A spate of headlines over the past few months might have given reason to many to believe that the Modi 2.0 government has, at last, launched a crusade against corruption and sloth in the bureaucracy and various All-India Services. The compulsory retirement of 12 senior Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officers in June followed by the sacking of another 22 officers of the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) last month add to the list of ignominious exits of senior bureaucrats that includes names such as MN Vijaykumar (IAS), K Narasimha (IAS), Mayank Sheel Chohan (IPS) and Raj Kumar Dewangan (IPS).
In July, Dr. Jitendra Singh, MOS, Ministry of Personal, Public Grievances, informed the Parliament that a total of 312 government officials have been discharged after reviewing the performance of 36,000 Group A and 82,000 Group B officers between 2014 and 2019. Later in the same month, Nityanand Rai, MOS, Ministry of Home Affairs, put it on record in the upper house, that “a total number of 1,083 officials have been dismissed from the Government service under the applicable disciplinary rules in the Ministry including its organisations during the last 5 years (sic).”
According to a news report published in The Print on September 4, the Department of Personal and Training (DoPT), has identified 284 officers of the Central Secretariat Service who will be put out to pasture on grounds of alleged corruption or inefficiency. The list includes 19 defence, 18 home affairs, 18 finance and 22 health ministry officials.
The compulsory retirements or dismissals were enforced after invoking provisions of Fundamental Rules (FR) 56(j), Rule 48 of Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules, 1972, and Rule 16(3) (Amended) of All India Services (Death-cum-Retirement Benefits) Rules, 1958, which hitherto were rarely used for removing government officials.
The process to scrutinise the bureaucracy for corruption and inefficiency began quietly in the middle of 2018 under instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The spring cleaning gathered momentum after the Cabinet Secretariat and the Central Vigilance Commission issued verbal orders to the vigilance units of various departments across India to go though the service records of government officials with a fine-tooth comb to identify the “black sheep” and inefficient officers at all levels. Under the extant laws, the government is well within its rights to review the performance of officers who have attained the age of 50 years or have completed 30 years in service. In case, the government finds them hampering public interest, it can force such officials into compulsory retirement.
Crusader against corruption
Predictably, the glowing headlines that the weeding of officials have garnered, added an extra coat of varnish to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s halo as a tough crusader against corruption. After all, in 2012, Modi’s metamorphosis from a regional leader to a prime ministerial candidate took place when the chorus of corruption against the UPA-2 government reached its crescendo to the riffs of “presumptive loss” and “windfall gain”.
During the heady two-year period, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s draft reports, headlined by Vinod Rai, particularly on the 2G spectrum allocation and coal block allocations that took place between 2004-09, were being leaked to the media like Father Time distributing candy to bawling kids at a kindergarten fair. The two CAG reports formed the basis of what came to be defined as the 2G Spectrum Scam (2010) and Coalgate Scam (2012). In between these two, other reports on the Commonwealth Scam, KG Basin Scam and Adarsh Housing Scam also miraculously found their way to the media before they could be tabled in Parliament.
In the final report on the 2G Scam, Rai pegged a “presumptive loss” of Rs. 1,76,000 crore to the national exchequer due to unscrupulous allocation of valuable 2G spectrum to vested parties by the then telecom minister A Raja. In the case of coal block allocation—the coal ministry was under Manmohan Singh— his report alleged that private companies that were allocated coal blocks made “windfall gains” to the tune of Rs. 1,86,000 crore, thereby causing a serious loss to the government’s treasury.
The government is well within its rights to review the performance of officers who have attained the age of 50 years or have completed 30 years in service. In case, the government finds them hampering public interest, it can force such officials into compulsory retirement
While Rai was cranking out alleged scam reports, a rich cast of characters led by Anna Hazare that included people such as the current Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, current Puducherry Lt. Governor Kiran Bedi, businessman-baba Ramdev, lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan and public intellectual Yogendra Yadav among others, launched the Jan Lokpal agitation in August 2011 at the Ramlila Maidan under the hulking shadow of India’s most potent symbol of power, the Red Fort.
India Against Corruption (IAC), a loose collective of people which didn’t exist on paper and had its roots in the current NSA, Ajit Doval’s Vivekananda International Foundation under which the agitation was launched, became the most omniscient totem in this fight against corruption and crony capitalism that allegedly flourished under the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-2 government. Newspapers ran banner headlines and news television provided the drum rolls for the marching hundreds and thousands who descended on the Ramlila Maidan in a show of strength against the ruling dispensation. For 12 days, the images of a supine Anna in pristine white on the stage amidst a sea of people, beamed 24×7 into homes—from plush drawing rooms to the modest dwellings in mofussil India—became the most defining hologram
of the country’s “second freedom movement”.
