit around Rs 1000 every month in the bank account of every employee’s wife if the worker abstained from alcohol. Since the wife got the money, she made sure her husband did not drink on the sly and make her lose that extra monthly income. The scheme worked and productivity at his factory improved.
But by going after the “mighty” bureaucrats in Andhra Pradesh, Venkatesh seems to have bitten more than what he can chew. For those who came in late, this is what Venkatesh said.
“The IAS officers have become headstrong. They believe that no one can touch them. The authority has gone to their head so much that they are stalling developmental work by returning files with one query or another. The entire system will collapse even if a single IAS officer does not work properly. Such headstrong bureaucrats should be shot dead on the road.”
The IAS lobby understandably fretted and fumed and wanted the irrigation minister to water down his remarks. But Venkatesh, who has the demeanour of being the king of Kurnool, only added salt to injury by refusing to apologise unless the officers who do not do their work properly accepted their fault in public.
Knowing how publicity-loving Venkatesh is, this idea of mob justice could just be a case of the minister feeding a sensation-loving media. Venkatesh, who is an advocate of a separate Rayalaseema state in case Telangana is formed, knows the craft of grabbing the headlines and the IAS lobby is easy meat. In public perception, the officers are no longer seen as knights in shining armour which is why there has hardly been any kind of uproar from the public to this crass ‘loose cannon’ call.
The salvo could well just be a case of the minister venting his anger against an individual IAS officer who did not do his bidding by painting the entire tribe black. But then, given the friction between the netas and the babus in Andhra Pradesh in recent months, his angst could also be a symptom of the political establishment’s frustration that nothing is quite working its way. Or worse, an admission that the administration in Andhra Pradesh has all but collapsed. The politicians and the babus have been in an unhappy marriage in the state, especially after the manner in which senior IAS officers like BP Acharya and Y Srilakshmi find themselves cooling their heels in Hyderabad Central Prison because of the alleged sins they reportedly committed during the regime of the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy.
The government has come forward to defend and pay the legal expenses of the ministers called to answer by the Supreme Court for issuing 26 controversial government orders when they were in YSR’s cabinet, but has chosen to distance itself from the actions of the bureaucrats.
Ever since Jaganmohan Reddy was sent to judicial custody, Kiran Kumar Reddy has been trying to shore up the administration, trying to establish his dispensation as a government that works. But the situation on the ground isn’t easy. Particularly when the babudom is divided on political lines, with several officers known for their political loyalty to the challenger to the throne. That’s because the politician-bureaucrat-contractor empire that YSR nurtured, would want to make a return to power via Jagan.
Venkatesh’s outburst could also be the result of many politicians being openly frustrated with the bureaucracy now playing it safe. A willing babu’s signature on the file has become an endangered spot of ink. After finding themselves in the dock for issuing controversial orders during YSR’s rule, no IAS officer, whether in Hyderabad or in the districts, wants to sign now unless there are instructions in writing from the minister. Given that most of the decisions are not entirely above board, this has reduced the neta to a lameduck elected representative. And Andhra Pradesh seems to be running a 400 m hurdles race with its feet inside a gunny bag.
A clash between the IAS lobby and the ministers will do no good to the political future of the Congress. By taking bureaucrats head on with this `shoot at sight of a headstrong IAS officer’ missive, Venkatesh has only exposed the faultlines. He would do well to remember that one of the many reasons for Chandrababu Naidu’s defeat in 2004 was his stern and authoritarian approach to the lower bureaucracy with his much-publicised surprise inspections, during which he would humiliate babus in the presence of cameras. When the same officials were manning polling booths in the elections, they were more sympathetic to the Congress cause.
Former Union Energy secretary EAS Sarma has written to the Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary, calling Venkatesh’s comments “a potentially dangerous statement that attracts criminal liability under the Indian Penal Code” and has asked the police to prosecute him. A demand that is most certainly unlikely to be met.