PM has the authority to pick talent from outside normal political class, Modi isn’t new

One of the most talked-about features of the latest revamp of the Union Council of Ministers has been the induction of four former civil servants—two belonging to the Indian Administrative Service (IA

Published: 09th September 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 09th September 2017 04:15 PM   |  A+A-

One of the most talked-about features of the latest revamp of the Union Council of Ministers has been the induction of four former civil servants—two belonging to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), one each from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and Indian Police Service (IPS)—as junior ministers. In essence, critics have two points. One, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has exposed the pathetic paucity of talents in the ruling BJP. Two, he has sidelined politics and become an autocrat; because, these bureaucrats-turned-ministers will continue their ‘expertise’ in becoming their ‘master’s voice’.

However, let us look at the history of the Cabinet system (a system of a collegial executive headed by the prime minister) in independent India. Between 1950 and 1956, PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s finance minister (Cabinet rank) was a career-bureaucrat C D Deshmukh, who had topped Indian Civil Services examination in 1918. In fact, even after he resigned from the Nehru Cabinet in 1956, he continued to serve the government in various other capacities such as the chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and president of the Indian Statistical Institute.

We have the instance of Yashwant Sinha, another IAS officer. He resigned from the services in the early 1980s to join the then Janata Party and become a Rajya Sabha member not long after. When Chandra Shekhar became the prime minister, Sinha took oath straight as finance minister. Subsequently, he joined the BJP and was finance and external affairs minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Cabinet.

Then, there is Meira Kumar, a former IFS officer. She left the service to become an MP in 1985. She joined the Union Cabinet of Manmohan Singh straight as the Cabinet minister of social justice and empowerment in 2004. In fact, her IFS colleague Mani Shankar Aiyar also joined her in the Union Cabinet in 2004 as minister of panachayati raj. In 2009, she became the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

We have also witnessed two civil servants becoming chief ministers. Ajit Jogi, an IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was so impressed with then chief minister Arjun Singh (or was it the other way round?) that he quit and entered politics to become an MP, first in the Rajya Sabha and then in the Lok Sabha. And then he led the Congress party to victory in the newly-created state of Chhattisgarh and became the chief minister. The second such person is the present Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, a former member of the Indian Revenue Service (Income Tax).

However, the most successful civil servant in politics and governmental power has been Manmohan Singh. An economist by training, he joined the Government of India as an advisor to the then commerce and industry minister Lalit Narayan Mishra, and subsequently held in the 1970s and 80s several key posts, including those of chief economic advisor, Reserve Bank governor, and Planning Commission head.

And when sometime in June 1991, he was about to join the UGC as chairman, his destiny brought him to politics. As Singh told British journalist Mark Tully, “On the day P V Narasimha Rao was formulating his Cabinet, he sent his principal secretary to me saying, ‘The PM would like you to become the minister of finance.’ I didn’t take it seriously. He eventually tracked me down the next morning, rather angry, and demanded that I get dressed up and come to Rashtrapati Bhavan for the swearing-in. So that’s how I started in politics.” The rest is history.

He rose to become the prime minister of the country in 2004 and remained in that position until 2014. In fact, Singh, so far, has been the second prime minister after Nehru to be re-elected after completing a full five-year term.

One has cited the above examples to make the point that there have been civil servants who have been catapulted straight to the positions of Cabinet ministers at the Centre and chief ministers in states without any ministerial experience at the junior levels. Kunwar Natwar Singh, a former IFS officer, did well in politics to become the external affairs minister of the country under Manmohan Singh. But then, he had begun as a minister of state in Rajiv Gandhi’s Council of Ministers. And there are numerous examples of civil servants joining politics to become members of the state legislatures and Parliament and junior ministers.

Viewed thus, so far Modi has not allowed the history to repeat itself. He has not made any former civil servant (or, for that matter, a former Army chief) a Cabinet minister. In that sense, he has been rather conservative in sticking to hard-nosed politicians as far as the ministry-making is concerned, notwithstanding what the critics say.

Be that as it may, there is nothing wrong to make former civil servants ministers. Like any citizen, every civil servant has the right under the laws of the country to become a minister if s/he becomes eligible by becoming a legislator of the ruling party or alliance. Similarly, every prime minister has the authority to choose talents from outside the normal political class as long as his party is in a position to make them legislators.   

Prakash Nanda

Senior journalist, author and strategic analyst

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