First Person | Public Work

Let this be the domain of public servants, not government officers

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Maybe in his moments of reflection after hanging up his uniform, Delhi commissioner of police (CP), Bhim Sain Bassi would mourn the shame and ignominy of what could have been his crowning glory; his last appointment before retirement. For most government servants, the swan song often becomes their calling card by which they prefer being remembered — fearless, honest, empathetic and imaginative and so on. Unfortunately for Bassi, all that his last appointment earned for him is notoriety and reputation of servility, even before the JNU fiasco unravelled the assiduously-built career.

It is difficult to blame the sordidness of his tenure as CP on incompetence. The level of incompetence needed to achieve the results that the Delhi police did, wouldn’t have taken him this far in his career. It also appears a bit improbable, at least judging by his television appearances, that he is a coward who gets bullied by his political bosses. Hence, the only plausible explanation then is wilful misuse of his powers to please his political masters; by serving not the nation and its people, but his masters’ interests, at the cost of professionalism and his own reputation.

Bassi would have calculated that his own interest lay in his masters’ interests; that his loyalty would earn him a post-retirement sinecure, as it has done for many in the past. This would effectively extend his government job by a few more years, affording him government accommodation, salary and perks. A few months ago, well before his retirement, it was reported in the media that Bassi was lobbying the ministry of home affairs, who he reports to, for the post-retirement appointment as chief information commissioner (CIC).

In February, as the JNU issue spiralled out of control with the Delhi police treating students as criminals, and manipulating the nationalism discourse through distorted images and doctored videos, newspapers reported that the government had decided on rewarding Bassi for the job well done by offering him the CIC position. However, following the general uproar, the government developed cold feet, and till the writing of this article it appeared that Bassi would eventually have to walk into the sunset.

This is not a Bassi-bashing article because Bassi is not the problem. He is the product of the problem which afflicts our political and administrative structures. And he is certainly not the only product. Several senior bureaucrats and military officers develop this condition as they start to inch towards the top of their service. On the one hand, the government uses the carrot of post-retirement appointments to manipulate these officers; on the other hand, these officers allow their present jobs to be compromised in the hope of future returns. This mutually-serving arrangement has three major flaws.

One, it renders the senior leadership incompetent. As the officers are constantly eyeing the future, they contribute nothing to their present job. For them it becomes the waiting period for the next appointment. Everything that they do is done with an eye on the mood of the political masters. The desperation to please the government grows to such an extent that they do not even pause to think what dishonour or ridicule their actions may bring to their own service and cadre.

Take the case of army chief General Dalbir Singh for instance. Such has been his desire to please the government that he allowed (or ordered) his uniformed soldiers to act as helpers (laying out mats at India Gate) during the international yoga day in 2015. Last month, he allowed soldiers to be air-inserted in Haryana to quell the rioting Jats without ground vehicles for them to carry out a flag march. The following day the nation saw the disturbing spectacle of soldiers marching on the roads, carrying placards declaring them to be the army. Even in a state that contributes substantially to the armed forces, the soldiers had to tell the people that they were from the army. Their uniform no longer accorded them the authority.

BS BassiTwo, it demoralises the subordinates. When the boss gets busy currying favours with his superior, he or she obviously has no time for those who work with him. This not only disillusions the juniors, they also lose respect for their job. Imagine the efficiency of a service which does not respect its leader. When the lawyers, who obviously had no regard for their profession, attacked not only Kanhaiya Kumar but the policemen too, none retaliated. Clearly, the policemen were asked by their boss to let Kanhaiya Kumar be beaten up. Only they didn’t imagine that the rogue lawyers would hit them too. The humiliation that the uniformed policemen would have felt getting assaulted and not being able to respond can only be imagined. The very uniform which gave them the power rendered them helpless.

Three, it allows the political class, motivated by party loyalties and vested interests to subvert Constitutional institutions, such as the Union Public Service Commission, Election Commission of India, Comptroller and Auditor General, state Governors, CIC, and so on. Once the system of looking out for one another’s interests is institutionalised, can these democratic institutions ever be expected to be fair and honourable?

So that we never ever see the spectacle like Delhi or states like Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where the Governors operate like spies for the Union government, no government servant or politician should ever be appointed to these positions. India is the largest democracy in the world with a substantive and active civil society comprising technocrats, writers, academicians, activists, artists, grass-roots workers and so on.

Instead of their perfunctory nomination to the Rajya Sabha, which adds no value to the House nor keeps the appointee engaged, why can’t these people be appointed to these Constitutional position? Clearly, only those who are interested in the job would accept it. Why does a Governor need to be a politician who has run out of his usefulness for his party or an ex-serviceman? Wouldn’t it be more harmonious for the functioning of the state if a non-political member of the civil society is appointed Governor? Or if a career academician is appointed head of UPSC?

Or a journalist or an RTI activist is appointed CIC? After all, wasn’t Shailesh Gandhi, an activist, appointed information commissioner in 2008? Why couldn’t he subsequently be promoted as CIC? Why should it be the reserve of a retired bureaucrat? The current CIC is a retired defence secretary. It is anybody’s guess what qualities he has brought to his office. For a bureaucrat who spends his entire career kow-towing to the government, how is it possible that he suddenly finds courage to stand up to the same government? Or a military-man who has followed standard operating procedures all his life, how can he be expected to find imagination and creativity in directly serving the people?

Retirement should mean retirement from the government job; not reemployment in another Constitutional position. This smacks of rewarding bureaucrats, and ex-servicemen for not doing their jobs. If at all they should be appointed to these positions, it should happen at least half a decade after their retirement and only if they show proclivity towards public life through non-profit work or activism. Perhaps, then those expected to work for the people may actually do that.



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