When the official announcement of Home Secretary LC Goyal's removal came on Monday afternoon, over a dozen bureaucrats were attending a farewell party for Additional Secretary Tuk Tuk Kumar at Transport Bhavan in the capital. There was a stunned silence when one of them broke the news of Goyal's ouster.
They were used to the whims and fancies of their political masters but seldom did the steel frame feel so shaken. None of the bureaucrats at the party had any inkling of the change in the North Block and soon the discussion turned to how, like never before, nobody's tenure was safe.
Welcome in earnest to the Narendra Modi regime. If the babudom felt bored by the 'chalta hai' attitude of the previous UPA dispensation, the NDA brought a whiff of fresh air. After a long time, the bureaucrats found their voice with the Prime Minister engaging them directly, sometimes even keeping the ministers at bay.
They could write directly to the PM, even if only in 300 characters. When Skill Development Minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy got a new secretary, Sunil Arora, in his ministry, he was not thrilled. The two were certainly not the best friends when Rudy was Civil Aviation minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government and Arora was CMD, Indian Airlines.
The message from the PMO was clear: let bygones be bygones and start afresh. Last year, Rajiv Mehrishi -- now home secretary -- was sprung from his job as Chief Secretary in Vasundhara Raje's government in Rajasthan by a senior Union Minister.
Few had any clues about his destination, the finance ministry, and eyebrows were also raised because Modi was poaching an official close to a CM he has been cool towards.
But, predictability has never defined the Modi sarkar. Nobody could anticipate the official announcement about Durga Prasad's removal as SPG chief when he was in Nepal with the PM looking after his security arrangements. Nor did Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh expect her sudden exit last year.
And former Home Secretary Anil Goswami certainly did not expect to be dropped when he made a phone call to the CBI Director to curry favour for an old politician buddy, Matang Sinh, behaviour that used to be considered normal for senior babus.
Devyani Khobragade, having stoked all those jingoistic passions about the United States humiliating an Indian woman diplomat, might have expected a big reward in the new regime; instead, she found herself out in the cold.
For all its pusillanimity over politically sensitive moves like the land acquisition ordinance, the NDA regime hasn't lost its authority when it comes to its own senior officials. This is the message that is now getting to the bureaucracy after a honeymoon that got them expecting unbridled power at the cost of their political masters, the ministers.
Goyal might have been unhappy about not being informed about Naga peace accord but going to his bosses to register his protest was not necessarily a wise move in this government. He also refused to give security clearance to Sun TV despite prods from the I&B ministry headed by no less than Arun Jaitley.
Since 1989, an entire generation of bureaucrats has been unused to the idea of a government without multiple power centres or a crippling dependence on allies and partners. Last year's Lok Sabha elections changed that conclusively, but perhaps the usually sharp bureaucracy has been the slowest to grasp the fact.
It's time that they organised a powerpoint session on the changed realities; there's no shortage of their former colleagues who could speak eloquently, if a little bitterly, on the subject.