Bengal episode underlines how bitter political fights dent an already weakened bureaucracy

Bengal chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay’s sudden recall to Delhi is the product of a bitter BJP-TMC fight with a worrying larger message – the bureaucracy’s increasing vulnerability to political headwinds. Let’s be clear about the rules, first. Centre and states normally follow a consultative process on officers’ central deputations. The rules require state government’s “concurrence” in deputing IAS officers to serve under central government. But in case of “disagreement”, the state must “give effect” to Centre’s decision. This being the statutory position, Bandyopadhyay and the state government have few options realistically. But that’s not the end of this story.

Look at how politically charged the situation is, and therefore how much stress it puts on officers. Reports suggest Centre was unhappy that Bengal CM Banerjee and Bandyopadhyay left a meeting chaired by PM Modi to review cyclone damage and relief efforts. She was apparently unhappy that her political bete noire Suvendu Adhikari was at the meeting. The Bengal CM hasn’t clarified whether Bandyopadhyay sought her permission to continue in the meeting. But the fact is, by service rules, he also reports to the PM. Mamata claims the PM allowed both of them to leave. But the central “disciplinary” action against the IAS officer suggests otherwise. Many variants of such a drama may play out as politics becomes increasingly abrasive. What does that do to the morale and efficacy of the men and women whose job is to administer a vast, complex country?

IAS and IPS officers serve their elected political masters. But they should not be expected to serve the politics of their masters. That’s the red line that should not be crossed, but sadly is crossed with increasing impunity, by both politicians, and even more sadly, by more than a few bureaucrats. The brutal truth is that an officer who has to navigate the treacherous waters of bitterly antagonistic politics is an officer afraid to take the right administrative call. The cumulative effect of a timorous and politically-buffeted bureaucracy has already cost India. The Bandyopadhyay episode reminds us that cost can go up manifold.

Centre-state standoffs are particularly hard on IAS-IPS officers because of the duality governing their postings. The political executive at Centre and states must therefore, no matter how bitter their political fight, never abandon the consultative process. Sardar Patel’s steel frame now has the look of a battered tin frame. It’s the responsibility of every politician to change that.


This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.


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