Plodders, not racehorses, on the podium

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June 29th, 2011 Aditi Phadnis

Two important bureaucratic appointments this month suggested it was back to the rule of the ‘seniormost’ principle. Ajit Kumar Seth, a strictly middle-of-the-road bureaucrat was appointed Cabinet Secretary and  Ranjan Mathai, efficient, competent but by no means brilliant, was appointed Foreign Secretary. The two men have two things in common: they are the seniormost in their batch; and in their careers, they’ve been plodders, rather than racehorses.

These appointments are something of a revolution, given the way the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has handled such postings in the past. The UPA superseded 12 (or is it 16) bureaucrats to appoint Shiv Shankar Menon as Foreign Secretary in 2006. This meant that when he became National Security Advisor (NSA) in 2010, he was the juniormost officer in the hierarchy – Cabinet Secretary KM Chandrasekhar was 1970 batch; Defence Secretary pradeep kumar and outgoing home secretary GK Pillai were batchmates (1972 batch). In the past the NSA has concurrently been Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister (Brajesh Mishra) or such a senior diplomat that no jury of his peers could come close to judging him (JN Dixit).

In the case of the cabinet secretary the pendulum swung to the other end. The outgoing Cabinet secretary was on serial extension leading to the impression that no bureaucrat in successive batches was good enough to be considered for the job. K M Chandrasekhar was appointed in 2007 and retired in 2011, which makes him the cabinet secretary with the third longest tenure of service after BD Pande (1972-1977) and CR Krishnaswamy Rao (1981-85).

This time, the government has opted to play safe. Uncontroversial, low-key officers not prone to rocking boats will man key posts. This could mean two things: no turf will be touched and there will be no hurricanes in Hampshire (where hurricanes hardly happen, any way); and the dream of the Performance Management division in the Cabinet Secretariat, that  the Indian bureaucrat will be one who will rise in the service in direct proportion to his performance and not merely on the basis of seniority, will continue to be what it is – a dream.

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