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IAS Officers Running Factories, Flying Planes: Implications of PM’s Parliament Outburst

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The examples that Modi cited to deride the service are based on wrong facts. There have not been any instances of IAS officers flying planes (some, including a railways officer, may have been asked to head Air India in the past), nor do they operate fertilizer plants owned by the Government of India.

There is absolutely no doubt that Prime Minister Modi is a leader par-excellence. Even his fiercest critics will agree. This is the reason that his recent outburst in Parliament against Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officers came as a surprise. The Prime Minister would have perhaps reflected on what he said and would have realised the implications of what he said and the impact thereof on the “instruments”.

This is what the Prime Minister said in Parliament while intervening the debate on the President’ address:

“Sab kuchh babu hi karenge. IAS ban gaye matlab who fertilizer ka karkhana bhi chalayega, IAS ho gaye to who hawai jahaz bhi chalayega. Yeh kaun si badi takat bana kar rakh di hai hamne? Babuon ke haath mein desh de karke hum kya karne waale hain?”

(Officers will do everything. By becoming IAS officers, they will operate fertilizer factories, even fly airplanes. What is this big power we have created? What are we going to achieve by handing over the reins of the nation to these officers.)

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A number of issues and questions arise out of this statement. Are IAS officers doing everything? Are they responsible for all failures? Has the government failed? If the government has succeeded on certain fronts – which indeed it has – shouldn’t some of the credit go to those in the team that worked backstage to make these things happen? Or, should all the credit go to political leaders? Has the nation been handed over to the IAS? Or, was it just a rhetorical statement?

The examples that Modi cited to deride the service are based on wrong facts. There have not been any instances of IAS officers flying planes (some, including a railways officer, may have been asked to head Air India in the past), nor do they operate fertilizer plants owned by the Government of India. In fact, there aren’t many IAS officers heading central public sector undertakings. (Ironically, recently a retired IAS officer was drafted to clear the mess in one of the largest private banks of the country.

Modi perhaps had in his mind the officers that he had appointed as Chief Minister to head State PSUs that were producing fertiliser in the state of Gujarat. This also raises another question. If he was the one who appointed them, why is he berating them now?

I sought information about the performance of these fertiliser units in Gujarat, and understood that they are doing reasonably well. However, that is not the issue here. The next question is, who appoints these IAS officers at the Centre in various positions? If the PM is the ultimate decision maker, why make such a statement?

The IAS bashers are mighty happy. They have held the IAS responsible for any mess in the country. There are, however, some who feel that the service has indeed held the country together during troubled times. They give the example of neighboring countries where absence of such a “steel frame” has caused a lot of problems. There is a large number of those that believe that the service needs to be re-structured.

I have had the occasion to interact with a number of IAS officers, and, though anecdotal, there is indeed a trend that is clearly discernable. Many of those who have retired, including those who believe that Modi is the best to happen to India, are surprised at the statement. They are unable to fathom why Modi chose Parliament as the platform for his statement. Those that had worked with Modi were even more surprised as that is not the Modi they knew. To them, Modi was never insecure and held the service in high regard. They are also unable to understand what could have triggered such an outburst.

Those close to retirement but still in the service refuse to read much into the statement. Perhaps they have chosen not to reflect. Or, they have, but don’t want to express their views for obvious reasons. The youngsters and those who joined the service recently appeared to be at a loss. They had heard a different Modi at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie and at the conclusion of a three-month attachment in Delhi. Then, he had conveyed a message that was quite reassuring while also reminding them of the responsibilities in store for them.

Given the mandate that Modi has and the power that he enjoys, he could have easily gone ahead and made the IAS toothless or transformed it entirely. On the contrary, he continues to rely on the service for all critical posts, including those in his own secretariat. Only time will tell why he made such a statement.

More than the content of his speech, the manner, demeanor and choice of location are difficult to decipher. He could have easily conveyed his angst privately to all IAS officers as he converses with them periodically. Or, did he find that private conversations were not delivering the desired results? Some have argued, perhaps correctly, that the PM was conveying a message to a larger audience of youngsters that they are as important as the IAS, and that their contribution to nation building was as much, if not more, as the civil servants. He was perhaps recognising the contribution made by “wealth creators”.

However, was it necessary to pillory the IAS publicly to drive home his point? Only the PM can answer this question and, if not, reflect on what he said. Those civil servants that surround him will never convey the import of his statement for obvious reasons. I had personally experienced the damage that a Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) report had done to the decision-making process. Then, a large number of civil servants concerned about their own future had chosen not to speak about it and kept climbing the bureaucratic ladder or secured their positions.

Even now, there would be many who would choose to remain silent in their own interest. Having been a part of the civil service for 38 years, I can safely say that if the “instruments” feel insecure, governance will suffer. By all means, bring about the desired and much needed changes in the bureaucratic set up, but deriding those that work with you and for the government in public will demoralize them, has demoralized them. It needs to be given a serious thought.

Disclaimer:Anil Swarup is Former Secretary, Government of India; Author of Not Just A Civil Servant & Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant; Founder Chairman of Nexus of Good Foundation. Views are personal.
first published:March 01, 2021, 18:00 IST