Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Is IAS Under Siege by IOUs?

Indian Administrative Service is truly at crossroads. On one hand, politicians have become increasingly adept at creating I Owe You s (IOUs) with which they control IAS officers for their own advantage at a later stage. On the other hand, non-IAS luminaries are increasingly getting a role in governing this country, due to their specialized knowledge and experience. Both camps have enough role models to choose from, role models who distinguish themselves for their expertise as well as outstanding ability to shun IOUs. 
“I have a high regard for politicians. I think there are at least 20 politicians I can name off the hat who are better in intellect, integrity, and sincerity to their jobs than any bureaucrat on or across my radar in all my years of service,” said an IAS officer recently, who was most unlikely to have said so.

When one has been reposted 45 times within 20 years - mostly believed to be on the behest of politicians - and still says this, the real shock is whether senior IAS officer Dr. Ashok Khemka’s words is more a pat on the back for honest politicians, or more a kick on the butt for scheming IAS colleagues.

While most senior or celebrity-status IAS officers refrained from coming to the support of Durga Shakti Nagpal, and hid behind the too-late response by IAS Association, Khemka’s support was spontaneous. "What she did as a young officer is commendable. Very few young IAS officers would have dared to do this," says Khemka.

Sonia Gandhi’s support to Durga was also spontaneous. "We must ensure that the officer is not unfairly treated," Sonia wrote to PM, hours within the issue unfolded, almost a week before even the IAS Association itself could come up with a defence for Durga.

But then this was one Sonia move that many couldn’t fully appreciate for that obvious reason - she was not seen supporting Khemka who was allegedly victimised for moving against her son-in-law.

But Congressmen were quick to point out the differences. Khemka was not suspended by any Congress Governments, whereas Durga was not just suspended, but suspended “within 40 minutes”, according to an SP leader. Secondly, Khemka is a seasoned officer who knows how to defend himself, while Durga is among the youngest of IAS officers.

Anyway, there is little that Dr. Manmohan Singh could do to help Durga, as long as Durga herself was not seeking help from the Centre, was PMO’s stand. Seasonal Magazine asked  TKA Nair, Adviser to PM, on whether the Durga episode shows that IAS officers need more protection. “The protective mechanisms are already there,” says TKA, but then adds, “But the more pertinent issue is the lack of motivation. Everything boils down to human resources. And humans can’t ever be conquered except through motivation.”

For a moment it was not clear what Nair meant, but the very next moment, key Akhilesh Yadav aide Ramgopal Yadav’s chest-thumping bravado came to mind. Irritated by Centre‘s third letter to UP on the issue, Ramgopal had retorted, "If this undue pressure continues, my government will write to the Centre to take back all IAS and IPS officers, and we will continue with state officers."

Mind you, he is the cleanest Samajwadi Yadav out there, who has already advised Akhilesh and dad Mulayam that Durga should be reinstated.

But Akhilesh is peeved beyond consolation - not with Durga - but with UP IAS Association. Weren’t things even worse, just years earlier, Akhilesh asks. According to UP’s young and dashing CM, IAS officers had to remove their shoes before meeting former CM Mayawati, and the UP IAS Association had gone into hibernation during her tenure even unable to protest the alleged murder of an IAS colleague.

Akhilesh also stakes claim for reinstating freedom for IAS officers in the state, and for even rejuvenating UP IAS Association. But thereby creating powerful “I Owe You s” (IOUs) for all IAS officers to repay.

In financial parlance, an IOU is usually an informal document acknowledging debt. An IOU differs from a promissory note in that an IOU is not a negotiable instrument and does not specify repayment terms such as the time of repayment. IOUs usually specify the debtor, the amount owed, and sometimes the creditor. In some cases, IOUs may be redeemable for a specific product or service rather than a quantity of currency.

This definition of IOUs perfectly match Akhilesh’s credit policies. Durga took on a key SP ally, the sand mafia. She didn’t respect the IOU. Still, pardonable. But then comes a rare opportunity to kill two birds with one shot. Durga demolishes an in-construction mosque’s compound wall because it is coming up in government land.

