Resentment is Brewing in the Bureaucracy over Boorish BJP Behavior

Mala Jay

Of late there has been a spate of disquieting reports of powerful BJP netas publically threatening or humiliating senior election officials who are only doing what they are trained to do, which is to follow the rules without fear or favour. 

Just this Wednesday, former MP chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was so annoyed that his helicopter was not given permission to land near the Gudmandi,  Chhindwara’s famous jaggery market,  that he warned the District Collector:  “Just wait till BJP comes back to power.  What will happen to you then?”

This is not an isolated incident of political leaders throwing tantrums and intimidating officials.  The recent suspension of an IAS officer for insisting on carrying out a routine check of the Prime Minister’s helicopter in Odisha’s Sambalpur and being reprimanded by Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, is still rankling in bureaucratic circles.  Mercifully, the suspension order has since been stayed by the Central Administrative Tribunal – with the stinging observation that even VVIPs and SPG protectees are not exempt from obeying the electoral guidelines.

It is never a good idea for political heavyweights to treat bureaucrats shabbily.   Civil servants are the real unsung heroes in running a country or conducting elections.  They are the ones who do the actual work behind the scenes of formulating and implementing polices.  Governments change after every election -   but in the Indian system of permanent civil service, it is the bureaucracy which provides continuity.

Like the Sambalpur episode, the Chhindwara incident has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the thousands of men and women who are working hard to ensure that Election 2019 is conducted as smoothly as possible.  Boorish behavior by arrogant party bosses breeds resentment among those whose services are being utilized as election officials.   

In Madhya Pradesh, where first phase voting for six Lok Sabha seats is to be held on April 29, there is an under-current of support for the District Collector who has unambiguously justified his action:  “The decision to refuse permission was taken as per the aviation guidelines. Under the guidelines, helicopters can land only between 10 am and 5 pm.  Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s pilot sought permission after the deadline. I had no option but to decline permission”.

To divert attention from his own guilt, Chouhan has tried to turn it into a political slanging match between the BJP and the Congress by blaming Chief Minister Kamal Nath:  “In Bengal Mamata Didi is preventing our helicopters from landing and now in Madhya Pradesh Kamal Nath is behaving like a Dada”.  The Congress has termed allegations baseless, with a party spokesperson saying:  “We had nothing to do with it.  We will lodge a strong complaint before the Election Commission for dragging us into this helicopter politics”.

But as politicians exchange verbal barbs, bureaucrats get disheartened.   A senior IAS officer said:  “Shivraj Chouhan himself was a Chief Minister for 13 years.  How can it be that he is not aware of aviation rules? I am amazed what kind of words such a powerful person is using against a government servant who is simply doing his job”.

Meanwhile, the incident is snowballing on social media.  Videos of Shivraj Chouhan’s warning that he would see to it that the officer concerned was punished are trending on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. 

The Chhindwara outburst is being linked to another incident three days earlier when the BJP’s Gopal Bhargav, the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, had  threatened officials with dire consequences in Shivapuri district where he had gone to witness the filing of nomination papers by the the BJP’s candidate for Guna Lok Sabha.  Bhargav’s grouse was that his car was stopped outside the gates of the District Collectorate compound. 

He felt insulted because he had to walk 100 meters on foot like an ordinary citizen instead of being given the privileges of a VIP.  Indeed he was so incensed that in an election rally hours later he issued a Pragya-like curse:  “After Modiji is re-elected as Prime Minister we will form a BJP government in Madhya Pradesh within one month and then we will show you who we are and what will happen to you”.

Government employees' organizations in the State have been stung by this curse.  In a statement on behalf of all government staff on election duty they have said that they were merely following the strict guidelines laid down by the Election Commission. “Under such circumstances, when we are carrying out our duties in a fair and responsible manner, it is highly objectionable for senior party leaders to make comments like this that they will teach employees a lesson”.

Such rumblings of foreboding among serving civil servants in the midst of elections do not bode well.  Just a week ago, as many as 70 former bureaucrats at the national level had carried out a signature campaign appealing to the BJP to reconsider the candidature of Pragya Thakur from Bhopal constituency.  Among the retired civil servants were many distinguished names who expressed “disbelief and dismay” over the selection of the Malegaon blast accused Sadvi as a candidate for the prestigious Lok Sabha seat and her “enthusiastic endorsement” by none other than the Prime Minister himself.   

Appealing to the BJP to withdraw her candidature, the former bureaucrats criticized Thakur’s ‘curse’ remark on the death of Mumbai’s senior police officer Hemant Karkare during the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack.   “Her dishonouring of a former colleague, an officer known for his professionalism, has come as the ultimate shock and saddened us beyond words. The country needs to honour the sacrifice of Shri Karkare and not allow deviant individuals to denigrate him and his memory”.

Needless to say the appeal by the ex-bureaucrats fell on deaf ears.  But it is symptomatic of the deep sense of anguish being felt not just at the senior-most levels but also lower down the civil service ladder. 

Broadly, serving bureaucrats are disgruntled on four counts:  a) they are not treated with the basic courtesy they deserve; b) they are being burdened with a demanding work schedule without a sense of contributing to policy formulation;  c) they are being subjected to a reward-and-punishment mechanism based on unquestioning loyalty to the regime;  d) they are being expected to carry out the policy prescriptions laid down by individuals belonging to outside organizations linked to the RSS. 

This has been corroborated is the recent report by international news agency Reuters that quite a few serving bureaucrats currently holding elite positions are seriously thinking of taking premature retirement or seeking transfers to their home state cadres if the Modi government is re-elected to power.

According to the report,  which has been published in leading newspapers in the country and abroad, at least eight senior bureaucrats in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministries of Home Affairs and External Affairs will be looking for an exit if the Lok Sabha polls bring the current dispensation back to power.  Among the reasons being cited is the fact that “a sense of partnership is missing - the present political leadership does not have an organic relationship with the bureaucrats”.

According to Reuters, “Modi’s top-down approach, and his orders to work on public holidays, to demand they submit details of their assets, and to clean their own workplaces at the start of a five-year cleanliness campaign in 2014, has widened the gap between the civil servants and the nation’s leader”.   In particular, there is deep resentment in the top echelons of the Indian civil service over the interference in government by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Observers say the report that a section of bureaucrats — in the Prime Minister’s Office and in other pivotal ministries — may seek premature retirement or a transfer if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is returned to power in the ongoing elections is quite revealing.  

The lament that Modi and his ministers do not have an “organic relationship” with what Sardar Patel called the “steel frame” of India’s government machinery, and that a “sense of partnership” was wholly missing, poses an enormous risk for the future of the country.  There can be no governance without the full and active cooperation and participation of the great Indian bureaucracy.

Apr 28, 2019

Mala Jay [email protected]

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