Sardar Patel is credited with creating the “steel frame” of India, which was an all-India bureaucratic structure. Such a structure, which included what are called all-India services, such as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), and the Indian Police Service (IPS), was expected to be impartial, beyond partisan politics, and guided by a code of conduct that ensured neutrality and administrative effectiveness. Governments may come and governments may go, but the steel frame was the bi-partisan executive continuity of the business of government. It was conceived as the executive bedrock, immune to political pressure, continuing in perpetuity, even if political parties, and the governments formed by them, lost or won at the hustings.
But Sardar Patel probably did not visualise what happened recently in Kolkata, where a senior IPS officer was “shielded” by the state government, led by the feisty Mamata Banerjee, from being arrested by a team of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). It was a classic case of the Central government being at loggerheads with the state government in an all-out political slugfest, where the collateral damage was clearly the erosion of some of the fundamental premises on which the “steel frame” of India was built.
The crux of the problem is that in conceiving the civil services in the manner that they exist today, Sardar Patel had accepted that officers will be supervised at the dual level of both the Centre and the state. When they are posted as part of the Central government they will follow the directive of the controlling authority in Delhi, and when they are posted in states, they will be substantially under the authority of the state government.
In the case of Rajeev Kumar, the police officer in the eye of the Kolkata storm, he is, as the police commissioner of Kolkata, answerable to the Chief Minister, but his cadre controlling authority is the central ministry of home affairs. There is, as envisaged, an overlap with regard to whom he reports in his current avatar, and who is responsible for his overall conduct in terms of his being a member of an all-India service. It is this duality that enabled Ms Banerjee to prevent his “surrender” to the CBI. And, it is this duality, too, that has now prompted the Union home ministry to take action against Mr Kumar and other police officers serving in West Bengal, including the director-general of police, under several rules of the All India Services (AIS), 1968. This action could include removing the “delinquent officers” from the empanelment list, which would bar them from serving at the Centre, and withdrawing medals or decoration conferred on them for meritorious services.
The Central government also took this matter to the Supreme Court (SC). In a judicial directive that plays a fine balancing act between the prerogatives of the CBI, the Central investigating agency, and the state government, the SC directed that Mr Kumar could be questioned for his alleged non-cooperation against the guilty in the chit fund scam, but he could not be arrested, and that the interrogation would be in a “neutral” place — which was neither Delhi nor Kolkata, but Shillong. The SC’s directive was hailed as a victory by both the opposing sides — the BJP and Ms Banerjee. But this is far from being the end of the story.
The crux of the matter is not an immediate solution to this incident but the far more serious issue of Centre-state relations where officers of the all-India services are concerned. The “steel frame” devised by Sardar Patel was premised on a cooperative interface between the Central and state governments. But if that cooperation ceases, the entire system is likely to be jeopardised. If, for instance, state governments begin to doubt the bona fides of the Central government with regard to action against all-India officers, and refuses to cooperate in the implementation of existing service procedures, the consequences can be very serious. Officers of the all-India services serving in their states could, with the backing of the state chief minister, ignore the directives of the Central government in its capacity as the cadre controlling authority. Since state governments are often ruled by political parties who are in opposition to the party at the Centre, such political confrontations could proliferate, and there could be many more Rajeev Kumars caught in the ensuing political battles. One very deleterious consequence could be the further politicisation of the bureaucracy, with officers on deputation to the centre or serving in the states, deciding to jettison their mandatory political neutrality in favour of open partisanship with political parties, either at the centre or in the states.
In the case of the IPS, the situation is further complicated because “police” and “public order” are in the State list under the Constitution, and not in the Concurrent list. This could further bolster the claim of ruling parties in the states to resist any “encroachment” of their jurisdiction by the central government. What happens then in crimes that are not restricted only to one state, and have inter-state implications? The chit fund scam is a case in point. It has a footprint across several states. This massive ponzi scheme has defrauded some 17 lakh investors to the tune of `3,500 crores. Investigations have to carried out in states, but the designated investigating agency is a central one, the CBI. The victims are crying out for justice, but the investigation has become a football being kicked around as political parties at the centre and the state fight out their political battles.
The fact of the matter is that the “steel frame”, like many other institutions in the federal polity that is our republic, rests on the foundation of trust between the Centre and the states. If the trust deficit becomes too wide, institutions of this nature will fall through the gap. In the political cacophony of the world’s largest democracy, and the pressures that build up as political differences become more acrimonious with general elections approaching, we need to be very careful about what the collateral damage is to the time-tested institutions that have always safeguarded our nation....