POLITICS
19/06/2018 1:52 PM IST | Updated 19/06/2018 9:19 PM IST

Why The IAS-AAP Standoff Could Change The Civil Service Forever

The times they are a-changin'.

IAS officers during a press conference to counter AAP's claim that they are 
on strike. Press Club of India on June 17, 2018 in New Delhi.
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
IAS officers during a press conference to counter AAP's claim that they are on strike. Press Club of India on June 17, 2018 in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI -- In the nearly three decades that he served in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), T.R. Raghunandan recalled just one instance in which officers made their dissent public.

The officers in Karnataka came together for a protest in Bengaluru in 1995, Raghunandan recalled, when the Supreme Court found their colleague, the state's urban development secretary, J. Vasudevan, to be in contempt of court and sentenced him to one month in prison.

"The protest was just for one day and we had gathered in our individual capacity," he said.

"That was nothing like this," Raghunandan said, comparing the protest in 1995 to the ongoing standoff between the Arvind Kejriwal government and the IAS officers in Delhi. "This is a sustained non-cooperation movement. IAS officers are taking political sides."

"The Indian Administrative Service has lost it," Raghunandan concluded.

'Things have changed a lot'

Current and former civil servants are divided on the question of IAS officers in Delhi having "lost it", but are in agreement about what has been lost: characteristic traits that long defined the civil service. For instance, IAS officers were known to swallow their pride and suppress their emotions when dealing with particularly unpleasant political bosses. Taking it on the chin, former officers say, was the norm.

An IAS officer in the Delhi government, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the days of silent suffering especially in the face of injustice were over.

"Things have changed a lot. Young IAS officers speak their mind. Almost every officer is on Twitter. Having a public face has become essential," the officer said.

The officer said the Twitter handle of the IAS officers in Delhi had helped counter the "lies" from the handles of the AAP and its chief, Arvind Kejriwal. "We have no choice but to use it," the officer said.

IAS Associations from different parts of the country have used Twitter to support their colleagues in Delhi.

Things have changed a lot. Young IAS officers speak their mind.

Ashok Khemka, the IAS officer who challenged the Haryana government over handing out lucrative land deals to Robert Vadra, said that "speaking out in the civil service is very hazardous." "There is nothing noble about not speaking out," he said. "As an IAS officer, if you cannot speak for yourself then how can you speak for the public."

While Khemka believes in speaking out on public interest matters, the bureaucrat finds the actions of the IAS officers in Delhi to be a "gross over-reaction." "This is an out-and-out exercise in humiliation. Suppose it had been a BJP or a Congress government in Delhi, would IAS officers have done a similar thing?"

This is an out-and-out exercise in humiliation.

Sparring in public

Over the weekend, in an event described as "unprecedented," IAS officers in Delhi called a press conference to counter Kejriwal's claim that they were on strike. The chief minister and three other ministers of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government have been camping in the waiting room at the residence of Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, demanding the IAS officers return to work and Delhi be given statehood.

The IAS officers have said they were never on strike and asked they not be made pawns in a political game. Varsha Joshi, Delhi's transport commissioner, said, "We are feeling frightened and victimised. We are being used for completely political reasons."

IAS officers had decided that - apart from "statutory meetings" like Assembly, board and cabinet meetings - they would not have any one-on-one meetings with the AAP ministers until Kejriwal had apologized for the alleged assault on Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash, who claims to have been beaten by AAP lawmakers in the presence of the chief minister on February 19.

Over the course of the past few days, former and current civil servants have sparred with each other in public.

K Sujatha Rao, who retired as the health secretary to the Government of India in 2010, wrote that IAS officers going on 'strike' was "unbelievable."

Harsh Mander, who resigned from the IAS after 22 years of service, and is now a prominent human rights activist, urged Delhi IAS officers to return to work. "Don't become a political tools," he tweeted.

Jayadev Sarangi, a secretary in the Delhi government, hit back at Rao and Mander, accusing them of having "vested interests."

Deep division

Following Kejriwal's conciliatory tweet on Sunday, the AAP ministers and the IAS officers might actually reach a resolution this week, but the standoff — which has been called a "constitutional crisis" — has shaken the civil service community.

For those who believe that Kejriwal and his ministers have been mistreating IAS officers in Delhi, the stand taken by the bureaucrats is justified, especially in light of the alleged assault on the chief secretary.

Prakash, the chief secretary in Delhi, has alleged that the assault took place at the CM's residence, after a meeting on the release of funds for TV advertising for AAP, in which he had refused to contravene Supreme Court guidelines on the matter. AAP members deny the assault.

The matter is being investigated by the Delhi police.

P.K. Tripathi, who served as the chief secretary under the Sheila Dikshit government in Delhi, said the matter could have been resolved the night of the alleged assault.

"The chief minister could have driven over to the house the chief secretary that very night, apologized and assured him of his support ," he said.

The chief minister could have driven over to the house the chief secretary that very night, apologized and assured him of his support.

Khemka, the IAS officer from the Haryana cadre, said that given the Delhi police was investigating the matter with "due earnestness," perhaps even going "overboard," there was no reason for the IAS officers to have orchestrated a showdown.

"The chief minister could have shown grace and apologized, but what the IAS officers are doing is fraught with danger. Was it a suo-moto reaction or was there something else to it?" he said.

