Anil Swarup. (Source: BloombergQuint)

Civil Services Veteran Anil Swarup Raises Questions On How CBI Chief Was Shunted Out Twice

Anil Swarup, a 38-year civil services veteran, is surprised at the way Alok Verma was removed as the head of the Central Bureau of Investigation since an officer who was considered good suddenly became bad.

“If you did select somebody who was considered to be good, how does he become so bad to have been kicked out twice?” Swarup said in an interview with BloombergQuint. A high-level appointment to a post like director of the CBI is made after a detailed process, he said.

Verma was first asked to go on a leave after allegations of corruption were levelled by his deputy Rakesh Asthana, himself facing an enquiry. While the Supreme Court reinstated Verma, he was shunted out by a select committee comprising Prime Minister Narendra Modi by a 2-1 vote. The entire episode triggered debate about the credibility of Indian institutions.

Swarup, who retired last year as secretary in the Human Resource and Development Ministry, said Indian institutions are in the spotlight because of top civil servants not defending the positions they have been selected to rather than any government attempting to exert influence. All governments try to influence institutions for political gain but it’s up to the civil servants to put their foot down when required, he said.

All officers who man these institutions have the security of tenure. There is no reason for them to behave in any manner other than what they deem to be correct.  
Anil Swarup, Former Bureaucrat

Swarup spoke to BloombergQuint on how officers can survive the complex relationship between the bureaucracy and the government.

Watch the interview here:

Here’s the edited transcript of the interview:

What do you make of the events of the last few days concerning former CBI director Alok Verma, the role of the select committee and how questions have been raised about the integrity of Indian institutions?

We were proud of institutions which we have been manned by bureaucrats, whether it is CAG, CBI or CVC. These institutions over the years have done a good job. What has happened in the recent past is unfortunate and I hope it doesn’t get repeated. Two top officials fighting among themselves doesn’t reflect well on our functioning. The rest of the civil service has to bear the cross because there shouldn’t have been a public spat. My view is, there are difference of opinions among civil servants when they work and in a democracy there have to be different views. But there is a way of sorting it out. This is very unfortunate that they went for a public spat and whatever happened was unfortunate.

But is there an equivalence between the allegations against Rakesh Asthana and Alok Verma considering one was special director and the other was CBI director?

That is not the issue at all. When selection to such posts happen, it is assumed that lot of due diligence has gone into it. I am not sure about the amount of due diligence that happened in this case. If you did select somebody who was considered to be good, how does he become so bad to have been kicked out twice? That surprises me. It calls to question the process through which such people are selected. These offices have lot of security behind them in the sense of security of tenure and they hold positions where they can destroy anybody’s reputation. They have to be absolutely above board . I assume they were absolutely above board. But what happened suddenly for them that was so bad? I don’t have an answer to it. But something must have happened for someone to come to the conclusion that it is so bad that he had to be kicked out. It got noticed because of the fight between the two civil servants.

Do you mean otherwise it would have happened quietly?

It happens in many organisations. There are allegations and counter allegations. It is not the first time that it is happening. It came out in the public and became a public spat and it triggered all these actions. I didn’t understand how a person becomes so good and bad quickly.

One of the motives which is being attributed to the hasty and determined removal of Alok Verma is that it was an attempt to deter investigations which he was carrying out. One of the complaints lying on his desk was about the Rafale deal. Do you see the connection? Has it happened before that the powers that be don’t want something done and the officer who stands in the way has got to go?

I am not privy to this information and I will not like to comment on it, irrespective of what others say about it. As a civil servant in my career, if I thought something is wrong, I would say that and pay the price. Particularly, I don’t know which files were on his table and decisions he took. But he did get removed, whatever may have been the reason. I am not to determine whether what he did was right or wrong. If an officer was considered to be so good to be considered at that level of post, to have been removed twice surprises me.

It is a common refrain that our institutions are under attack. What is your reading?