Even a committee of the UP Sunni Waqf Board who visited the place was of the view that Durga had done no wrong, and that she had only tried to help the community by advising them the correct procedure to follow.

But by that time, the state intelligence unit had warned of possible communal tension due to the demolition. What more could a savvy political party like the SP hope for? Eventually, even the full Waqf Board would ally with Akhilesh. If even the Waqf Board can do a volte-face and support him, what prevents the UP IAS Association - which owes considerable more IOUs - from supporting his masterly political move, is precisely Akhilesh’s peeve.

The Durga episode or even the Khemka episode is not earth-shattering by Indian standards. But these highlight the power and expectations from IOUs, as well as what happens when IAS officers who doesn’t have any damn IOU to care about, go about doing their duty.

Seasonal Magazine recently quizzed ex-CAG Vinod Rai about his interesting position post-retirement that he faced no political pressure at all. Was he being just politically correct, we asked. “No, I am not being politically correct at all. There was absolutely no covert political pressure from any quarters, including PMO and FMO. The government has been very fair towards CAG.”

But then he is Vinod Rai. Many things are left unsaid, but clear. He was a student of Dr. Manmohan Singh at Delhi School of Economics. Equally close to P Chidambaram. So, when then Principal Secretary of PM, TKA Nair, reportedly suggested his name for CAG, Dr. Singh and Chidambaram concurred. Rai had just retired. Still, he was offered the plum post. Other officers might have thought about it as IOUs. But not Vinod Rai. Why should he? There is still no evidence that he campaigned actively to become the CAG. So why should he owe IOUs?

Senior IRS officer and Kochi Customs Commissioner Dr. KN Raghavan puts it more succinctly. Commenting on potential political pressure, he replied to a Seasonal Magazine query this way, “It depends on your conduct as an officer. If we give out the right signals about our intention to keep our integrity, nobody would bother us. In the final tally, what everyone appreciates and wants is an honest officer.”

But like TKA Nair, he too doesn’t feel that there is need for more protection. When Seasonal Magazine asked him whether the Durga episode calls for more protection for civil servants, Dr. Raghavan replied, “Personally, I don’t think there is any need for additional protection for civil service officers. The system already has the necessary checks and balances, and grievance redressal mechanisms.”

So, does that mean there is no political pressure or that political pressure is ok? Dr. Raghavan says, “Regarding my own experience, I have completed 23 years of service in the Centre and various states including Kerala. I can say with certainty that I have never been pressured by any politician or party.”

But then Dr. Raghavan admits that he hasn’t yet worked in Mayawati’s or Akhilesh’s UP.  “I have not worked in many states to comment on the situation there, but I am confident that an honest officer can indeed survive in this country.”

Yes, an honest IAS officer can, but don’t expect the going to be easy. An honest officer should be willing to undergo the trials and tribulations that Durga, or Khemka, or Ashish Kumar, or Raju Narayanaswamy, or hundreds of other such honest officers have had to undergo. But then if they don’t care a damn about such hardships, the path ahead is clearer.

Says Raju Narayanaswamy, who has been sidelined by all political parties in Kerala for not toeing to their line, "I lead an ordinary life and have no problem in travelling by bus or by boat."

But then there is the question of sheer competency. Did India or Kerala really use Raju’s skills? Not even by a long shot. Raju has always been an extremely bright fellow who topped his classes in matriculation, plus-two, IIT JEE, and 1992 IAS entrance. He was offered a scholarship by MIT in USA, but chose IAS. But instead of putting his superlative skills in information technology to nation’s use in vital technical areas, he has been sidelined beyond any logic.

That is where the brilliance of someone like Vinod Rai becomes clear. When Seasonal Magazine asked about his advice for IAS officers, Rai put it bluntly, “Always play by the rules of the game. That is very important in this profession if any IAS officer wants to be a high achiever.” That survival instinct is what enabled Rai not to ruffle too many feathers during most part of his career, so that he could scale the apex of that career, and then deliver spectacularly.

Then there is the question of how skilled are IASers vis-à-vis non IAS leaders. Both sides have an almost equal number of luminaries.

