The ugly public spat between the top brass of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is not the first instance of top babus going to war, and it won’t be the last.
In the past, we have had a Chief Election Commissioner demanding the sacking of his deputy, who was tipped to succeed him. We’ve had the unprecedented example of a serving Army chief going to court against his former boss, now a minister of state, accusing him of trying to stop his promotion. And we’ve had a Prasar Bharati chief quit in disgust after a prolonged public battle with the Information & Broadcasting Ministry.
“The CBI’s self-implosion should surprise no one,” says Avay Shukla, a retired senior government officer and blogger/columnist. “All government entities in India are riddled with fault lines of caste, region, politics and avarice. What distinguishes a healthy organisation from a diseased one is leadership and esprit de corps. Indian bureaucracy is lacking in both. The politician has taken care of the first — leadership — by undermining merit in favour of transactional reciprocity. The bureaucrat himself has destroyed the organisational ethos from within by substituting personal aggrandizement for organisational goals. The CBI farce is actually the first Act in an inexorable Greek tragedy.”
Jawhar Sircar, who resigned as CEO of Prasar Bharati in 2016 following frequent public spats with then I&B minister Manish Tiwari and secretary Bimal Julka, blames the system. “All the national level bodies and commissions that we have, most members don’t talk to each other,” he says. “Nobody talks to each other. This comes from an old bureaucratic tradition which says that equals don’t need to mix well. It’s a terrible tradition. No secretary will attend another secretary’s meeting. Everything is on paper. A note is circulated; it is always done on files.
“Also, there will always be trouble when you give two people in the same department almost equal powers,” Sircar argues. “The concept of additional secretary is a post that secretaries have destroyed. There are always battles between secretaries and special secretaries, who are usually thrust on them. The public spats are just the tip of the iceberg… usually these battles are kept private… But within the (power) corridors, everyone knows. Also, the structure and the nuances of power are not as smooth and neat as everyone believes. For instance, in the commerce ministry, everyone knew that secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia did not report to P Chidambaram, but to Rajiv Gandhi.”
Sircar makes an exception for the Indian Foreign Service, where, he argues, none of the four secretaries matter. “They are only for important, but secondary jobs. The foreign secretary controls everything. The P5 or Big five, G6 are all with him — the US, Russia, China, Germany, Japan. So what is left of the world? However, among the four or five under one system, if there is any dissent, they never let it go public. They are better trained than the military. That is their training, upbringing, that is how they survive.”
But in the case of the IAS, “there are 40 different cadres,” Sircar says. “While there is some loyalty among the cadres, once you are at the Centre, the secretary next to you is a total unknown. You have no past relationship or future relationship. You daughter and his daughter did not go to the same school. You didn’t play golf or bridge with him. So what is he? Just another rival.”
In January 2009, then CEC N Gopalaswami sent a recommendation to the President for the removal of Election Commissioner Navin Chawla on the grounds that he was partisan and sought to further the interests of “one party”. According to that report, Chawla leaked details of crucial decisions taken at the EC meetings to the ruling Congress party’s functionaries. Then President Prathiba Patil rejected the recommendation and Chawla succeeded Gopalaswami in April 2009.
Incidentally, Gopalaswami moved the Supreme Court in April 2012 alleging a “communal conspiracy” behind the rejection of (then) Army chief General V K Singh’s claim for revision of his date of birth. His petition was rejected.
This bureaucratic malaise appears to have even permeated to the military, one of the more structured and disciplined arms of the government. Former Chief of Army Staff General V K Singh, who is now Minister of State for External Affairs, was taken to court by his second successor, General Dalbir Singh Suhag for trying to “sabotage” his promotion.
How does this impact the morale and perception of the fighting forces? “When there is a spillover of dissent bordering on hindering action in the hierarchy of any organisation, especially if it pertains to the Number One and his supposedly Number Two, then there is trouble,” says Lieutenant General Jiti Bajwa, former director-general (Infantry), and editor of Indian Defence Review. “The first consequence is a splintering in the ranks. Rumours and disinformation start doing the rounds. There are some who will exploit the situation to their advantage. Work suffers. Time is spent more on hearsay and gossip.”
“Battles among the top brass, particularly in the military, are not unknown,” says another officer. “But unlike the civilian babus, we try to keep it within the barracks. Yes, there have been cases like General V K Singh’s age issue, and Gen Suhag taking General Singh to court for trying to stall his promotion. Such cases undermine not just the authority and perception of the armed forces at the topmost levels, it also leads to polarisation among the ranks, which is not a healthy situation.”
With inputs from Kumar Vikram in New Delhi