The narrative against corruption got the moral seal of the Supreme Court when it cancelled 122 2G licences in 2012 and the over 200 coal blocks in 2014. Against this backdrop, as popular discontent against UPA-2 turned into a groundswell, the Modi armada set out from Gujarat with favourable wind in its sails for Delhi to capture the ultimate prize in Indian politics: prime ministership of the world’s largest democracy. With the Congress-led UPA floundering, trying to find a counter to the dominant narrative of the day—which the Congress hasn’t found till date— Modi positioned himself as an uncompromising crusader against corruption and crony capitalism and a champion of vikas (development). The accompanying light and sound show was delivered every morning at the doorsteps by newspapers and every evening though prime-time television screens and 24X7 though smartphone screens. The burnished image of Modi as the renaissance man was the political opium that the masses consumed in the belief that he would rid the country of its accumulated ills, real or imaginary.
It’s all about context
If one were to untangle the treads of this carefully cultivated narrative, it would become easier to understand why the 2G Spectrum Scam collapsed in the Special CBI court in 2017 and all 17 accused in the scam, including Raja, were acquitted. Similarly, Special CBI Judge, Bharat Parashar, while acquitting former coal secretary, HC Gupta, in one of the 12 cases pertaining to the Coalgate Scam said, that the CBI “miserably failed” to prove the charges. For the record, Gupta has been convicted in three cases and acquitted in one by the trial court. The convictions have been appealed in the High Court, while trial in the remaining cases is pending before the Special Court.
Some of the senior bureaucrats that gfiles spoke to off the record, admit that the bureaucracy and All-India Services does need cleaning up, but in the same breath they question the way it’s being done and the motive behind it. “It’s all about headline management that has come to define this government; in the bargain it might be able to get a co-opted bureaucracy to suit their ideological agenda. But the bigger issue is what about political corruption that arises due to opaque funding of parties. While the intent to fight corruption might be noble, but the introduction of electoral bonds and dilution of norms for foreign funding with retrospective effect seem to suggest otherwise,” said a senior bureaucrat. It is worth noting that those who are beingsent into compulsory retirement on charges of corruption are not being prosecuted, which should be a logical course of action for any government; instead, they will retain their full retirement benefits.
The elephant in the room that the Modi government doesn’t seem interested in addressing is opaque political funding that is the prime driver for big-ticket corruption and crony capitalism. A report titled, Poll Expenditure, the 2019 Elections, put together by CMS Research after the 2019 General Elections identified some of the most dubious sectors and professions as major sources of political funding
It appears that the sacking of officials is intended to achieve several objectives with a generous garnishing of political dividend. It will help the government to create a perception that it’s walking the talk on weeding out corruption from the system, which was one of Modi’s original promises. Also, as an added bonus, it will help in combating petty corruption, which impacts the common public.
The elephant in the room that the Modi government doesn’t seem interested in addressing is opaque political funding that is the prime driver for big-ticket corruption and crony capitalism. A report titled, Poll Expenditure, The 2019 Elections, published by CMS Research after the 2019 General Elections identified 10 sources of political funding: Real estate, mining, corporate/industry/trade, chit funds, transport and transport contractors, unorganised sector and NGOs, education enterprises, foreign contributions and others (films, telecom, etc). Out of these, real estate, mining and chit funds are known to be established conduits for money laundering, while the transport sector also isn’t exactly known to run on clean money.
The CMS report pegs the total expenditure by the ruling BJP in elections in 2019 in the range of Rs. 27,000 crore to Rs. 30,000 crore (Table 1). “In 20 years, involving six elections to Lok Sabha between 1998 and 2019, the election expenditure had gone up by around six times from Rs. 9,000 crore to around Rs. 55,000 crore. It is interesting to see how the ruling party gears up to spend much more than other parties in Lok Sabha poll. The BJP spent about 20 per cent in 1998 against about 45 per cent in 2019 out of total poll expenditure estimate of Rs. 9,000 crore to Rs. 55,000 crore. In 2009, Congress party’s share was 40 per cent of total expenditure in 2009, against 15 to 20 per cent in 2019,” says the CMS report.