We often blame politicians for all that is wrong in this country and I don’t agree with it. I am a great believer in introspection. Being a civil servant, I am asking them to introspect and see what they can do in a given set of circumstances. We have no control over politicians. Politicians have control over us. But if we behave in a particular manner, then institutions will survive. Today, the problem is at some point of time the CVC, CBI institutions are challenged. Someone is questioning the role of the then CAG. That is very serious. Someone has to look into it. All the officers who man these institutions have security of tenure. There is no reason for them to behave in any manner other than what they deemed to be correct and nothing else. 

Do you see a greater attack on these institutions in this government’s tenure? Public perception is that this government has ensured that these institutions are under attack. What do you say to that statement?

It is wrong to blame any particular government for the attack. Look at the previous government. They also tried to attack institutions, didn’t they? So, every politician in order to survive or under threat will like to attack, which is natural on their part.

Are you saying where previous governments failed, this one is succeeding?

I don’t think whose success and failure is a subjective phenomena. Even the previous government called to question what CAG, CBI was doing. Every political party, if it serves the purpose, will do it. It is very natural in a democracy. My response is not what the politicians should do. I am nobody to advise politicians, they are doing what they want to do. As a former civil servant, I feel concerned if a civil servant does not respond in a responsible manner so as to retain the credibility of the institutions that they man. As a civil servant, you could be shifted here or there. But when you occupy your constitutional position, it is not easy to shift you. When Alok Verma was shifted, how much hue and cry was created? But if the educational secretary gets shifted from here to there, then no one talks about it. There is a difference between the usual posting of a civil servant during his career and a constitutional position. For that particular officer who occupies that constitutional position, he has the added responsibility of ensuring that the credibility of the organisation is sustained.

You tweeted saying, ‘ A small set of civil servants are bringing a bad name to the entire civil service’. Who were you talking about?

I don’t know who are these civil servants and I wish I knew. There is somebody advising the political master without giving full facts. I am surprised that how was such advice given to post an officer beyond 60 years to a position where a person cannot hold a post beyond 60 years. I don’t think politicians are expected to know these details. I am nobody to pass a judgement on the politics of the day and I don’t want to. But I am concerned about some of the civil servants having been one myself. Had I been a politician, I would have been reflecting internally.

How it is different from what you have seen in the past? Do you think there is strong coterie of civil servants who have more influence than they should have?

Every government has its own coterie. They work that way. They have a set of civil servants who advise them. Everyone passes judgement on politicians. I, being a civil servant, can introspect and see we are going wrong. My approach is clear. I am not criticising anyone else. I am only critical of my own family. I am looking at some of he civil servants who are bringing a bad name to the entire service. I have spent 38 years in civil service. There were outstanding officers who have done phenomenal work. But unfortunately civil services are getting to be known by those handful of civil servants who act in an unbecoming manner , that’s what pains me. I am not trying to find out who that civil servant is. But there is somebody who is not doing his homework properly to advise the politician. Whether the politicians are taking the wrong or right decisions will be known in 2019 through a democratic process. But sitting here as an ex-civil servant myself, I don’t feel it appropriate to pass judgement on anybody else. I will pass a judgement on my own brethren, my own family. I feel disturbed that some of us are not doing the job which we ought to do. That is what I am trying to say here.

Is it the lure of plum positions post retirement? Should this all go away?

I am nobody to pass a judgement on individuals. That is the individual’s subjective choice, a call of conscious because of which he took a particular decision. He can decide why he took it. Why do certain civil servants behave in a particular manner can be answered by those who take such decisions. I cannot conjecture why they are doing it. They may do it for any reason. They may genuinely feel what they are advising is right. They may be intellectually dishonest by giving an advice which they feel is not good advice. It could be any reason. But it is only in a specific instance that the specific officer will actually answer why he is doing what he is doing. In my assessment, we are not giving appropriate advice, or we are not doing good enough homework to advise the decision maker and this is a classic case. How do you transfer an officer to a position where an officer beyond 60 years cannot hold position? Politicians and political masters are not supposed to go into these details. Some civil servant should have done his homework and presented this case. If they didn’t do it then he is responsible for not doing it. I can’t run away from that responsibility.

