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Rejig the steel frame

The best way to get the best people in the most crucial jobs in the government is to expand the pool of credible applicants. Ramachandra Guha writes.

india Updated: Nov 06, 2011 22:30 IST

The Janata government of 1977-79 is now largely forgotten, remembered, if at all, for the way in which it fell, amid insults and innuendos exchanged between erstwhile Cabinet colleagues. Yet, both historian and citizen should remember it for at least four reasons. First, it demolished the myth that the people of India would never vote into office, at least at the Centre, anything but the Congress party. Second, the Constitution, distorted and damaged by Emergency-era amendments, was restored to something like its original shape. Third, the Indian Railways introduced a radical innovation, putting two inches of foam on the millions of hard wooden sleepers under their possession. Fourth, it made some qualified professionals who were not themselves career civil servants secretaries to the government.

The restoration of the Constitution was largely the work of the law minister, Shanti Bhushan. The making of train journeys more comfortable for the aam aadmi was the work of the railway minister, Madhu Dandavate. But who was responsible for making the engineer Manuel Menezes secretary of defence production, the agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan secretary of agriculture, and the chemical scientist Lovraj Kumar secretary of petroleum? Most likely it was the Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, an outstanding administrator himself, who knew the value of having the right person for the right job. And that these three experts certainly were. All were well-qualified (Swaminathan had a PhD from Cambridge, Kumar was India’s first Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he studied chemistry), and all also had prior administrative experience.

With the fall of the Janata regime, the old order re-asserted itself. After Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, the experiment of inducting professionals at the highest levels of government was abandoned. Lovraj Kumar, whom all who know the sector will tell you was the finest petroleum secretary India ever had, a man of great intelligence and complete integrity, was shifted out of his job at the instance of a senior Congress minister, since he refused to clear on file the dubious deals that this man proposed.

More than 30 years after the end of Janata, it may be time to revisit that particular experiment. To be sure, there are some very able people in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). But should a career in general administration be mandatory for appointment at the level of secretary or additional secretary to government? In an inter-dependent, increasingly complex world, one surely needs to encourage lateral entry of qualified professionals into the public sector.

At the present, however, almost all senior appointments are reserved for IAS officers. There are occasional exceptions — for instance in the departments of science and technology and atomic energy. But even in areas of technical expertise, the IAS has re-asserted its hold. Thus, the first two secretaries of the ministry of environment were scientists with administrative experience. But for the past 20 years at least, no scientist has headed that ministry. Similarly, while several fine economist-administrators had served as finance secretaries in the past, the job is once more the preserve of the IAS.

The monopoly of the IAS over such jobs needs to be breached, not completely overthrown. The best way to get the best people in the most crucial jobs in the government is to expand the pool of credible applicants. So, for example, for the job of education secretary, the government could certainly consider an experienced IAS officer, but also a vice-chancellor whose university has made significant progress in his or her tenure.

The idea should appeal to the prime minister, not least because he is a professional who entered public service. Dr Manmohan Singh was appointed secretary to the finance ministry in November 1976, at the fag end of the Emergency. Notably, when the Janata government came to power, they kept him in the job. The finance minister, HM Patel, was a man conspicuously free of pettiness, who recognised that professional competence was in this case more important than party loyalty. Manmohan Singh thus stayed on as finance secretary until 1980.

As it happens, in seven years as prime minister, Dr Singh has brought only one senior professional into public service. This is Nandan Nilekani. Nilekani, in turn, has inspired many talented young men and women to leave the private sector and work with his organisation. I am in no position to judge the technical complexity of the Unique Identification project. However, having talked at length to those who work with the project in Bangalore, Delhi, Bihar and other places, I can testify to their exceptionally high degree of patriotism and social commitment. The desire to serve society by working with government permeates their work. In their spirit of idealism and sacrifice, they are comparable to the most acclaimed social workers of modern India.

This spirit is, in fact, quite widespread. I know some superbly qualified doctors, scientists, engineers and lawyers who would happily move from the private sector to the public sector, had they the knowledge-or assurance-that (a) their work would be free from petty political interference; (b) if they did their job efficiently and well, they would be rewarded with greater responsibilities.

In the past 12 months, the prime minister’s public standing has been badly eroded by a series of scandals featuring ministers in his Cabinet. Were he, in the three years remaining to him, to restore faith in the government by bringing in people of integrity and intelligence, he might yet redeem part of his now rather battered reputation. If acted upon, the proposal offered in this column might be good for him, and, dare one say, good for the country too.

( Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History Of The World’s Largest Democracy )

The views expressed by the author are personal