While the impressive achievements of leaders like Vinod Rai, YV Reddy, Arvind Kejriwal, Yashwant Sinha, & Aruna Roy would make it appear that good IASers are capable of shining on and off civil service, the other side is even more attractive, with the impressive achievements of Dr. Manmohan Singh, E Sreedharan, Jean Dreze, Madhav Gadgil, & Nandan Nilekani to name a few.

If you add the unparalleled achievements of political leaders like PV Narasimha Rao and AB Vajpayee, or crusaders like Anna Hazare to the equation, the balance of competence obviously shifts to non-IASers.

It is also noteworthy that a non-IAS person, Dr. Raghuram Rajan, has been selected as the new RBI Governor, after three successive terms by IASers.

Both groups have their own advantages. Tom Jose, IAS, who is currently Managing Director of KSIDC, a development financial institution, explained the IAS advantage to Seasonal Magazine this way, “As IAS officers, we are expected to be master of all trades.” But also an MBA graduate, he adds, “A background in business definitely helps.”

Non IASers on the other hand, usually comes on board with in-depth knowledge or practical experience in specialized fields. The best example would be Dr. Manmohan Singh himself, who is a rare concoction of achievements and fortune. A disciplined academic from his early days, Manmohan stood first in his classes more often than not, and completed his Economics Tripos at University of Cambridge's St John's College. At Cambridge, Manmohan was tutored by some of the world's most renowned economists like Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor. After Cambridge, Manmohan returned and started teaching at Punjab University. Later, he enrolled at Oxford's Nuffield College for his doctorate, under the supervision of IMD Little, one of the towering economists of recent times.

After Oxford, Dr. Singh went on a career that would be the dream of many for the rich experiences it offered in India as well as abroad. He worked for United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) for three years. After getting noticed as a radical economist, Dr. Singh was made Advisor to Ministry of Foreign Trade. In 1969, Dr. Singh became a Professor of International Trade at the Delhi School of Economics, the time when he taught Vinod Rai as a student.

Dr. Singh was again called in to be part of the government, becoming successively Chief Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance, Secretary in the Finance Ministry, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (during the tenure of Pranab Mukherjee as FM), and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of India. For three years, Dr. Singh was Secretary General of the South Commission, an independent economic policy think tank headquartered in Geneva. He again returned to India to become Advisor to Prime Minister of India on Economic Affairs, when VP Singh was the PM. Dr. Singh would later become Chairman of UPSC and Chairman of UGC, when he was called in to be the Finance Minister by PV Narasimha Rao in 1991.

Few IASers would have gone through such a diverse portfolio of experiences. But the reverse can also be said of him. For a leader that much experienced, Dr. Singh has been failing to deliver, especially during his second term as PM.

IASers can also be proud that for all his competence, it took the initiative of AN Verma IAS, then Principal Secretary in PMO, to identify and convince Rao about choosing Dr. Singh as FM. That is why many regard AN Verma as a co-architect of economic liberalization.

Manmohan remembers that day this way, "On the day Rao was formulating his cabinet, he sent his Principal Secretary to me saying, `The PM would like you to become the Minister of Finance’. I didn’t take it seriously. He eventually tracked me down the next morning, rather angry, and demanded that I get dressed up and come to Rashtrapati Bhavan for the swearing in."

So, the roles of IASers and non-IASers have been complementary, and should remain complementary. What is of greater importance is promotion of superlative merit and sheer experience, whether one is from IAS or not. 

And needless to say, the basic framework for steering clear of IOUs is needed for both. Says Dr. Raghavan, IRS, to Seasonal Magazine, “Often the problem starts when an officer takes refuge with a politician to get any undeserved favour. Then it is a given that the politician would want a favour in return. Civil service officers should steer clear of such practices, and everything will be fine.”

In fact, both camps should steer clear of that. That is how E Sreedharan took a career politician and then Railway Minister like Jaffer Sharief to task, and could prevail. Otherwise Konkan would have been a different story. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have survived to unleash the Metro revolution in key Indian cities.

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