Are they too busy saying ‘Yes Minister’?

Many of us say, ‘Yes Minister’, but we do our ground work. This may be a pure mistake. It might not be deliberate.

You were one of the key civil servants in the Modi government. We have heard so much about the functioning of this PMO. What actually went on in the Prime Minister’s Office?

I was responsible for a very sensitive area called coal where anything that could have gone wrong had gone wrong for the coal sector. We were tasked with carrying out coal block auctions. I did it the way I wanted to do. There was no interference whatsoever from the government and it went smooth. The government took credit for it. Some of it came to me as well. It was so smooth and no one interfered. People did tell me about the interference of PMO. In my case, whatever I have to discuss with PMO I did it and that’s it. It is very easy to blame somebody else. The question is, have I conducted myself in a manner that I don’t allow anybody to interfere in the work that I am doing?

But can you really do what you think is right while in office?

I did it. You have seen in my 38 years of career. In all of the cases, if I generally felt a particular thing should not be done, I was very clear in my mind. The clarity has to be in the mind of the civil servant. There is a price to be paid either way. You toe the line of the politician who is telling you to do the wrong thing. Or you don’t toe a line, either way you will pay the price. It is a call that the civil servant has to take if he wants to pay this or that price. Nothing is free.

What price have you paid in your career?

There were occasions where I got shifted. Transfer is death for a civil servant. It happens and you cannot stop it. Like in Hindu philosophy, you are born again and go and do the same work again. Who stops you from doing it? Over a period of time, you develop a reputation for yourself where there is a crisis, they will call you. UPA-II called me to head a project monitoring group to fast track projects of Rs 1,000 crore. I didn’t ask them for it. I didn’t ask this government to make me coal secretary, but they called me. Even if they had not called me, so be it. If I am secretary of government of India, then I will continue to be one. They can post me from one position to another but how does that make a difference. I get the same salary. One position in IAS is as good as another position. You can do as much good work. In the entire 38 years of my career, I didn’t ask for a single posting. I loved it because I got away with what I wanted to do. If the government didn’t like me, I was transferred. I was working in UP and I was transferred thrice in six months in Mayawati’s regime in 1997. But so be it. How does it matter? Does transfer determine my behaviour? No, it doesn’t.

So the stereotype of the honest IAS officer who keeps getting shunted around true?

It is not true. It has only been in those six months that I got transferred. But thereafter I had stable tenures and I had very sensitive positions. I was coal secretary for two years. The civil servant has to be very clear in his mind as to what he wants. He is the issue. If he is not clear in his mind, then he will be in trouble, feel trouble and will curse those around him.

If a political force who is in government wants something done, beyond a point can a civil servant really refuse?

I will quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, he says, ‘Lord, give me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can and wisdom to understand the difference between the two’. If a civil servant follows this, if you don’t want to do it, you can still not do it and the punishment could be you will be shifted out and so be it. Your salary will not be reduced. I do not have a birthright over any position. But the politicians are very sharp. If they require you, they will post you there. If they want work to be done, they will want you there. There is a price to be paid either way. You toe the line, you have to pay the price. Civil servants have paid a price. You don’t toe a line but pay a price. It is the subject judgement of an individual officer whether they want to do it or not. Third is you keep blaming politicians for everything. They are what they are. Can I as civil servants change the politicians? No, I cannot. So, I have to accept him as he comes, good, bad or ugly.

There is a belief that this government has a different way of functioning. Where all powerful civil servants decide policy. Is this true?

So, that is a belief which everyone has. What am I to contribute?

You can tell us whether it is true or not.

Each government has its problems. Which government is a perfect government here? There were problems with this government and previous one too.There will be problems. But as a civil servant it is my duty to do what is right. I am paid for it. I am paid to perform.

There is a narrative that PM Modi has a clear view but depends upon civil servants to implement it but there are some civil servants who have misled him which is why things have been botched. What you think about this narrative?

