“If you slap vigilance cases against us, we will not work” — this message from a section of the state’s top bureaucrats last week could have left any state government in utter chaos. But the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan chose to crack the whip instead.
Not only has Vijayan quelled the mutiny with an iron hand, but the Vigilance & Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) in the state, which comes under the Home portfolio held by Vijayan, has decided to set up a governance audit in all government offices and Public Sector Units in the state. A circular on this was released by the VACB on Wednesday.
On Monday morning, following a dressing down from the chief minister himself, the revolting bureaucrats including the chief, home, finance and industries secretaries, who had otherwise planned a one-day token strike, went back to work quietly.
The CPM strongman was obviously showing the powerful civil servants lobby in the state that he was the boss. But more importantly Vijayan was setting the ball rolling on what could turn out to be a master strategy in rooting out corruption from the system.
“If anyone thinks they can arm twist the government to their liking, then they are thoroughly mistaken. Vigilance cases against officers will continue and the government has no plans to interfere in them. Such form of protest from top officials are unacceptable and it has been conveyed to them,’’ a visibly irked chief minister said at a media briefing after meeting the bureaucrats.
By reiterating that the vigilance cases against officers would continue, Vijayan has managed to not only push the bureaucrats out of their comfort zones but also cause a serious chink in the armour of an otherwise powerful IAS lobby in the state.
The battles lines have clearly been drawn. On one side is the chief minister and his favourite foot soldier Jacob Thomas, director of the VACB, one of the senior-most IPS officers in the state and on the other side are the top rung of the state’s bureaucracy.
With the Thiruvananthapuram Vigilance Court accepting to file a complaint against the chief secretary himself for supporting the strike planned by the bureaucrats, the fight is now turned into a full-blown war. The complaint alleges that SM Vijayanand, the chief secretary, seems to have taken no effort to stop the officers from deciding to go on strike.
Tit for tat, on Thursday, Industries Secretary Paul Antony wrote a letter to the government asking whether he should continue in his position after being named as the third accused in a case of nepotism. Industries Minister EP Jayarajan had earlier resigned after being accused of nepotism in the same case where Antony is the third accused.
Antony’s letter is seen as yet another attempt to step up the heat on the Vigilance Department and the chief minister’s office by playing the victim card and force a watering down of charges against erring officers. Almost 20 civil servants in the state, many of them senior, are today facing a vigilance probe.
Civil rights and anti-corruption activists like CR Neelakandan say that it is perhaps for the first time that a chief minister in the state has refused to bow down to the interest of the powerful civil servants.
Neelakandan points out that the state has had a long history of civil servants going hand-in-glove with politicians in corruption cases. While a few unlucky ones had been caught in the net, most of them had managed to give the slip to the investigating agencies along with their political masters.
While on one side there had been a completely toothless and namesake vigilance over the years, most of the bureaucrats had managed to escape saying that they were just doing their duty.
“Look at the case of Paul Antony. He says that he is innocent and the only thing he has done is to implement an order of the minister concerned. But if he knew that minister was wrong, what stopped the secretary from writing a note of dissent. He had the right and the power to do it but he didn’t. So wasn’t he as much a party to it as the minister. But for years this is how the top bureaucrats used to get away,’’ said Neelakandan.
Activists are now hopeful that Vijayan’s strong action would break this myth among the bureaucrats that they could get away easily with corruption. Activists also add that apprehension has suddenly gripped the IAS community in the state over the last few days. Top civil servants are thinking twice before inking crucial decisions.
Many also say that the open dissent shown by a section of the IAS Association is only a reflection of their desperate attempts to ensure that the present crackdown on corruption does not reach them.
How the revolt broke out
On the evening of 7 January, a section of the IAS officers met at the chamber of one of the secretaries and prepared a ‘note’ denouncing the vigilance action against some of the senior officers. They called the action ‘vindictive’, a violation of natural principles of justice and abuse of power on the part of vigilance director Jacob Thomas.
The note then went on to make personal attacks against Thomas and also accused the government of shielding him even against court cases. The note ended thus – “We are requesting our colleagues of the Kerala IAS to avail one day’s casual leave on 9 January to express our sadness, frustration and professional dissatisfaction and to show our solidarity with our aggrieved colleagues, in allowing the present Vigilance Director to continue abusing his power.”
This note, which had no ownership or signature, was released to the media through the Public Relations Department (PRD) of the state government. Political analysts say that the bureaucrats certainly have a right to raise their grievances through a proper platform. But a call to strike, akin to what trade unions do, because some of their colleagues are facing vigilance probes, was like biting off more than they can chew.
Next morning, the chief minister dealt with it with an iron hand.
“Not only have the civil servants violated the All India Service rules but they have even questioned the basic tenets of the Constitution by threatening to strike overnight. How can they do this in the name of protecting one of their own from a vigilance case when the Supreme Court has clearly said that the no bureaucrat enjoys immunity of any kind in corruption cases?” asks Advocate DB Binu, a leading RTI activist in the state.
Binu goes on to add that even when the chief secretary was arrested and his house raided in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, civil servants there did not even raise a finger. The difference, he points out, is that the IAS lobby in Kerala is so neck-deep in power play that they seemed to have overlooked the legal implications of protecting officers who are facing corruption charges.
“The lobby is so strong that even administrative reforms have had little effect among the babus in Kerala. It is shocking that the officers here have failed to realise the futility of their move to protect such corrupt officers. They should have approached the court than issue such anonymous notes against the government and hold the state to ransom,” adds Binu.
Meanwhile, the director of vigilance and the Anti-Corruption Bureau, on whose name the whole battle had erupted is unfazed by the allegations that are thrown at him almost every day. He is all set to take the battle against corruption a notch higher by involving an effective mechanism that would measure inefficiency, inaction and abuse or misuse of power by officers in all government establishments.
The latest circular, issued on Wednesday, also talks of a quarterly or half-yearly audit to upgrade the level of governance by nailing those responsible for incompetency and inaction.
“I have a policy to implement here and that policy is zero tolerance on corruption. This is the mission of the government as announced by the governor in the state Assembly. There will be resistance to it which will have to be managed as we do in all cases,” says Jacob Thomas, director, VACB.
Representatives of the IAS association were not available for comment in spite of repeated attempts to reach them over the phone.
The chief minister seems to have won the first round in this battle with civil servants but the crucial question is whether governance will take a hit in the state.
Will Vijayan be the man who will finally rein in the powerful IAS lobby? That bet is up for grabs.
Updated Date: Jan 12, 2017 17:45:40 IST