"If I were the Prime Minister, I would have asked the IAS officers to behave with an elected representative," Khemka added.

If I were the Prime Minister, I would have asked the IAS officers to behave with an elected representative.

The IAS officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the alleged assault on February 19 "broke the camels back," capping two years of "humiliation" endured by IAS officers.

While claiming to have heard the chief minister "roaring like a maniac" at another senior officer in the Delhi government, the IAS officer said that it was preposterous to link political motives to bureaucrats.

"What BJP? None of this has to do with the BJP. This is a question of our honour and safety. This is a question of working without a culture of fear and intimidation," the officer said.

This is a question of our honour and safety. This is a question of working without a culture of fear and intimidation.

There are others who believe the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) government at the Centre has tried to sabotage the Kejriwal government ever since AAP swept to power in February, 2015, winning 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly. They view the LG and the IAS officers in Delhi as tools of the BJP.

Raghunandan, the former IAS from Karnataka, questioned why other foul mouthed politicians were not similarly boycotted. He asked why the IAS officers in Tamil Nadu had done nothing after VS Chandralekha, an IAS officer, had accused then chief minister J Jayalalitha of getting someone to throw acid on her face.

"IAS officers are tactically careerist and ambitious loners. They see the LG in control of their careers," he said. "They would not dare to do this with a Siddaramaiah or a Mamata Banerjee. They just don't see Kejriwal dictating their careers."

IAS officers are tactically careerist and ambitious loners. They see the LG in control of their careers.

Another IAS officer in the Delhi government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that characterising bureaucrats as tools of the BJP or the LG was "false, unfair and malicious."

"Neutrality and anonymity are ingrained in us, but we were put in a position that we had to respond. Our most senior officer was attacked and assaulted and all they can say is the matter is sub judice," the officer said.

Neutrality and anonymity are ingrained in us, but we were put in a position that we had to respond.

Given that the BJP had less than a year remaining at the Centre and with no guarantee of coming back in 2019, Tripathi, the former chief secretary of Delhi, said that he didn't believe the IAS officers would be betting on the Modi government.

On the political leanings of the IAS officers in the Union Territories cadre, Tripathi suspected there was "lurking sympathy' for the Congress, but not for the BJP.

"In all probability, Modi will not be prime minister in 2019, and the BJP will be in a weakened position," he said. "Many of us are liberals and we can't adjust with the BJP."

Personalities versus parties

In the course of the past three years, Kejriwal has routinely accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of undermining his government and targeting ministers and officers working in Delhi.

Last month, the Delhi government's anti-corruption branch (ACB) arrested Kejriwal's relative Vinay Bansal on corruption charges. Last year, the AAP government accused the LG of blocking its plan to curb corruption by the doorstep delivery of public services. Kejriwal has famously remarked that he does not have the power to appoint his own peon.

Then, there are the overarching questions of Delhi's statehood and whether law and order should be handled by the Delhi government, not the Centre.

IAS officers, who have served in the Delhi government, recall the persisting power struggle between Delhi and the Centre, irrespective of party affiliations.

Tripathi, Delhi's chief secretary in the Sheila Dikshit government, said that it was "horrible" dealing with the Congress at the Centre, especially since criticizing the party in public was not an option.

"When Chidambaram was the home minister, it was terrible. It was so difficult to work with them, but we never made it public, we never took it to the media," he said.

When Chidambaram was Home Minister, it was terrible. It was so difficult to work with them, but we never made it public, we never took it to the media.

Tripathi believes that Dikshit's best tenure was when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, L.K. Advani was home minister, and Suresh Prabhu was the power minister. "It was a time of power reforms in Delhi," he said. "It was the trio of Atal, Advani and Dikshit that worked well."

The very "nature" of the Government Of National Capital Territory Of Delhi Act, 1991, according to Sindhushree Khullar, a retired IAS officer, who served as the first CEO of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, makes for a tenuous relationship between the LG and the CM.

Khullar, who worked in two governments under Dikshit, recalled that it was tough when the the BJP was in power at the Centre, but harder when the Congress formed the central government.

"It had never been smooth but relationships have to be managed," she said. "In the case of the AAP and BJP, I'm not sure if the differences are worse or just more in your face."

In the case of the AAP and BJP, I'm not sure if the differences are worse or just more in your face.

Resolve it now

The IAS officers in the Delhi government that HuffPost interviewed said they had never stopped processing files or attending "statutory meetings."

As one IAS officer put it, "Meetings constitute a very small part of our work. The work of the government is all in the files. Files are the institutional memory of the government."

While IAS officers in Delhi are adamant about Kejriwal apologizing for the alleged assault on the chief secretary, they have welcomed his assurance about safety and security for the bureaucracy.

Khullar pointed out that IAS officers in Delhi deciding not to meet with ministers was not a question of illegality but one of propriety. In the long run, the retired IAS officer believes, AAP would win the perception battle in the public domain.

"Confrontation with the political executive cannot take one too far, beyond a point, you have to find a working relationship," she said. "The distrust here is too sharp and too deep, but the officers have carried it a little too far."

Also on HuffPost India:

Photo galleryThe Best Sherlock Holmes Of All Time See Gallery