I have interacted very closely with the PM when I was in the Coal Ministry and also in education. He is clear-headed. He knows what he is talking about. He conveys it very clearly, sharply. If anybody has let him down, then it is some of us. He is clear in his mind. There could be other angles others see. But I didn’t see any of those angles in him. There were occasions where I differed with him. He heard me out. So, it is not that he doesn’t want to listen. A politician is what he is. Every political party has compulsions. It is incumbent on us as civil servants to guide the politician in a manner that things get done. If I don’t do my homework and tell him facts, then who is to blame? The easiest thing on earth is to blame the politicians for everything. They are responsible for some of the mess. I am not defending the politicians. They have done wrong in this and previous governments. But I had a purpose behind my tweet which is very simple. To somehow persuade some of us civil servants to introspect. We have no business to be intellectually dishonest. Everyone talks about financial dishonesty. Much worse is intellectual dishonesty, like think of something else and say something else. There have been many occasions where I pressed my view and was overruled by political decision makers.

Why do you think that happens? Why do civil servants not take a stand?

There are a number of reasons. There could be the reason of continuing in a post or a post-retirement job.

Should there be a cooling off period before retired civil servants take up plum positions? Or a complete stop to post-retirement positions?

It depends on the individual. If you pick up the right individual, he will continue to do it. Officers won’t change. In the CBI director’s example, how does a person change so quickly? The cooling off business has nothing to do with it. The officer should be picked up on merit, integrity and efficiency. If you pick the right person for the right job and let him do the job then that is the best way of going about it.

Won’t such positions be used as a lure by politicians to get civil servants to toe their line?

Politicians would want such people who are pliable and do their job. I can’t do anything about it. If I as civil servant continue the way I would,  the consequence would be that I will not to get an assignment. So be it. That’s what the civil servant has to decide.

Why would these officers listen to you? For their conscience ?

Let them not listen to me. So be it. I am saying what I am very convinced about. I won’t care whether they listen to my appeal or have a conscience . It is not material to me. I am doing as I am convinced about. It is not like I am a neta and want to convince anybody. I feel strongly about a particular issue and I say so.

What do you think will fix the bureaucracy?

I can’t tell you solutions over a cup of tea. But few things can easily be done. For example, for selection to these critical posts, if there is an independent set of people who decide and provide a panel, it will bring down all this. The pliability part will not be considered so much. You have institutions like UPSC who can select officers and give a panel to decision makers and it can bring down such things dramatically. It can be done. I am an optimist. Things can be sorted out provided we as civil servants suggest that the bottom line is good of the people. That can happen if we have officers of integrity, efficiency sitting there. Look at institutions like Election Commission. We are proud of it and it is manned by IAS officers. I am hopeful because of the existence of institutions like UPSC, EC where still no one is pointing fingers . So, it is not that it has not happened. EC is doing a phenomenal job in this country. I am proud of the civil servants who sit there. You can replicate and build systems where you have people who don’t suddenly become bad. If you have a system with discretionary mechanism, suddenly someone can go rogue and you say ‘this guys won’t follow me’ and then show him the door.

Is that what happened in Alok Verma’s case?

May have happened. I don’t know the details. What surprises me is that you select a person and then show him the door.

What do you make of 10 percent reservation in general quota based on economic indicators. This will be most effectively seen in government jobs.

I don’t know when we will get over the politics of reservation. It pains me. I would equip an individual to come to everyone’s level rather than reserve a particular position for them. I don’t know the background but what pains me is where are we reducing the debate to. It is virtually a non-issue for development in this country. Purely in a development context, this should not have been there at all. There are so many other issues which needs to be addressed. But that is what politics is all about. I am not a politician to comment on it. But it is sad that we have reduced the debate to this level.

Do tell us about your book, ‘The Uncivil Servant’.

The book is about my personal experience in 38 years of civil service. It has my coal experience, the CBSE exam paper leak, Babri Masjid. So, I have narrated a variety of experience. The bottom line of book is despite everything, things can be made to happen if a civil servant does want to make it happen.