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Lateral hiring: Modi govt only making transparent a process which earlier depended on politicians' whims

It’s not as if Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to bed one night last week, dreamed of “lateral entry”, woke up the next morning and put in an advertisement for recruiting bureaucrats in this fashion. But that’s what the critics of his new move are making it look like.

The government’s 10 June advertisement invited applications from “talented and motivated” Indians, including those from private sector, to be appointed as Joint Secretaries in 10 departments. This raised a howl of protests from some officials, both serving and retired, as well as the Opposition, though something similar was done in the past and is being done now in states in a much less transparent style.

In some manner or the other, ill-intentioned or honestly motivated, lateral hiring of a different kind to get outsiders into what is essentially a domain of the bureaucrat has existed in India for longer than one could remember. The UPA government and states ruled by Congress and other regional parties were importing retired officials and others of their choice as “advisers” or “consultants” or “experts” without even an apology of an advertisement or an application-calling process.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy: PIB

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy: PIB

The Modi government’s advertisement should be seen as a move aimed at making transparent a process that earlier depended on the whims of a prime minister or chief ministers or high-ranking bureaucrats close to them. The prime minister is only trying to do by the front door what others have been doing by the backdoor.

TSR Subramanian, the late cabinet secretary, didn’t believe that lateral recruitment was the only sure-fire way to improve the quality of bureaucracy. Yet he wrote in his 2009 book GovernMint in India – an Inside View: “I have found that suitability and background of each officer for a post is more relevant than his label. Certainly, I would hesitate to place any officer at secretary or additional secretary level in any department unless he or she has had some previous exposure to that or an allied department – one gets no time to learn the basics at that level.”

Subramanian was only talking about the relevance of work experience and not advocating re-appointment of retired officials. And at the core of the Centre's new move too is the value it attaches to domain expertise in select areas, especially in view of the shortage of officers.

'Political' bureaucrats: New breed?

Consider, for example, the case of Andhra Pradesh: Chief minister Chandrababu Naidu has some dozen “advisers”. They are retired officers now enjoying some high rank or the other in the state’s bureaucracy, and this sort of hiring clearly amounts to a lateral recruitment of a different kind. Naidu’s Information Technology adviser, in fact, enjoys the rank of a special chief secretary.

Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhara Rao has seven “advisors” in the rank of a cabinet minister, most of them retired IAS officers. And in December 2016, when Rajiv Sharma retired as the state’s chief Secretary, Rao appointed him as his chief adviser, telling him: “Earlier, you were only a bureaucrat; now you are a political bureaucrat. An official bureaucrat has certain limitations but as a political bureaucrat, you are a free bird and can take as many initiatives as you can and advise the government.”

What Rao did wasn’t anything new. As adviser to late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, retired chief secretary Sheela Balakrishnan was the de facto head of the state’s bureaucracy, even over the head of the incumbent chief secretary. In Bihar, chief minister Nitish Kumar did something similar only this month. He turned his chief secretary Anjani Kumar Singh into an adviser immediately after his retirement. Karnataka’s former chief minister Siddaramaiah had a retired IPS officer to advise him on all matters, ranging from law and order to election strategies. Examples are endless.

Vijayan forgets his 'advisers'

The case of Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, whose CPM is now accusing Modi of subverting bureaucracy by importing outsiders into it, is even more fascinating. He even forgets how many advisers he has. But, of course, his government’s website is there to remind him that he has six.

This is not to suggest that the choices made by the chief ministers are necessarily wrong. Many — or even most perhaps — officers being co-opted back into service indeed have impeccable credentials. But the fact that these appointments are based purely on personal choices of politicians in power, devoid of any degree of fair-play and equal opportunities, is too glaring to ignore.

Extra-constitutional appointments

From late 1960s, it became a practice to appoint advisers to aid a governor during president’s rule, though it has no mention in either the Constitution or any other statute. And it has now become almost a routine for even chief ministers to appoint former bureaucrats as their advisers either for the crooked reasons of rehabilitating favoured officers or get genuine, much-needed advice from distinguished men.

But nobody talks about this rising trend.

Or is the resistance to the Modi government’s move limited to the hiring of bureaucrats from the private sector? That would only leave the critics open to the charge that their objections come from a petty desire to protect the IAS fiefdom from the invading infidels of the private sector.

That reminds us of what former IAS officer SK Das pointed out in his 1998 book Civil Service Reform & Structural Adjustment: “As for the civil service in India, it has developed resistance to change, the age-old attribute of an entrenched bureaucracy to resist adjustment to changing times, and hence, to new paradigms.”

Critics of “lateral entry” must remember two things:

First off, the 10 June move doesn’t attempt to bring in rookies from the private sector into the midst of wise, old men of bureaucracy. It specifies that they must have experience of at least 15 years, just about the length of service a joint secretary puts in.

Secondly, applications are being called not just from the private sector. In all this din, what has been lost is the fact that even officers currently serving in state and central governments and public sector undertakings are eligible to apply for the posts.

It won’t be surprising, in fact, if applications for these posts from serving officers seeking deputation in Delhi outnumber those from the private sector.

Leave civil services alone?

The argument that civil services should be left intact is not entirely without merit. The IAS especially has its own unique use, despite the flak it faces on account of corruption and arrogance. But for every one corrupt and arrogant babu, you meet at least two priding themselves in honesty and humility. And never forget that bureaucratic corruption is too closely intertwined with political corruption — at least in most cases — to be rebuked in isolation.

Both the officers who are gentlemen and who aren’t together keep India running even when the political system faces uncertainty or is in transition from one party to another or when elected representatives are either too busy playing political snooker or are too illiterate to read rule-books. Governance often has more to do with IAS officers than with political pretenders who look over their shoulders.

Reinventing a wheel may be a fool’s pastime, but shunning anything that gives it a smoother spin is the virtue of a sloth bear. The exclusivity of the civil service, however, should not preclude infusion of outside talent, be it from judiciously selected former officers or domain-experts to the extent that it doesn’t tinker with basic structures.

And as always, success depends on execution: In this case, on the candidates finally picked. So hold your horses.

Author tweets @sprasadindia​

Updated Date: Jun 15, 2018 18:20 PM

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