IAS Officers as Rath Prabharis is 'Not Just Unethical But Illegal': Ex-Civil Servant EAS Sarma

Deploying public servants in activity likely to influence voters during elections violates the election law, says former secretary to the government of India in an interview to The Wire's Arfa Khanum Sherwani.

Former secretary to the government of India E.A.S. Sarma has written to the Election Commission of India once again on the Union government’s plan to use senior government officers as “rath prabharis” who will propagate information on so-called ‘achievements’ of the Narendra Modi government.

There have been other provocations too, such as ‘selfie-points’ being assigned to government, civil and defence staff which have Modi in the frame. But IAS officers as “rath prabharis” have led ex-bureaucrats, in particular, to express strong concern.

Sarma had first written to the ECI on October 21, saying that the commission must intervene and block this government order. These instructions, he argued, were against the Model Code of Conduct, which is in place in five states going to the polls.

Selfie point at a Metro Station in Delhi. Photo: Banjot Kaur/The Wire.

In his second letter sent on Monday (October 23), Sarma said he hoped the ECI had taken cognisance of his complaint.

Excerpts from a short interview with him on the latest in provocations, which appear to try and skew the level playing field which is a must for free and fair elections.

More so, while the Model Code of Conduct for the whole country is not in place, 2024 polls are around the corner.

What is your primary objection to the Modi government’s nomination of government officers as Rath Prabharis?

My objection is to the government asking its officers to showcase its achievements during the last nine years, on the eve of the Assembly elections. The announcement came after the Model Code came into effect. Therefore, it violates the Code.

You earlier stated that it is unethical but is it also illegal? Can officers say no to the govt order? Should the Election Commission act on it?

It is illegal as it violates the Model Code. Deploying public servants in activity likely to influence voters during elections violates the election law. Also, the civil services conduct rules prohibit civil servants from doing anything that is likely to unduly influence voters. A conscientious civil servant can point this out, say “no” and refrain from taking part in such activity.

There are four Union ministers contesting Assembly elections. It is bizarre that their officers should be showcasing their government’s achievements in constituencies in which they will contest when the Code is in force. In my view, it should attract disqualification of such candidates, for deploying their officers and public resources, when the Moral Code is in force.

The Election Commission ought to have acted on it immediately, instead of waiting for citizens and political parties pointing it out.

Is there a similar transgression in the past that this brings to mind?

I do not remember such an instance.

What options exist for citizens if the EC does not take note?

If EC fails to act, courts are the only resort.