At 48, Ashok Khemka is arguably India’s most well-known bureaucrat. For, the 1991-batch Haryana-cadre IAS officer has been riding the storms he routinely kicks up by putting his foot down against the wrongs of powers-that-be. Last year, he shot into limelight when he cancelled a land deal between Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and realty giant DLF. Lately, he blew the lid off questionable purchase of fungicide in the Haryana Seeds Development Corporation. Now, he is posted as secretary, archives department.
Detractors within the bureaucracy deride him as a ‘reckless crusader’ — one senior described him as ‘megalomaniac’ in his annual confidential report — but his admirers, both in the establishment and public, call him a ‘rulebook-obsessed, no-nonsense bureaucrat’ not scared of being an odd man out. A fiercely argumentative Khemka, who refuses to call himself a whistleblower, answered a wide range of tough questions in an interview with Resident Editor Ramesh Vinayak and Haryana bureau chief Hitender Rao on Thursday. Excerpts:
Q. You shot to prominence after you ordered cancellation of the mutation of 3.5 acres in Shikohpur sold by Robert Vadra to DLF. Then you raised the fungicide issue. But the government or your superiors have set your orders aside. What do you make of that?
Khemka: The order in Vadra-DLF case was passed under section 42 of the East Punjab Holdings (Consolidation and Prevention of Fragmentation) Act. The only authority (for setting the order aside) is the court. The aggrieved parties are Vadra and DLF. Did they make a representation or appeal?
Why did you pick the Vadra-DLF deal only? Inquiry committee said there were 100 similar mutations since 2011 in Shikohpur.
I had set aside three orders that came to my notice. If there were several others, the government can check those now. Does it justify strictures that I have picked up Vadra? I will reply to this while submitting my comments on the report.
The insinuation is that you picked Vadra deal for publicity; it won’t have made news had you picked some commoner.
Agreed. This is a devil’s argument I will concede to. But let me give my comments on the inquiry report. Issues raised by me should have been investigated; Vadra (deal) was one of them. There were other villages mentioned, where they say these (issues) are too general... The motive of the committee seems to be to indict me in order to give a clean chit to Vadra’s transaction.
Do you feel persecuted in this government?
No. I am a fighter.
Fighter against whom — individuals, system, politicians?
Against wrongdoings, which could be within myself too… My moral courage and public opinion are my armour.
Do you think people like you are unfit in the system?
No. I wish I had 10 more people like me. It is very easy to kill me. But our children will find it very difficult to stay in this country if people like me are allowed to be killed.
You recently said you want to be in the system and improve it. What when you get inconsequential assignments?
You colleagues ask, why you think the entire bureaucratic class is corrupt, and you are the only Mr Clean?
It’s a perception. What can I say about it? Please ask them why they think like that. For example, their grievance may be that why did I raise the fungicide issue after three years. Tell me what is wrong on merit in raising the issue or the seed purchase scam.
How come you are always at odds with your colleagues?
Not always. Suppose a class of people in a village who are oppressed choose to remain silent and suffer. One of them who dares to raises his voice is brutalised. Your question is painful in the exact manner of that analogy. One wrong does not justify other wrongs.
Are you a lone ranger?
No. In any system, there are 10 people who ruin it and 90 bystanders waiting for something good to be done. They don’t have the courage to raise their voice. The day I become a lone ranger, I will be finished.
There is a perception that from a whistleblower you have become a bureaucratic bugbear.
I am not a whistleblower; I am just doing my duty. Tell me would I be doing my duty if I did not raise the fungicide issue? If I did not, it is a misconduct of omission.
Why is that you never opted for central deputation?
I did seek it after empanelment as joint secretary in 2010; but unfortunately I was not selected for a post.
Why are you always at odds with seniors?
I had very good bosses who gave me outstanding remarks… four appreciation letters in my career. I had three adverse annual confidential reports (ACR) that were quashed by the tribunal with strictures against the authority.
So will you spend your life fighting the system?
What am I going to achieve otherwise; a few bucks?
Are you not violating service rules by regularly speaking to the media and criticising the government?
Which policy of the government have I criticised? Fair criticism is essential to bringing in reforms... Assuming the chief minister has approved a fungicide that is unapproved. Does the CM violate the Insecticides Act or I violate a conduct rule by pointing out the infraction?
What does the CM think of you?
I think CMs think highly of me. CMs know ki kaun maal bikta hai kaun nahi bikta hai (who’s corrupt and who’s not).
What is wrong with the country’s bureaucracy? When you joined the IAS, you would have had some idealism.
I try not to be a coward. Gandhiji and Gurudev Tagore influenced my thinking greatly. Especially, Tagore’s line, ‘Jodi tor daak shone keu na aase, tobe ekla chalo re (If no one responds to your call, then go your own way alone).’ The government was enigmatic to me, so I chose it. I could have had a brilliant career in academics or industry.