New Chairman of UPSC, Manoj Soni, Shares Close Ties with BJP and RSS

The UPSC was earlier headed by distinguished academics and civil servants, but Soni's appointment is being seen as a further push in the direction of the 'saffronisation' of various institutions in the country.

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New Delhi: Manoj Soni, the new chairperson of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), shares close ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and is also linked to a religious sect in Gujarat.

At one point, when Narendra Modi was serving as the chief minister of Gujarat, Soni is believed to have been one of his speechwriters. He is learned to have earned the name “Chhote Modi” due to his proximity to Modi.

Soni, who served as the vice-chancellor of Vadodara’s MS University earlier, was the youngest person in the country to hold such a position. As vice-chancellor, Soni is believed to have allowed RSS and BJP men to influence several important decisions that the university took. On the other hand, in a book titled In Search of a Third Space, Soni presented a distorted version of the Gujarat 2002 riots in line with the Hindutva narrative, according to reports.

From his childhood, Soni has been linked with the Swaminarayan sect’s Anoopam Mission in the Anand district of Gujarat. In 2020, he was made “nishkarma karmayogi” (selfless worker or monk) in January 2020.

Hailing from a humble background, Soni is believed to have seen a life of struggle, from selling incense sticks in Mumbai to becoming the country’s youngest vice-chancellor of a university in 2005, according to Times of India.

As for his educational qualifications, he studied Political Science while specialising in International Relations Studies. Prior to that, he opted for Arts at Raj Ratna PT Patel College after he failed the Class XII science exam.

He earned a doctorate for his research entitled ‘Post-Cold War International Systemic Transition and Indo-US Relations’. After his studies, he taught at Sardar Patel University (SPU). His education was funded by the Anoopam Mission.

Speaking of his doctoral research, the UPSC describes in its profile of Soni as “one of the earliest and one-of-its-kind studies during 1992 and 1995”. It then goes on to add, “[It] attempted to explain the post-Cold War systemic transition through a conceptual framework that has potent predictive capabilities.” The research was later published as a book entitled Understanding the Global Political Earthquake, according to the UPSC.

In the past, UPSC chairpersons were usually renowned academics who carried brilliant academic and professional records. More often than not, these were career bureaucrats, drawn mostly from the IAS.

It is feared the appointment of Soni, who will now oversee recruitments to All India Services, will bring in political influence, and all key positions will be “ideologically coloured” henceforth.

Speaking to The Wire, Apoorvanand, a teacher at Delhi University and columnist, says, “The promotion of such a person, to the post of chairman of UPSC, has a clear meaning that now this institution, which ideally should be free of the influence of political bosses, will not have neutral appointments. It is now clear that while earlier lateral entries had started, now all the appointments to key posts will be ideologically coloured.”

Taking to Twitter, Apoorvanand said there was a concerted effort on the part of the right-wing establishment to capture the IAS and IPS.

On Soni’s tenure as vice-chancellor at Vadodara’s MS University, Apoorvanand told The Wire, “It was during the term of Soni as vice-chancellor of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara that the university witnessed a sharp decline in its standards. The Fine Arts faculty of the university used to be a reputed one, but it was destroyed under his leadership.”

Jawhar Sircar, Rajya Sabha MP from Trinamool Congress, who served as Government of India secretary and drawn from the IAS, strongly reacted to Soni’s appointment.

He tweeted:

Former Central Information Commissioner and retired IPS officer Yashovardhan Azad told The Wire, “They [the right-wing establishment] have a grudge against so-called ‘Lutyen-wallahs’. I went through Soni’s records and found that he has apparently bagged some international awards.”

Soni’s appointment could be seen as part of the ‘saffronisation’ of various commissions and several central universities as the BJP government acquires control of the institutions.

In fact, Soni’s elevation as UPSC chairman comes close on the heels of news channels and right-wing groups raising the bogey of “UPSC Jihad”, claiming that minority community members were trying to increase their numbers in the civil services. Such false narratives were exposed in the past, but they suggest how the UPSC has now become a centrepiece in what has now become the ground for an ‘ideological war’.

A marked shift 

The UPSC was earlier headed by distinguished academics and civil servants. The first chairman of the UPSC was Sir Ross Barker, a renowned academician and president of the Royal Society of Teachers, UK. He served the institute from 1926 to 1932.

The last chairperson under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Manmohan Singh was D.P.Agrawal, who served from August 2008 to August 2014.

He was a graduate of Mechanical Engineering from Aligarh Muslim University, who obtained his M.Tech and PhD degrees from IIT Delhi, later becoming a professor and dean there. He also served as the National Project Director of the World Bank and supervised over 100 theses, including 20 PhDs and published over 150 research papers covering areas of turbomachinery, fluid dynamics, information technology, management and e-governance.

The first appointment to the post of UPSC chief under the Narendra Modi government was of Rajni Razdan, a former IAS officer who had retired as secretary, Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances.

She was succeeded by another academician, David R. Syiemlieh, who had served as pro-vice-chancellor of North Eastern Hill University, and then as vice-chancellor of Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar.

Prof. Syiemlieh had done his graduation in History honours and then pursued a Master’s programme in History at the North Eastern Hill University. He followed it up with an M.Phil and a PhD. He also taught courses on capitalism and imperialism, modern Indian history and the history of Christianity in North East India.

After Syiemlieh, the Union government in a rare move appointed Vinay Mittal as chairperson of UPSC. He was a former Railway Board chairman and had worked in various capacities in the Railways.

Arvind Saxena, who succeeded Mittal, was an Indian Postal Service officer who had studied Civil Engineering at the Delhi College of Engineering and did his M.Tech in Systems Management from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), New Delhi.