It was said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. In a similar vein, Sardar Patel said about the Indian Civil Service that it was neither Indian nor civil nor imbued with any spirit of service. Addressing the All India Service officers in their training school Metcalfe House in New Delhi on April 21, 1947, he underscored the 'true role of national service'. The essence of this 'national' service will be manifest when it seeps into the psyche of every officer that "I belong not to the east or the west or the north or the south, I belong to the whole of India, and the whole of India belongs to me."
The national character of the top civil services has faced many challenges in the evolutionary process of the federal system. When the central government recruits officers and lends their services to state governments, there is essentially a give and take which should not degenerate into a free-for-all, both ways. There are checks and balances which come through the rules, regulations, customs, precedents and propriety. The state and the Centre are expected to follow the rules and go hand in hand in making federalism work.
Whenever there is a dispute or difference of opinion between the two levers of the federation, the rule of law should step in. In the matter of All India Service officers on deputation from the states to the Government of India, section 6 of the All India Service rules 1954 is the ultimate guideline. The rule clearly states that deputation of an All India Service officer to the Centre should be made with the concurrence of the Centre and the state. In case of a disagreement between the two, the decision of the Centre will prevail.
The present impasse in Bengal is not just a question of interpreting the rule book. It is a heady cocktail made up of political chicanery, defiant ego and an archaic obstinacy -- 'my state right or wrong'. The political animosity that the Bengal Chief Minister has with the Centre is no more a palace secret. Mamata Banerjee refusing to participate in the conference convened by the Prime Minister is an act of orchestrated offence, very much in bad taste as perceived by all right-thinking people. But she is a politician who can go by the rules of politics, whatever that means.
However, civil servants have a different set of rules to follow. The ex-Chief Secretary of Bengal, Alapan Bandyopadhyay, placed himself in the dock. He has realised at a heavy price that the civil service cannot hunt with the hound and run with the hare.
To place facts in the proper perspective, the ex-Chief Secretary was given an extension of three months by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet which has the Prime Minister and Home Minister in it. A question that is asked by many is why then should he be asked to report to the Centre? Apparently a high-handed act.
That is where one should read between the lines and not just the lines. The ex-Chief Secretary was hand-in-glove with the Chief Minister in the execution of her political agenda which seeks to deface and defile federal sanctity and propriety. On the balance of considerations, it is the same ACC that decided to engage him at the Centre. Obviously, the state government disagreed with it. In such circumstances, the law clearly states that the Centre’s decision will prevail.
A noteworthy aspect is that resignation from service or retirement does not absolve an All India Service officer of his responsibility under the conduct rules. Disciplinary action can be taken against him during the four years following his retirement.
The row over the Union government initiating action against the ex-Bengal Chief Secretary appears to be sound and fury signifying nothing. Governance has more to it than meets the eye. Officers posted to the states cannot play the roles of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. They should know how to avoid the political rat trap -- yes, the bureauc-rat trap.
In the light of rules, propriety or federal sanctity, the ex-Bengal Chief Secretary has placed himself in a very awkward situation, by design or default. There is a lesson to all civil servants in this imbroglio. Look before you leap. Keep off party politics. Vile political concoctions will only toxify the civil service.
During the reign of Mrs Indira Gandhi, the concept of committed civil service was a moot point in national politics. But civil society nipped it in the bud. All India service officers, please remind yourselves on and off that you are expected to be neutral, impartial and objective. Once that is lost why should there be a professional civil service at all? The political executive can play that role as well. After all, in democracy, the political executive is the ultimate, not the bureaucrats. Bureaucrats better draw the line.
There is a Lakshman rekha in public administration -- never ever cross it. Is the Indian bureaucracy slipping into that sullen state again? Does it augur well for the service that a top bureaucrat who should have implemented the Disaster Management Act emerged as the disaster himself. The moral of the story? Never act without an Act or rule without Rules.
(The author is a retired IAS officer who served as Chief Secretary, Kerala)