Narendra Modi puts bureaucratic old guard on notice: Forget retirement, focus on governance

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in mood for a massive restructuring at the top echelons of the bureaucracy. In his own nuanced yet firm message to an assembly of secretaries to the government of India on 4 June, he sent a chill down the spine of the bureaucracy, especially the old guard, by indicating that automatic elevation to the post of secretary based on tenure and seniority will be a thing of the past.

Modi said this rather subtly by referring to his first meeting with the secretaries in 2014. Immediately after taking oath as prime minister in 2014, he had convened a meeting of all secretaries. "Exactly three years ago, I held a similar meeting with nearly 85 secretaries. Of those 85, only four are present here today. And even those four officers are on extension."

What he was highlighting was the fact that within these three years, while the political leadership remained the same, the entire top bureaucracy had changed. All secretaries to the government of India had retired. This, he said, sets government's agenda behind because with an entire new set of leaders at the helm in bureaucracy political and administrative goal-setting would have be revised, revisited or rebooted every once in a while.

Narendra Modi puts bureaucratic old guard on notice: Forget retirement, focus on governance

File image of Narendra Modi. PTI

The implicit message was that officers with less than two years for superannuation would have a slim chance henceforth of being considered for elevation to the level of secretary. Only those officers with at least a three-year stint as secretary would be considered to give them a long-enough run to actualise the vision of the government.

That change is not for the future, it is already happening, the prime example of which is the appointment of Sanjay Mitra as defence secretary.  Mitra, a Bengal cadre officer, was considered to be a favourite of the UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh. He served in the Manmohan PMO for seven years before going back to Bengal as chief secretary. He had on occasion taken public positions against Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister. But the Modi government sought him out and brought him back as secretary of Road Transport and Highways, before appointing him as Delhi as defence secretary last month. Secretary of Defence is a fixed-tenure posting. Mitra will serve there for two years but his appointment is meant to send a signal that merit scores over seniority.

Those in attendance at the meeting said that the prime minister was quite categorical that it would be unfair to expect an official, who becomes secretary barely a year before his superannuation, to deliver effectively. In his view, such officers would be prone to "packing their bags" instead of focussing on making plans for the government.

There seems to be unease at the top over the discontinuation of the practice of time-bound elevation. A section of officers, who regarded promotion as their entitlement, is quite irked with the introduction of a new methodology known as 360° appraisal for promotion. This methodology entails a complete feedback about the officer’s behaviour, professional competence not only on the basis of assessment of seniors but also from juniors. Many senior officers have been denied promotions after this methodology kicked in.

Those working closely with the prime minister testify that the 360° methodology is quite similar to the one applied to the bureaucracy in Gujarat. Even in his stint as BJP state unit general secretary (organisation) during Keshubhai Patel's time in 1995, he introduced rigorous scrutiny for the posting of officials. "For the first time in Gujarat, in the first stint of Keshubhai’s regime, officers with impeccable credentials got posted," said an officer who has been working with Modi for a long time. "You see he was very keen to make the profile of state employees younger, because in 2007, the average age of state employees in Gujarat was 52 years of age. We brought it down to the early 40s," he added.

The prime minister is keen to implement similar measures at the national-level and will favour younger bureaucrats with longer service to entrust them with the task of realising the government’s vision. In effect, he will disabuse career-bureaucrats of the notion that they can attain the peak and continue to occupy it based solely on the length of their service.

The prime minister even narrated an anecdote to underscore this new thinking. "Once, a politician who reached the pinnacle of political power by a quirk or circumstances was asked how long he planned to stay at the top. The politician replied, 'nobody scales the Everest to make a home there'."

Modi told the secretaries that scaling the peak is an objective of mountaineering, but it does not apply to governance.

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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2017 12:44:00 IST

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