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It Is Not Civil Servants’ Job to ‘Showcase’ Govt Achievements: Former Cabinet Secretary Chandrasekhar

The Wire spoke to K.M. Chandrasekhar about the controversy over the Modi government asking ministries to nominate civil servants as 'Rath Prabharis'.

New Delhi: The Union government’s order to deploy civil servants as ‘Rath Prabharis’ to specifically promote the “achievements” of the past nine years has drawn significant criticism from several quarters.

The order asks every ministry to nominate officers of the level of joint secretaries and below in each of the country’s 765 districts to “showcase the achievements of the last nine years of Government of India” between November 20, 2023 and January 25, 2024.

Some retired bureaucrats have said that this amounts to the wholesale politicisation of the civil services, and registered their protest. While the government has said that Rath Prabharis will not be nominated in the five states headed to assembly polls until the Model Code of Conduct is in place, this will only provide temporary relief, former IAS officer E.A.S. Sarma said.

The Wire spoke to K.M. Chandrasekhar, who retired as cabinet secretary in 2011 and served under Manmohan Singh, about his views on the matter.

How do you view this order? Would you say this is a violation of the Central Civil Services Conduct Rules, 1964 which says government servants will not indulge in political activities? This is an allegation being made by opposition leaders.

I would say this is not a violation of the conduct rules, because government servants are supposed to follow orders unless they are against the law. But it is certainly not in good taste. A civil servant’s job is to implement government schemes and deliver services. At best, if there are issues of coordination with the states, officers can put out their contact details but that is for the purposes of carrying out their duties. As cabinet secretary, I would take secretaries of various departments by the planeloads to the various states, especially the weaker states for better coordination between the Union and state governments and better delivery of services. We would resolve problems on the spot. That in short is the job of a civil servant.

But politicians like BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya say that bureaucrats must serve the people as the government deems fit.

Our job is not to showcase or celebrate the achievements of the government. While this order of Rath Prabharis is per se not illegal, it is definitely in bad taste. Projecting anyone in this manner is extraordinary and I have never heard of something like this in my entire career. Anyway, officials at the level of deputy director or director are too junior and have the power to only put up files. They cannot take a decision or resolve a problem on the ground. So just reading out from a written piece of paper is not something that officers should be doing. This is most unusual.

There is another order issued by the Ministry of Defence which says that soldiers on leave must showcase the efforts of the government. So this is not just about government servants.

This again is a ridiculous order. When a person is on leave, they cannot be tasked to carry out such orders. The government can only request. And even then, how can such an order be implemented? Who will monitor and how will the soldier know the fine details of the schemes of the government? If a person is on leave, he or she is on leave. If a person is asked to carry out these orders then he or she cannot be deemed to be on leave. Again a highly improper order.

If you were cabinet secretary now, what would you do? And it is easy to criticise when an officer has retired but it is quite a different thing when the officer is serving.

I can only share an anecdote of what it was like to work with the Manmohan Singh government. Once I called the prime minister about an appointment of a special director to the CBI. A junior officer was being appointed, overlooking the seniority of another. The prime minister was eating lunch. He halted his meal, heard me out and left his lunch unfinished. A few minutes later, I got a call from (the advisor to the prime minister) T.K.A. Nair, who said the prime minister wanted to see the two of us. We reached 7, Race Course Road, where Pulok Chatterjee (also principal secretary to the prime minister) was already waiting. The prime minister immediately worked out a solution to the satisfaction of the senior CBI officer and gave orders to the Department of Personnel and Training Minister Prithviraj Chavan to do the needful. I am not sure if anyone can even tell the present prime minister that he is wrong.