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Why shaky UPA needs Manmohan Singh’s secretary shake-up

Posted by on May 22, 2011 0 Comment

Think about this: who gets appointed as Infosys chief generates intense public interest. But who gets appointed as the top bureaucrat, the secretary, in a ministry is a relatively obscure media story. Which is a bit strange considering the bureaucrat’s budget can be larger than Infosys’ turnover and the money he controls is our money, the taxpayers’ money.

Now think about this: there has never been a better time than now to correct our relative indifference to babus. Over the next seven weeks, UPA will appoint six key top bureaucrats, the biggest secretary-level shake-up in recent times. For a government hit by graft allegations and severe criticism of policy stasis, these are choices that will have a big impact on how it is perceived by everyone from the CEO to the aam voter.

The six babus, cabinet secretary, home secretary, finance secretary, foreign secretary, defence secretary and the central vigilance commissioner (CVC), have a big say on spending around `3,00,000 crore of taxpayers’ money every year. That’s a quarter of the annual Central government expenditure. What taxes you pay, what equipment our soldiers have, how we negotiate with Pakistan and fight Naxalites, whether we can catch terrorists and the corrupt, all this and more will be shaped by the six appointments Manmohan Singh makes.

“The political future of the Congress depends critically on these six appointments,” a senior bureaucrat told ET on Sunday. And they are important for the PM personally. It’s been a hellish few months for Singh, and the first thing that’s clear as he plans his secretarial shake-up is that that he intends to be extra-careful. Honesty of the potential appointee is crucial, as is the appearance of honesty.

Mrs G and GoI

An excellent demonstration of Singh’s dilemmas is the case of Pulok Chatterji. Till recently, Chatterji was considered the front runner for post of cabinet secretary.

Chatterji has a lot going for him. A 1974 batch IAS officer and currently executive director at the World Bank, he is seen as clean, honest and efficient. Paradoxically, what could weigh against him is his closeness to the Nehru-Gandhis.

Chatterji’s links with the Nehru-Gandhi family stretch back decades, he was the district magistrate in Rae Bareli when Indira Gandhi represented the constituency. He was a director in the prime minister’s office (PMO) when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. And he was private secretary to Sonia Gandhi when she was leader of the opposition.

With this kind of pedigree, he would normally have been a shoo-in. But it’s a testament to the unusual environment in which these appointments will be made, that what would ordinarily work in favour of a candidate, might well work against him.

“Appointing Chatterji for the top bureaucrat’s job means eight officers being superseded, creating a situation where the opposition may get enough ammunition in an already volatile political environment,” said a senior bureaucrat. “The government’s spin doctors will be extra cautious about being seen to be doing any favours to someone so close to the Congress first family.”

An even bigger challenge for Singh has as much to do with not picking bureaucratic lemons, think the ex-CVC and the ex-telecom secretary, both got the UPA in a jam, as with changing some of the precedents he himself has set in seven years of UPA rule. Economic Times

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