While most loathe the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), few gather the courage to take it head on. Last week, the Supreme Court did even better. Not only did it indict the IAS for attempting to manipulate post-retirement posting for its ilk, the second time it is doing so in less than two years, it went a step further and set a precedent by issuing an order that quasijudicial bodies such as the Information Commission should include members of the judiciary.
In a moment, the apex court not only revived the debate about the hegemony of the IAS, but also provided fresh wind to the growing rebellion from other competing government services against the numero uno of the Indian bureaucracy.
It is not the first time that the apex court is going up against the IAS. On 3 March 2011, a three-judge bench had in an order on the public interest litigation (PIL) questioning the appointment of P.J. Thomas as the central vigilance commissioner (CVC) made very explicit that in future, “the zone of consideration” for selection would “not be restricted to civil servants”. It was among the first rush of judgements, through which Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia established his imprimatur in the apex court.
An interesting coincidence was that the order of last week on the PIL questioning the present practice of appointment of information commissioners under the Right to Information Act, 2005, was issued by justice Swatanter Kumar—a member of the three-judge bench that pronounced the CVC verdict.
The continuity of thought on the appointments to such bodies is not just restricted to two serving judges of the Supreme Court. Instead, it goes back even further. In the tenure of the Bhartiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the apex court had been drawn into the appointment of the head of the Competition Commission of India—the new regulatory body that was to oversee competitive practices. A three-member committee of Arun Jaitley, Naresh Chandra and Y.H. Malegam was narrowing its choice down to a former technocrat when the empire struck (as someone associated with the decision recalled) and installed a superannuating IAS official.
The apex court that took up the PIL questioning the appointment of an IAS officer passed severe strictures against the NDA and the IAS. Then chief justice V.N. Khare was quoted in the Financial Express newspaper published on 9 November 2003, questioning the appointment. “At this rate, a day would come, may be after 20 years, when the 26 judges of the apex court would be replaced by bureaucrats,” he damagingly said.
While the dissent was somehow muzzled and status quo restored, things have not come to the pass the apex court had feared. Regardless, it is indeed striking that the IAS has managed to capture nearly all such appointments in the last two decades; this is despite them being quasijudicial bodies often requiring specialization.
Ever since the process of liberalization began to accelerate and the private sector began to acquire a footprint, the government has moved to create so-called independent regulators. Rarely have sector specialists come to inhabit these posts. So, whether it is the Insurance Regulatory Development Authority, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, CCI, the Census Commissioner of India, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and even the Reserve Bank of India, the IAS has dominated, if not accounted for all the appointments. As other commentators have pointed out earlier: now the IAS never retires from government; worse, some spend most of their final tenure in government lobbying for such postings.
It is indeed, as the apex court has implied, bizarre. Surely, it can be nobody’s case that competence is the sole preserve of the IAS—their administrative acumen notwithstanding. This TINA (there is no alternative) factor is a myth if one goes over even the recent administrative history of the country. We have had, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, I.G. Patel and Bimal Jalan, among the top economists qualified enough to serve as the RBI governor; newly anointed chief economic adviser Raghuram Rajan is waiting in the wings. Similarly, we have had people such as Lovraj Kumar, Mantosh Sondhi, Raja Chelliah, Yogendra K. Alagh and Vijay Kelkar, all of whom were technocrats, making a lateral entry into government and leaving behind enviable legacies.
And this is not even an exhaustive list. Look around you and it is obvious that the options before the country are now even more. And given the drift in governance over the years, there is clearly a case for out-of-the-box thinking to address the problems, challenges and aspirations of a new India; one obvious place to look is outside of government. The apex court has indeed shown a way, though care should be taken to ensure against another preserve being carved out.
The big question is whether the United Progressive Alliance will show the same resolve it exhibited over the weekend and usher in change. After all, it is the same regime that had the courage to induct a rank outsider such as Nandan Nilekani to head its marquee project of arming every resident Indian with a unique ID. Or will the IAS prevail and ensure the status quo?
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.