How serious is the government in rooting out political corruption can be gauged from the stand it took in the Supreme Court in April 2019 during the hearing of a petition filed by Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) challenging the validity of electoral bonds. Appearing for the Government of India, Attorney General, KK Venugopal informed the court, “In my opinion, voters have the right to know about their candidates. Why should they know where the money of political parties is coming from?” He further stated that, “Transparency cannot be the mantra. It will have to take into account the realities of the day…”
Electoral bonds were introduced in 2017 after making amendments to the Finance Act, 2017, the Income Tax Act, the Representation of People’s Act and the Reserve Bank of India Act. The electoral bonds are sold only through the State Bank of India in denominations of Rs. 1,000, Rs. 10,000, Rs. 1 lakh, Rs. 10 lakh and Rs. 1 crore. Soon after they were introduced, for the year 2017-18, according to ADR, the BJP got a contribution of Rs. 210 crore, amounting to 95 per cent of all bonds sold compared to a mere Rs. 5 crore to the Congress, while rest of the parties drew blank. The introduction of electoral bonds along with the removal of 7.5 percent cap on corporate donations by amending the Companies Bill, 2013 and easing norms under Foreign Contribution Regulation Act 2010, (FCRA) with retrospective effect (2012) as money bill in the 2016 budget session allows foreign-origin companies to make donations to political parties.
These changes to the mechanisms of political funding are not only retrograde, they also draw a thicker veil of opacity on the sources of funding of political parties. Between March 2018 and January 2019, a total of Rs. 1,407.1 crore (Table 2) worth of electoral bonds were sold, of which more than 90 percent went into the BJP’s kitty, according to ADR.
A former high-ranking bureaucrat told gfiles on condition of anonymity that the fight against big-ticket corruption should begin from the top. “Any government that seriously intends to fight crony capitalism and corruption should begin its clean-up act from the top and not ground up. It should start with cleaning up the way political parties generate funds. The way this government has gone about justifying electoral bonds in its previous tenure is dead giveaway,” he said. The bureaucrat further added that the sacking of government officers in the name of fighting corruption and inefficiency is a mere “window dressing” and that “there are grounds to believe that the bureaucracy is being deliberately weakened to facilitate more lateral entries in the name of bringing in domain experts. These bureaucratic sackings come across as a perception management exercise”.
Appearing for the Government of India, Attorney General, KK Venugopal informed the court, “In my opinion, voters have the right to know about their candidates. Why should they know where the money of political parties is coming from?” He further stated that, “Transparency cannot be the mantra…”
Petty corruption continues
According to the Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) report of 2017 by Transparency International, the bribery percentage in India is the highest in the Asia-Pacific region. The overall bribery rate in India is an eye-popping 69 percent compared to 40 percent in Pakistan and 15 percent in Sri Lanka. According to the latest raking, India with a score of 41 out of 100 ranks 78 out 180 countries (Table 3). On the upside, India’s position has improved from its worst ever ranking 95 in 2011 to 78 in 2018. Pertinent point is that India’s worst coincided with the year when “presumptive loss” and “windfall gains” became the lingua franca of the nation, courtesy Rai. Compared to India, arch-rival Pakistan fares even worse at with a rank of 117 in absolute terms, the comparative index, however, doesn’t paint a flattering picture (Table 4). India’s corruption index has continued to creep upwards despite tall claims that petty corruption has come down and was almost at par with our much-hated neighbour.
The GCB report further highlights that Indians have to pay the maximum amount of bribes for availing some of the most basic services such as public schools, public hospitals, identification cards and permits, utilities, police and courts (Table 5).
The available data makes it abundantly clear that opaque political funding made the ground even more fertile for crony capitalism and big-ticket corruption, while the much trumpeted reduction in petty corruption is a mere myth. In simple terms, the fight against corruption in both high places and at low level is just a game of smoke and mirrors.
Bureaucracy under siege
Whether the sacking of government officials is a perception management exercise or not, can be debated. However, what is not debatable is the need for urgent reforms of the Indian bureaucracy. Successive reports by the Administrative Reforms Commission have stressed upon the urgent need to bring in sweeping reforms for better functioning and streamlining India’s lumbering bureaucracy, both at the central and state levels. Similarly, Dr. NC Saxena, former secretary of the erstwhile Planning Commission, also produced a comprehensive report in 2013, highlighting the issues that plague the bureaucracy and offers remedies. In fact, from the Morarji Desai government in 1977 to Modi’s, all have commissioned various studies to suggest ways to overhaul the country’s administrative mechanism. But, these reports and studies have got lost in the filing cabinets of India’s power structure.
