It is said that the best barometer for judging a bureaucrat’s honesty and refusal to compromise with the political class is to see how many times they have been posted in their career. By that yardstick, Ashok Khemka, the Indian Administrative Service officer from the Haryana cadre, passes with flying colours – he has been posted 50 times in his 25 years of active service.
In this interview, Khemka speaks of his penchant for tweets, his observations on the response of bureaucrats to allegations that two MLAs had slapped Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash at the home of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, how this is not among the worst incidents bureaucrats face, why they do not speak out, and the triumvirate of bureaucrats, politicians and corporates that dominate India. Excerpts:
Few bureaucrats tweet as prolifically as you do. Given the restrictions on bureaucrats, what are the principles you follow while tweeting?
At the outset, I must state that my views are personal and do not reflect those of government in any manner. Coming to your question, it is not about what principles I follow. I do not follow an ideology. This confounds people. In 2012, they tried to impose an ideology on me. Now they try to impose another kind of ideology on me.
Is it that in 2012, you were portrayed to be anti-Congress and now, in 2018, you are being depicted as…
They did not say the act [cancellation of the land mutation between DLF-Robert Vadra] was my duty. They tried to label me anti-somebody and pro-somebody. Now they wish to paint me as something else. The problem in India is that people ascribe a particular identity to you and, in the process, limit your individuality. But I judge and take position on issues conscientiously and in good faith, which has evolved over the years.
Would it be correct to say that your tweets are conscience-driven observations?
Yes, and my endeavour is to bring clarity to a concept or to clear the picture of an event within the limitations of 140 characters earlier and now, 280 characters that is allowed on Twitter. I am neither pro- nor anti- somebody. It is just an observation from a perspective.
But your observations together make for a pithy commentary on India’s public culture. I don’t think it would be to the liking of many, particularly those in the political class.
I do not know about that, but you may have seen that my tweets over the last one year have proved correct.
Give me an example.
Take the health insurance, about which I tweeted. If the government is going to pay, say, an annual premium of Rs 5,000 crore, there has to be an insurance profit margin built into it. So what is spent on health is the balance. Assume the insurance company’s profit margin is 20%, then only Rs. 4,000 crore would be spent on healthcare. The next question is, what would be the quality of this spending? In other words, how will hospitals behave with the amount of insurance money pouring in?
How do you think hospitals will behave?
There would be an increase in unwanted treatment. Basically, costs would be padded up. Should the health insurance become a substitute for creating a proper health infrastructure? What we are being shown is a vision. But if you look at it from a perspective, the objective is deeper. If the objective is to improve the healthcare of citizens, then routing public money earmarked for healthcare through insurance may not be the optimal step.
Hospitals are, anyway, popularly perceived to behave unethically.
We have seen the loot that some top private hospitals have been indulging in. They have been providing expensive unwanted treatment to patients fated to die in days. They do not treat patients as human beings. They treat them as a resource. After all the brouhaha in a recent incident of vulgar overcharging by a top private hospital, has the hospital been made accountable? Has any statement come from authoritative sources that the treatment offered was absolutely essential, in accordance with medical ethics?
Your tweet did generate a lot of heat on this issue.
I entered into a war of words with Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw [chairperson of Biocon Limited] and Mohandas Pai [chairperson of Manipal Global Education]. He was absolutely vitriolic, not gentlemanly like, and brought into play my identity as a bureaucrat, as if I am a dumb, rigid fool who thinks like a regimented clerk. He resorted to this ploy only to abort an argument, not knowing that had I opted for a career in the corporate sector, I would have done better or at least as well as him.
On February 20, you tweeted, “IAS associations’ support for Delhi chief secretary is an appreciable digression from usual stony silence. They should also speak up on more pressing national issues which affect the general populace directly.” What precisely did your tweet mean?
I believe any kind of violence, whether mental or physical, is antithetical to the emergence of a vibrant democracy. In this case [the alleged assault of Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash by MLAs at Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s home], though the alleged incident was reprehensible, it is not of the worst kind we face as bureaucrats.
I remember an incident when I was additional deputy commissioner of Rohtak, Haryana, in 1995. That year there was a flood in Rohtak town. I was in-charge of evacuation. I was standing in knee-deep water at the control centre. A corporator was very agitated because he thought I was not scheduling boats to his ward for evacuating people. In a fit of anger, he pushed me and I fell into the water. An FIR was registered.
Are you saying nothing happened thereafter?
The corporator was not arrested. Five years later, I happened to visit Rohtak, where I visited Rohtak’s then deputy commissioner. He was then clearing old files and while doing so, he saw my name in one of the papers. He said, “Ashok, here is a paper with your name in it. What is it about?”
I read it. It said that the police had investigated the matter and found out that I had entered into a compromise with the corporator who had pushed me. Hence, the police presented a cancellation report to the court, which the court accepted.
I assume you had not entered into a compromise with the corporator.
There was indeed nothing of that sort. I registered my protest there and then. I said the statement by the police is false. I still do not know what happened.
In the Delhi incident, after the chief secretary was allegedly assaulted, there was an FIR and two MLAs were arrested. They are now in judicial custody. I do not know what the IAS association wants over and above it – there was a crime and the big arms of the law caught hold of the criminals. It is now for the court to decide upon it.
I still do not get the import of your February 20 tweet.
I welcomed the fact that the slapgate in Delhi has prompted bureaucrats to break their silence. Not only the IAS association in Delhi, but IAS associations from other states, including Haryana, condemned it. Had the law not moved, there would have been greater aggravation. The association is not aggrieved on account of the police not acting.
