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BW Businessworld

All The Prime Minister’s Men

Is Modi’s appointments committee meant to cut down on lobbying and red tapism or bring his trusted aides at the centre to be his eyes and ears?

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Between arguments and counter arguments about the Narendra Modi-led government’s one and a half years in power, many experts believe the biggest achievement has been the changes in the selection process for bureaucrats. For long, hectic lobbying marked appointments of key officers in the corridors of power in New Delhi. Not any more though. In a conscious attempt to clean up the process, Prime Minister Modi has moved towards a lean appointments committee that will also ensure the concerned ministry has almost no say or sway over the selection process.

The Appointments Committee of Cabinet presently comprises only the PM and home minister Rajnath Singh, whose job is to ensure a smooth security clearance after the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has short listed candidates. Many says that this has quickened the process of bureaucratic postings and done away with “lobbying and influence”. Manipulation of postings has also been reduced as the entire process of shortlisting officers has been left to the PMO that maps performances of bureaucrats as part of its many duties.

As flawless as it appears, critics point out that lately Modi’s army at the Centre has seen a rise in Gujarat cadre officers. While statistics shows that there are just 16 Gujarat cadre officers serving in New Delhi, there is no denying that this is the highest ever in the last many years. Though, this is not unique to Modi; every prime minister and government brings its own set of preferred bureaucrats. The UPA regime, for instance, saw a surge in Kerala cadre officers. But since Modi is known to rely on officers more than his ministers, the growing power of these Gujarat cadre officers is undeniable. In fact, such is Modi’s trust on the bureaucracy that UPA’s Group of Ministers has given way to Group of Secretaries under the BJP.

Political observers like Ajoy Bose point out the difference between Manmohan Singh’s induction of Kerala cadre bureaucrats and Modi’s dependence on bureaucrats of his choice. “Manmohan Singh’s empathy towards Kutty Nair (T.K.A. Nair) is well-known and his lieutenants were chosen based on their allegiance to Nair,” says Bose. But Modi wants a direct command and control system in which officers report directly to him through the PMO, bypassing their respective ministers. A system that could cut across the proverbial red tapism? The jury is still out on that one, though!

A Central government bureaucrat points out that there is at least one Gujarat cadre officer in the five departments under finance ministry. “Are they keeping a watch on us? No one knows these days!” says the bureaucrat wanting to remain anonymous.

Officers From Gujarat
Associates of the ruling party say that there are less than five Gujarat cadre IAS officers among the 70-plus secretaries in New Delhi, but there are several others in key posts across the capital. Take the case of Achal Kumar Joti, a 1975 batch Gujarat cadre officer who took charge as Election Commissioner in May 2015. Joti’s appointment is key keeping in mind the several state assembly elections lined up for the next few months. Elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Puducherry, Assam, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat will take place during Joti’s term as election commissioner.

A close look at Modi’s own office shows that he is most comfortable with officers from Gujarat. His close lieutenants, from P.K. Mishra to Rajeev Topno, have all served in Gujarat during Modi’s 13-year-stint as chief minister.

In their defence, BJP leaders are quick to point out that PMs in the past, from Indira Gandhi to Mammohan Singh, have always relied on their trusted bureaucrats to run the PMO and Modi is no exception. But former minister of state for home and Congress leader R.P.N. Singh says, “Modi has shown that he has little faith in institutions or politicians that is why he has chosen to place his trusted aides and keep things under his control.” Singh gives Amit Shah’s example to drive home his point about the PM’s alleged instinct to control all affairs from party to the government.

Modi’s tried and tested model for development hinges on high-performing bureaucrats who made Gujarat ‘vibrant’. And for his Gujarat model to be replicated across India, the PM definitely wants his trusted officers to lead the charge. Such is his comfort with officers he has worked with in the past that even the Public Relations Officer of PMO has been imported from the Chief Minister’s Office in Gujarat.

Officers & Investigations
CBI: The Central Bureau of Investigation has long been the object of ridicule for being a caged parrot of the government of the day. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to cage the parrot is to have the Central Bureau of Investigation run by officers close to the political masters. Remember, how a CBI director was found taking dictations from a law minister on a Supreme Court monitored case?

This time around, the appointment of Arun Kumar Sharma as joint director of the investigating agency has led to discomfort within CBI. Sharma, a 1987 batch Gujarat cadre IPS officer, is known to be close to the PM. His name had, in fact, cropped up in a purported sting operation that alleged Gujarat Police’s role in snooping on a woman architect. Sharma was also questioned by CBI a few years ago in connection with a fake encounter case. Along with Sharma’s appointment, the central government last year had also extended the term of another Gujarat cadre officer, Keshav Kumar, as joint director.

The supposed proximity of these officers with the PM has led to speculation within CBI that they are the actual points of liaison with the government and are largely believed to be calling the shots in the agency. A situation that to a large extent diminishes the position and role of the CBI director. With a two-year tenure, A.K. Sinha was selected for the top job in CBI in 2014, a selection that was natural given his seniority in the agency.

Enforcement Directorate: Last August saw the sudden dismissal of Rajen Katoch as the director of Enforcement Directorate (ED) while senior IPS officer Karnal Singh took over the reins of the directorate in an additional capacity. Katoch, who is secretary in the Department of Heavy Industries and held additional charge as head of ED, was removed while on an extension. The subsequent appointment of Singh in an additional capacity has led to many demanding a full-time director in the agency. Speculation is rife that the full-time position is being held to accommodate yet another close aide of Modi, G.C. Murmu; a 1985 batch Gujarat cadre IAS officer. A check on Murmu’s past few years again throws up uncomfortable details.

Murmu came into the spotlight a few years ago for allegedly trying to influence officers against deposing truthfully before the Nanavati Commission set up to scrutinise the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Many even believe that these appointments are rewards for standing by Modi during his trying times as chief minister.

[email protected]; @suchetanaray

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 08-02-2016)