Out, out damned UPA: Is the Modi sarkar purge bad for governance?

Fifty-nine of the 60 months that Narendra Modi sought from the electorate to transform India still remain, and now's probably a good time as any to take stock of what baby steps have the new government has taken in that direction. From the biggest headlines of this past week, it would appear that the NDA government wants to first sweep out the every last trace of the UPA before it gets down to business. From personal secretaries and officers on special duty in ministers' offices to governors of various states and now also political appointees who head various government bodies, the Modi sarkar has spent a week seeking resignations or putting appointments on the waitlist.

A report in The Times of India says the vice-chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority M Shashidhar Reddy and most of its eight members, including former Special Director of the CBI, K Saleem Ali, have sent in their resignations. The NDMA will not be the only such organisation to be reconstituted. The National Commission for Women has already been sent feelers as have heads of other organisations. The position of the chiefs of many of these organisations is of the minister of state level, making these posts ideal as political rewards for party loyalists.

Already, the row over seeking resignations of governors through casual phone calls made by a bureaucrat threatens to continue for a while with several UPA-appointed governors digging in their heels, and demanding that due protocol be followed. Meanwhile, Sam Pitroda expectedly quit on his own as head of the National Innovation Council a couple of weeks ago after signals that the NDA wants to reconstitute the body. A report said the SC/ST Commissions are among those whose members have been asked to resign. Another report said Dr Karan Singh had resigned as head of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) before anybody called and asked him to.

Simultaneously, the new government has also decided that ministers cannot appoint officials who held key positions in the UPA in their offices. According to a report in The Indian Express, the Prime Minister’s Office has issued a diktat through Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth stating that no official who served on the personal staff of a union minister of the previous regime “in any capacity” be considered for appointment on the personal staff of NDA ministers.

 Out, out damned UPA: Is the Modi sarkar purge bad for governance?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

The report confirms that several UPA-era bureaucrats who were selected for key positions in the new government have now found their appointments put on compulsory wait following the diktat from the Cabinet Secretary. Among others, the Modi government has held back the appointment of IPS officer Alok Singh as private secretary to Home Minister Rajnath Singh -- he served as private secretary to former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid. Also, the appointments of Abhinav Kumar and Rajesh Kumar as PS to MoS for Home Kiren Rijiju and MoS for External Affairs V K Singh respectively have been put on hold -- Abhinav Kumar was PS with Shashi Tharoor and Rajesh was PS with Chandresh Kumari Katoch.

That Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth himself got a six-month extension from the Modi government while their own previous appointments are seen as politically motivated has upset some of these bureaucrats, news reports said.

Of course, none of this is surprising or new. Incoming governments bring a fresh vision to governance and certainly have the prerogative to reconstitute bodies and find the right men for the job. But what rankles is not so much the obvious desire for ideological convergence between these organisations and the government of the day or the need to place in critical positions leaders who are loyal to the BJP agenda. The problem is the contempt for these institutions and their work betrayed by such purges.

The positions of the heads of key bodies such as the NDMA, the NCW, the SC/ST commissions, the minorities commission, the ICCR and others are reduced to trophy chairs for middle to senior-level party leaders who played their part during the election campaign.

In the case of the governors, reports have already suggested that BJP veterans who could not be accommodated in the council of ministers -- the Modi government put in place a strict below-70-years-of-age policy for ministerial jobs -- are lining up for the Raj Bhavans. Murli Manohar Joshi has been tipped for Maharashtra already, while Yashwant Sinha, Kailash Joshi, Kalyan Singh, Kesarinath Tripathi, Lalji Tandon, Balram Das Tandon, Vijay Malhotra and O Rajagopal are other names doing the rounds for governorships.

As for the IAS, imputing political motive to the appointment of key IAS and IPS officers, even if only a handful of them are affected, questions the professionalism and objectivity its cadres, and worse, also of those who will replace them.

Writing in The Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues that while it is "unseemly" that resignations are not voluntarily offered to a new government, making a home secretary call state governors and request resignations displays a "crudity and haste" that will in the long run erode the credibility and respect that these institutions deserve.

Maharashtra Governor K Sankaranarayanan made it amply clear that he didn't not take well to a bureaucrat, even a senior one, telephoning him from Delhi at his Malabar Hill Raj Bhavan to ask him to demit office. He'll think it over when an "appropriate authority" communicates it to him in writing, Sankaranarayanan adding that he did not respond to the home secretary's request at all. Notably, he also made it clear he was not averse to resigning per se.

That the government will not shy away from using the threat of  a CBI criminal investigation in the case of governors M K Narayanan and Sheila Dikshit in the Agusta Westland and Delhi Jal Board scams respectively also smacks of high-handedness and arrogance.

As Mehta writes, "...by asking for wholescale resignations, the underlying message that goes out is simple: there are institutions that do not have an identity and mission that can be identified independently of partisan politics. We may not like everything the past occupants of these positions have done, but by reducing these institutions to mere politics, we shrink them in the long run." The UPA's sin of "incurable casualness" continues, he points out, adding that the NDA must learn quickly that without strong institutions there can be no development.

There could also be legal issues in the hasty purge. Not just the governors, but the heads of the SC/ST panels could take legal recourse, suggested a report in The Times of India.

"The national panels on SCs and STs are constitutional commissions with elaborately laid out procedure of appointment and removal. Above all, they derive their existence from Article 338 of the Constitution. Any forcible eviction can be challenged in court and result in embarrassment," the report says.

When the UPA came to power in 2004, it actually let the previous NDA government's appointees to these institutions complete their tenures. Asked if he would quit, the NCSC chairman PL Punia told TOI: "Let the appointing authority (President) give the message and I will consider."

That is just what the Maharashtra governor said, as well. And both carry the same message to the Modi sarkar: running roughshod over institutional processes and decorum in its first few weeks in government raises hackles, not confidence.

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

Updated Date: Jun 20, 2014 10:47:34 IST