How the PM dismantled the Transfer-Posting industry
When former ICICI chairman KV Kamath was appointed chairman of the BRICS bank by the Modi government recently, he was pleasantly surprised because he had not expected it. It was a case similar to that of Subhash Garg, a secretary in the Rajasthan government, who was appointed executive director of the World Bank. It came totally out of the blue to him. And not without reason, because the convention has been that these posts don’t come without lobbying and those in the prime minister's office (PMO) or close to it are favoured contenders. Moreover, even the post of the Union petroleum secretary, which has been, in the past, dictated by corporate houses on a few occasions, went to a man who didn’t expect it at all – KD Tripathi, a straightforward Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the northeast cadre.
Clearly, as the dust settles on the debate over how the Narendra Modi government fared in its first year, the most glorious of its achievements has been missed or has got relegated to the background - dismantling of the transfer-posting industry in the top bureaucratic echelons of Delhi. If one goes into history, it has been one of the primary causes of the failure of the Indian delivery system when it comes to results on the ground which the late Rajiv Gandhi had encapsulated very precisely: "When I release one rupee from Delhi, only 15 paisa reaches the end beneficiary."
Such a clean-up of the bureaucracy is happening for the first time in three decades – or to be precise, since 1980 when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after her 1977 debacle decided to put personal loyalty above all and started tolerating corruption as a necessary evil. Amid arguments and counter-arguments as to how the Modi government did in various areas since it took over the reigns, this has been its most conscious attempt to clear the delivery system clogged by corruption and nepotism, a step necessary to translate government programmes into results for the benefit of the last person in the society.
The biggest change he has brought about is that the selection of top level officers is now being done by the cabinet secretariat and the PMO and the respective minister’s role is now almost non-existent. During ten years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), ministers were allowed to choose their own secretaries which was one of the main reasons for pliant and corrupt officers being posted. In one case, the National Highway Authority chairman was changed four times in a short span of time at the instance of a minister because the chairmen were not adequately submissive to the minister. Former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Vinod Rai said: "The earlier practice of allowing the ministers to choose his top level officers, in fact, destroyed the civil services because it resulted in massive lobbying at the ministerial level forced by extraneous objectives. Prime Minister Modi has indeed brought a lot of objectivity by stopping this practice and further showing his own commitment to the cause by getting an upright officer like PK Mishra to oversee postings in the PMO as his principal secretary."
Gone are the days when key postings were decided in Delhi's five-star hotels. This is a major development for India as those who acquire a post through lobbying must either recover the money they have paid for the post or oblige their patrons after being posted. Many still believe that corruption in the bureaucracy has been one of the main reasons for India’s backwardness since independence – something that started in a closed economy and went on even after it was opened.
True, postings of key officials are no longer decided in the power corridors or at late night dinner meetings in hotels as used to be the case under many governments of the past, but by diligent hands in the ministry of personnel, the cabinet secretariat and finally the PMO, who work for hours scouting for the right person for the right job. That Modi was committed to this from day one became clear when he appointed his former principal secretary in Gujarat and retired IAS officer PK Mishra as his principal secretary in charge of appointments with clear-cut instructions to clear the mess.
Mishra has devised new methods of due diligence for knowing the true worth of an officer before his final selection which go much beyond the usual perusal of the records of the officers. It involves Mishra’s staff making elaborate inquiries from external and multiple sources about the reputation of the officer and his suitability for the job he is being considered for. Since the Modi government took over, over 550 postings have been made of officers of the level of secretary, joint secretary and additional secretary and almost all were done with objectivity and without lobbying.
Interestingly, with an eye on selecting right people for the right jobs, some very innovative postings have been made in the larger interest of good governance. Take the case of Sanjay Chadda, an officer in the Indian Railways. His expertise in economics came to the notice of the Modi government when he was a member of the committee headed by Bibek Debroy on railway reform. Next, he was posted as a joint secretary in the commerce ministry. The praiseworthy part is that even IAS officers posted in states can hope to get big postings in Delhi which earlier they thought they would never get unless they were already serving in Delhi or had the right "pull and push" in the corridors of power in Delhi. According to Rai, the objectivity in postings is exemplary. Mishra said: "Merit in the form of transparency and efficiency are the government’s sole guiding factors when it comes to bureaucratic and even other appointments".
The best example of dismantling of the transfer-posting raj is in the Indian Railways, where many posts in the Railway Board and even those of general managers carried a price tag under many past governments. It is to the great credit of the Modi government and the PMO in particular, that in a short span, it has helped appoint 26 people as general managers and five members of the Railway Board, including the chairman in the most transparent manner which has no parallel in Indian Railways in the past 35 years. Significantly, as soon as Suresh Prabhu took over as the railway minister, he had requested the cabinet secretariat and the PMO to help him in appointing good officers.
Interestingly, the figures that went with these posts as under the table money are mindboggling, according to Indian Railways sources. The post of certain general managers carried a price of Rs 2.5 to Rs 5 crore and of certain Railway Board members over Rs 5 crore. The most shocking information is that in the appointment of a Railway Board chairman a few years ago, a political leader allegedly took an unbelievable Rs 50 crore. The deal was that the chairman will pay the money in a fixed time frame after taking over. A former Railway Board official said: "By appointing honest officers to these posts in the Railways, the Modi government has curbed corruption of a minimum Rs 1,000 crore so far." If Modi is to get maximum results for his initiatives, he has to now find ways to take this clean bureaucracy culture to the states through some innovative methods and innovation to have maximum impact.
History is a great teacher. In 1707, when Mughal emperor Aurangzeb died in Ahmednagar in Maharashtra, virtually losing the 27-year epic war with the Marathas, he had one big regret which he put in his last will and testament: The greatest pillar of a kingdom is the keeping of information. The laxity of my spy network allowed Shivaji to escape from my clutches from Agra in 1666. That blunder is chiefly responsible for my misery now."
Modi appears to have realised that unless he streamlines the bureaucracy and with it the delivery system, his so-called great vision is never going to get translated. He also seems to have taken a cue from Chattrapati Shivaji’s life story as described by the great historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar: "Shivaji’s dominion spread first of all through the conquests of hearts of the common people which only a strong and honest administrator can achieve." Clearly, today as in Shivaji’s period, the way to their heart is through good governance, which in turn, is possible only through a good delivery system. And Modi seems to know it. more