The problem with fiery federalism

Of the five natural elements (Panchabhuma) which comprise the world – Earth, Water, Air, Space and Fire, it is the last which best describes the existing relationship between Delhi (Union government) and Kolkata (state government of West Bengal)

.Didi’s salvo protecting her citadel

The most recent flare up is over Chief Minister Mamata “Didi” Banerjee cursorily attending a review meeting of Cyclone Yaas in Kalaikunda (140 km from Kolkata), chaired by Prime Minister Modi on May 28 about Cyclone Yaas, leaving it midway for another meeting in Digha (on the coast 139 km away), just to show who is the boss in West Bengal.

Caught in the crossfire, was Alapan Bandyopadhyay, Chief Secretary of the state, an IAS officer, who followed the Chief Minister’s lead, allegedly on her orders – a bit like a team walk-out. The calculated tactic had its desired impact.

The return fire from Delhi

The reaction from the BJP and the Union Home Minister was swift – an enraged protest at the public insult to the Prime Minister. Subsequent opinions in the media, including from IAS officers, condemned the tactics of team Kolkata, even calling it an insult to the President of India, who is the appointing authority for an IAS officer and undermining of the constitutional architecture for governance.

Others referred to the norms born out of practicality, which dictate that when the PM visits, the senior-most civil servant – the Chief Secretary – is expected to remain available.

Twin blows

The formal response from the Union government consisted of twin blows- First an order dated May 28 transferring the Chief Secretary, who just days earlier on May 25 had been granted a three-month extension, on the request of the state government and requiring him to report to Delhi on May 31, 2021, the day of his superannuation.

When Mr Bandyopadhyay decided to retire instead on May 31 and joined the CM as an Advisor, he invited the second action.  A show cause notice was issued under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 for violating a lawful direction of the Union Government which is punishable with imprisonment.

Two issues arise from this unsavory tale of political and bureaucratic brinksmanship.

First, on whom does the burden of adherence lie to maintain a “sense of forbearance” whilst negotiating federal conflicts?

Clearly, it is dysfunctional for the highest level of political leadership to choose public events to settle political differences as “team Kolkata” did. The tactics used by “team Delhi” of punishing the Chief Secretary for the misdemeanours of his boss, the Chief Minister, is a double-edged sword.

It deters bureaucrats with a low-risk appetite from associating too closely with opposition leaders – one observer termed it as “hobnobbing”. But it simultaneously, makes those who choose to do so, a highly prized political possession.

Continuance of this risk-weighted informal “selection filter” keeps the best apolitical officers forever trapped in low-profile assignments with the high value assignments going to “risk-taking” politicised achievers.

This strategy makes an apolitical bureaucracy redundant. Much better then, to let governments bring their top bureaucrats with them – a bit like Mr. Bandyopadhyay- and take them with it once its’ term expires.

This will effectively kill the dominance of the IAS and facilitate the administrative restructuring of the top jobs in ministries, along professional lines, with contractual appointment being the norm, except for support staff. The IPS and IFoS are already professional services.  

Second, is this the end of Sardar Patel’s ingenious innovation- a top civil service – a well-paid, professional institution with constitutional protection- which has served as an anchor over the last seven decades, binding the fractured constitutional mandates of the Union and the States?

The answer to that question can only come from the Union government. The states are unlikely to mourn the passing of the IAS. They have their own administrative services which will benefit from the void created.

The Union government is primus-inter-pares

India is a quasi-unitary government with the Union government as the political primus-inter-pares. It should not look for the political loyalty of bureaucrats serving in the state governments, who must necessarily look towards their immediate employers and not to the Union government.

IAS officers not employees of the Union Government

Officers of the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, or the Indian Forest Service (together known by the rubric of All India Services) are not employees of the Union government, which simply recruits them and allots them to State Governments.  

The Union Government is like the parent of a married daughter – its role is to support IAS officers working in State Governments against injustice

The role of the Union, thereafter, is like the parents of a married woman. The State governments to which they are allotted become their “new homes”. Like parents, the Union Government provides back-up support against any injustice done to them.

No AIS officer can be disciplined by the state Government without the concurrence of the Union Government. But in all other aspects- promotion, pay, leave, retirement and pension, it is the state government which shall prevail. The only caveat here is that at each stage, the AIS officer can appeal, in the name of justice, to her “birth-parent”- the Union government. 

The practice of “recall” is injurious to the future of the IAS as a bridge

Under this devolved scheme of shared powers, the question of an involuntary “recall” to Delhi, without the consent of either the state government or the officer concerned, is as unjustifiable as parents “recalling” their married daughter without her consent and against the wishes of her in-laws, her new parents.

Serving two masters satisfies neither

Practicality also demands that the chain of command must remain clear. The constitution gives primacy to the political executive, the collective wisdom of Parliament and the Judiciary. It is ministers who are answerable to Parliament for their departments. The bureaucracy, in any democracy, has at best, a subsidiary role to the political executive. So, expecting officers to disobey orders by their Chief Minister is impractical.

There are already good reasons why the AIS model should be rethought. But let us not do this venerable institution irreparable harm, by making it even more inefficient than it already is, by making them scurry around, serving two masters and satisfying neither.     

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