The narrative against corruption got the moral seal of the Supreme Court when it cancelled the 2G licences in 2012 and the over 200 coal blocks in 2014. Against this backdrop, as popular discontent against UPA-2 turned into a groundswell, the Modi armada set out from Gujarat with favourable wind in its sails for Delhi to capture the ultimate prize in Indian politics
The latest euphemism that’s being bandied about in the name of civil services reforms is lateral entry. Though, lateral entry in itself is not a new idea, it has never been done on large scale as is being proposed by this government. Former governments of Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh brought in specialists for specific sectors in which the bureaucracy lacked the expertise.
After inducting nine joint secretary -level officers from the private sector in April 2019, the PMO has asked the DoPT to prepare a proposal to induct as many as 400 officers at par with Deputy Secretary and Director-level officers from outside the Civil Services and All-India Services. From the time the idea of large-scale lateral induction was first floated in early 2018, it was come under criticism from former bureaucrats.
Writing in the July 2018 issue of gfiles, former Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar sounded caveat. “Creative individuals can be brought in to infuse some dynamism in the hierarchical governmental structure even today without any resistance from anyone, but to institutionalise it in the form of a regular recruitment on the lines of civil service recruitment (that too though the proposed uneven selection process) is another thing all together,” wrote Kumar. Further elaborating his point, he stated: “We should do it with a lot of deliberation and preparation. What we are looking for should be explicitly defined. Merely saying that … ‘Qualifications: Graduate from recognised university/Institute. Higher qualification would be an added advantage…’ is not adequate.”
The way the bureaucracy is being mauled has created a feeling of a siege within. What was being talked in hushed whispers among serving bureaucrats, spilled in the open with the resignations of young IAS officers over the past month. S Sasikanth Senthil, a 2009 Karnataka cadre officer who was posted as the DC Dakshina Kannada (All-India rank 9), quit the service because he felt that the basic structure of India’s democracy is being dismantled.
Following his resignation, Senthil issued a public statement in which he clarified what drove him to take of the extreme step of quitting the prestigious service. “I have taken this decision as I feel that it’s unethical for me to continue as a civil servant in the government when the fundamental building blocks of our diverse democracy are being compromised in an unprecedented manner. I also feel strongly that the coming days will present extremely difficult challenges to the basic fabric of our nation and that I would be better off outside the IAS to continue with my work of at making life better for all. It simply cannot be business as usual,” wrote Senthil.
Earlier, AGMUT cadre officer, Kannan Gopinathan, who was posted as Collector, Dadra & Nagar Haveli with additional charge as Secretary Power, Social Welfare, Labour & Employment, Commissioner VAT, GST and Excise and Managing Director DBH Power Distribution Corporation Ltd, resigned from the service after the government imposed blanket communication blockade in Jammu & Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A.
The 2012 batch officer stated that he did not want to be a part of a government that silenced the voice of the people. He told the website The NewsMinute, “I joined the services believing I can give voice to others, but here I am unable to use my own voice. My resignation will give me my freedom of expression back.” In another interview to the Indian Express he said, “If you ask me what you were doing, when one of the world’s largest democracies announced a ban on the entire state, and even violated the fundamental rights of the people, I should at least be able to reply that I resigned my job.”
By resigning these two officers did what most of the institutions, including the media, have failed do quite spectacularly in the past five years: they spoke truth to power and upheld the basic tenets of democracy. Their actions point an accusatory finger right at the heart of the new India’s power structure that flows out from 7 Jan Kalyan Marg. These two resignations and the public fallout seem to have rattled the government to such an extent that it’s mulling over a proposal that will make it tougher for civil servants to resign. BJP leader and former minister, Anant Kumar Hegde even went to the extent of accusing Senthil of rajdrodh (treachery) and asked him to “go to Pakistan”—a favourite invective of IT cell trolls.
As the economy continues its downward spiral with certain sectors touching a historic low and ingenious reasons are being spun on a daily basis by the ministers, it seems the government will be hunting for feel-good headlines in the coming days. If that turns out to be the case, sacking some more high-profile bureaucrats and government officials in the garb of fighting corruption might turn out to be profitable exercise. And, in the bargain if Modi is able to prove in the next few years that corruption has indeed come down, it will fetch him great political dividends. Either way Modi wins.