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Cabinet Secrets

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K M Chandrasekhar has joined an elite club. Only two others out of the 28 cabinet secretaries in independent India have had four-year tenures.

The tenure for a union cabinet secretary is two years according to the law. So why is the rule being broken for K M Chandrasekhar.

With a second extension under his belt, union cabinet secretary K M Chandrasekhar is poised to join an elite band of officers who have had four-year tenures in the country's top bureaucratic job.

Only two others, out of the 28 cabinet secretaries in independent India, hold this record. One is Y S Sukthankar, who was Nehru's cabinet secretary from May 1953 to July 1957. The other, B D Pandey, served Indira Gandhi from November 1972 to March 1977, seeing her through the tumultuous days of the Emergency.

The decision to extend Chandrasekhar's tenure, therefore, is not without precedent. Yet, it has set tongues wagging in the bureaucracy and speculation is rife that the Manmohan Singh government is preparing the ground for the smooth, uncontested accession of 10 Janpath's favourite officer, Pulok Chatterji, to the post of cabinet secretary.

A 1974 batch officer of the UP cadre, Chatterji is currently India's executive director at the World Bank in Washington. By the time Chandrasekhar finishes his extension in June 2011, Chatterji's main challengers - his seniors in the 1972 and 1973 batches - will have retired. The field will be clear for his elevation, if the government so wishes at that point.

This is not the first time - nor perhaps will it be the last - that a government has tweaked service rules to have its pick of officers for critical assignments. Sometimes, it has done so to benefit the chosen one;at other times, it has acted to keep someone out. But almost always, it has led to heartburn and controversy.

Bureaucrats recall a particularly nasty episode when a Dalit officer, Mata Prasad, was beaten to the post by a last-minute decision to give an extension to the then cabinet secretary T S R Subramanian.

It happened during the final days of the I K Gujral-led United Front government in 1997. Subramanian was already on a year's extension and was due to bow out in December 1997. As his term drew to an end, there was much politicking within the UF over the choice of his successor. Left leaders wanted to create history by appointing Mata Prasad as the first Scheduled Caste cabinet secretary while Mulayam Singh Yadav threatened to bring down the government if that happened.

Ironically, the Gujral government fell anyway, just one month before Subramanian's tenure ended. Elections were announced and in the ensuing confusion, Gujral decided to extend Subramanian's term by another three months, till March 1998, on the plea that he wanted to give the next government a free hand in choosing its cabinet secretary.

Mata Prasad, who was next in line, lost out, but his activist friends took up cudgels on his behalf. They challenged Subramanian's extension before the Central Administrative Tribunal, which scrapped it.

The government appealed to the high court and won the case. But for a couple of days, it faced a piquant situation of not having a cabinet secretary. Subramanian did not attend office till the matter was settled.

Governments have for long grappled with the contentious questions of fixed tenures and extensions for senior bureaucrats. Rules have been framed and broken at will to enable the political master to gain the upper hand in his slightly adversarial relationship with his bureaucrat, so vividly portrayed in BBC's Yes, Minister television series.

"The policy of giving extensions is wrong because it's not equitable, " said a former cabinet secretary who wished to remain anonymous. "The rule of the government is that every civil servant has to retire at the stated retirement age."

Agrees Subramanian, "It creates a spoils system. There is a temptation to choose on political considerations rather than on merit. The signal to the civil servant is that if he plays ball, he will be rewarded with an extension and then a governorship."

At the same time, bureaucrats are more or less unanimous that the cabinet secretary should have a fixed term of decent length so that there is stability in the system. In fact, the first Administrative Reforms Commission 1969 had recommended a fixed three-year tenure for the post. The proposal gathered dust till 2000 when the Vajpayee government decided to implement it. The service rules were amended accordingly, but the BJP baulked and reduced the period to two years, fearing a loss of political control over the bureaucracy. The first person appointed under the new rule was T R Prasad who did exactly two years in the post.

The Manmohan Singh government threw the rule book out of the window, first when it removed Kamal Pandey prematurely, soon after the UPA assumed office in 2004 on the ground that he was a BJP appointee, then when it granted a one-year extension to B K Chaturvedi at the end of his fixed two-year term and now with two extensions to Chandrasekhar.

Although India adopted the United Kingdom's cabinet system of government, which is run by a politically neutral civil service, successive governments have introduced elements borrowed from the United States presidential system. The latter gives the chief executive a huge degree of autonomy to bring in persons of his choice into senior positions in the bureaucracy. The mix-and-match effort could end up damaging the "steel frame" (as Rajiv Gandhi's favourite babu, Gopi Arora, described the civil services) that holds the government together.

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