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The Modi government’s ever-intensifying crackdown on the corrupt and non-performing elements of Indian bureaucracy bodes well for the country’s future

Siddhartha Tripathy

The days when high-horsed babus could sit snug on their cosy swivel chairs in their air-conditioned high offices, doing precious little or mastering the art of quid pro quo while conveniently blaming elected political leaders and policy paralyses for the country’s problems, seem to be virtually over.

Since the beginning of its first term in power over five years ago, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government had taken some strong steps to tackle the rampant corruption and red-tapism in the national capital and far beyond. However, it raised the bar by a few notches on that front after the Bharatiya Janata Party retained power this year at the Centre with an even bigger mandate than in 2014.

If he had not already done so earlier, the Prime Minister certainly made it abundantly clear on Independence Day this year that his government had a zero-tolerance policy on corruption and would come down hard on any official found to be guilty of graft, black money possession or any other kind of unacceptable conduct.

“Some black sheep in the tax administration may have misused their powers and harassed taxpayers, either by targeting honest assessees or by taking excessive action for minor or procedural violations … We will not tolerate this type of behaviour,” he had thundered from the Red Fort on August 15.

This was not so much a warning as it was an update on the action that had been already under way for a few months.

Soon after Prime Minister Modi swore in for the second time, the heads of a dozen senior income tax officers, one of them a joint commissioner, rolled.

Two months later, in August, three National Investigating Agency officers, including a superintendent of police (SP), were transferred after a Delhi-based businessman complained that they were seeking Rs 2 crore in bribes to exempt him from a case involving Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed.

Last month, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) compulsorily retired 15 senior officials, holding ranks ranging from principal commissioner of income tax (IT) to assistant commissioner of IT, on charges of corruption.

Since June this year, in fact, the CBDT has compulsorily retired at least 64 employees under Fundamental Rule 56 (J) on various charges, such as corruption, smuggling and criminal conspiracy.

With the Central government reviewing the annual confidential reports and other information about its employees, especially those facing criminal or corruption cases, more heads are likely to roll, revealed officials close these developments.

The Central government has also directed all the Cadre Controlling Authorities to put in place a process through which “deadwood” can be identified and be compulsorily retired, if necessary, after detailed evaluation of their service records.

A senior officer, who did not wish to be identified, revealed that the Centre has already written to all states across the country to prepare a list of officers who are facing charges of misconduct or allegations of corruption.

The Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, the cadre-controlling authority for IAS officers, is also making a list of tainted officers who will be phased out from service.

The Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of External Affairs are also following a similar process.

While Rule 16(3) of the All India Services Rules, 1958, which was amended on January 31, 2012, will be applicable for compulsory retirement of officers of IAS, IPS, IFS and other services, it can be further amended if necessary for quicker removal tainted officials.

The Modi government has also directed federal investigative agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Enforcement Directorate (ED), among others, to identify and dismiss corrupt officials on a priority basis.

While some top NIA officials, who had been tasked with probing terrorism crimes, are under the scanner for allegedly taking bribes, some officials from ED – India’s federal financial investigating agency – are being suspected of running an extortion racket.

A strong framework is also being set up to ensure accountability of officials from all central intelligence agencies in view of their extensive access to source money.

What with complaints from corporate entities about tax officials harassing business people (often cited as one of the prime reasons behind the current economic slowdown), many political and economic experts reckon that the Modi administration’s enhanced determination to weed out bad elements from the bureaucratic system for ensuring governance of high integrity and standards was the need of the hour.

The perform-or-perish culture that the Prime Minister is institutionalising in the bureaucratic system has been long imbibed within the BJP.

“Narendra Modi doesn’t tolerate two things – corruption and non-performance. We cannot say it openly, but a key minister was dropped not long ago after the PMO received complaints of corruption against him,” said a sitting key functionary of the BJP and a trusted aide of Amit Shah, requesting anonymity.

Although the BJP was well aware of Modi’s modus operandi before he left Gandhinagar for New Delhi, the bureaucracy in the national capital was not quite so until much later. So those who were not given to a career on the straight and narrow ended up facing the music.

Two years ago, action was taken against 381 bureaucrats, 24 of whom were IAS officers, on grounds of “non-performance”. This happened soon after a detailed presentation, titled “Foundation for a new India”, was given to the Prime Minister as he completed three years into his first term.

The presentation was all about bringing errant babus to book. In a booklet designed for the event, there was a line saying: “To ensure accountability of bureaucracy, the government has made probity and performance the twin pillars on which good governance rests.”

By the end of that year, records of 11,828 Group A officers and 19,714 Group B officers were examined for the purposes of the elimination of nonperforming and dishonest officials from the system.

People who have worked closely with Modi, whether it be in Gujarat or New Delhi, confirm that the Prime Minister is a strong believer in the transforming powers of a good and efficient bureaucracy.

“CM Modi’s style of functioning has been through his trusted top babus. His Chiranjeevi Yojana, which was to contain child mortality rates or him promoting a barren land of Kutch as a tourist hub could not have been done by ministers or cadres, but by dedicated bureaucrats. That’s why he values them and expects the same efficiency from them as he does from himself,” said a technocrat who worked very closely with Modi in Gujarat right up until the 2014 general elections.

Not wishing to be identified, he noted: “The central BJP got a taste of Modi’s ways only after he shifted base in 2014.”

Now, however, all of BJP seems to have understood the Prime Minister’s deal. All general secretaries of the party from across India work for at least 10 to 12 hours in office when in Delhi and not out for election-related or organisational tours.

Recently, the Modi government also took strong action against some popular BJP leaders who were accused of high-handedness within the party.

Therefore, other BJP leaders also deem it only fair that the bureaucrats are held up to the same high standards and subject to the same exacting process as they have been.

Only when deserving people sit on those swivel chairs in those air-conditioned high offices, the country’s problems can be truly and timely resolved.

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