By contrast, there are so many incidents in which the police are not even seen to be investigating properly. For instance, as Managing Director of the Haryana Seeds Development Corporation, I had made a complaint to the Central Bureau of Investigation in March 2013. It pertained to a case in which a few crores had been siphoned off in the purchase of wheat seeds. Five years later, the preliminary inquiry is still going on. This case affects a larger body of farmers. It is not an individual who has been affected as, say, is the case with the slapping incident in Delhi, reprehensible though it was.
Or take the other case that I did, pertaining to the land transaction between a realtor and a VVIP.
The Robert Vadra-DLF land transaction case?
Till date, not even a complaint has been lodged. Mind you, it was a case that shook the entire nation. So now that IAS associations have broken their stony silence, they should also speak on issues that are of vital importance to the nation. The alacrity shown in Delhi’s slapping incident should also be shown in other pressing cases that affect the common person.
Can you define the pressing issues?
It can be anything – like when the law and order machinery fails, when communal harmony is shattered or caste conflicts occur, when education and health standards are much to be desired, when cleanliness is an issue or where environmental concerns are there. These are Constitutional principles. We bureaucrats take an oath to abide by these principles. Through my February 20 tweet, I am requesting bureaucrats to break their silence on more pressing issues affecting the common man.
Is it unusual for a bureaucrat to be summoned to the chief minister’s residence late at night, for instance, as Anshu Prakash was?
No, no, the chief minister may call us at any time of day or night. This happens when there are pressing issues to be taken up. A late night meeting is not called for in routine matters. It wasn’t as if there was an emergency in Delhi that required an urgent handling at night.
There are two versions on why the chief secretary was summoned late at night. In one version, the meeting was about the government’s advertisements being withheld. In the other version, it was about ration not being delivered.
In either version, a meeting at the chief minister’s residence at 11.30 in the night was probably avoidable. A talk over the phone would have been sufficient. This is one reason why the chief secretary’s story sounds credible. To repeat, the assault on the chief secretary was a reprehensible act and should be condemned outright.
Should Delhi’s bureaucrats have also spoken when Kejriwal’s principal secretary Rajendra Kumar was harassed through raids?
There is a difference here – the chief secretary was allegedly assaulted at the chief minister’s residence by MLAs who had no business doing that. In the other case, it was an official raid by a government agency. It isn’t the case that the officer [Rajendra Kumar] was assaulted. If he was, then it is as reprehensible. It may be, as the officer alleges, that it was a witch-hunt and the case against him is false. In his case, the matter is before the court. I do not know what its fate is. I think the point you are making is whether the case against him is true or false. If it is a false case, then it is reprehensible. If it is a true case, then it is alright.
But isn’t this the tactic all governments pursue – hound bureaucrats who are inconvenient to them?
It is not a universal truth.
With your long experience in bureaucracy, do you think the division of power in Delhi is conducive to administrative efficiency?
This is a political question and it is not my remit to handle.
Do you think Delhi’s bureaucrats could also have taken a position that the controversy over the distribution of power between the chief minister and the lieutenant governor is delaying development projects that affect, to use your words, the general populace?
It is for Delhi’s bureaucrats to decide.
Since the police have acted and two MLAs are jailed, should Delhi’s bureaucrats continue with their go-slow approach?
Not at all. Bureaucrats must act professionally.
Why don’t bureaucrats speak on pressing national issues?
When a person does not speak out, it is either out of fear or out of expectations for a favour. It applies to all professionals, not only to bureaucrats.
That said, the career graph of a bureaucrat can touch the sky. Or he can be reduced to being a glorified clerk. Take people like [National Security Advisor] Ajit Doval or NN Vohra, who was a bureaucrat, but became a governor of an important state [Kashmir] for so many years. For every such bureaucrat, there are many who simply fade away unsung. The reward is huge, which you could stand to lose if you were to speak out, and the punishment could be as stiff as termination from service. This is why most bureaucrats do not speak out.
Every fresher who comes into the service has a dream. When he remains silent, he does not want to jeopardise his personal dream. If he speaks out, he loses a lot. Every person, in any profession, has to pay a price for speaking out. But for the IAS/IPS [Indian Administrative service, Indian Police Service], the price is just too huge.
Do you think the common class interests that bureaucrats and the political class share could be another reason why bureaucrats do not speak out?
This modern world is not two dimensional, comprising bureaucrats and politicians. There is also a potent third dimension of the corporate world. This triumvirate of bureaucrats, politicians, and corporates move in tandem. If the bureaucrat adjusts to this triumvirate, he has a good chance of an excellent career.
You mean the one who has an excellent career manages to balance all three.
Balancing is not a difficult task. Infinitely more difficult for a bureaucrat is to manage his inner self. I do not know about others, but if I had wanted I could have managed the triumvirate excellently. It took me less than a week to unravel the famous transaction [Vadra-DLF land deal] and my action still remains unchallenged. I too could have gamed the system. It is just that I could not manage my inner self to do so. To have my inner peace, I had to do what I did. If I could have managed my inner self, I could have been a very successful man externally.
Do you think it was right of Bareilly District Magistrate Raghvendra Singh to write a Facebook post that strongly disapproved of the emerging trend of people taking out processions by force in Muslim areas and raising anti-Pakistan slogans?
I do not know the exact facts of the case. Did he withdraw the post?
Yes, he removed the post but said he still stood by what he wrote.
So why do you want to support a weak mind? Did I pull down my tweets? Do you think I have not been hounded? War is not fought with a weak heart.
After the Punjab National Bank fraud hit the headlines, you tweeted, “Bigger the white crime, lesser the chances of criminals getting punished. Who is interested anyway? Public memory is short. This too will be forgotten.” Why do you think that bigger the corruption, the greater the chances of the guilty going unpunished?
What has been the country’s experience? Which of the big crimes have led to the punishment of the guilty? Look at Punjab, where so many have settled in the UK and Canada and where they are big-time into business and politics. A crime of domestic violence has their police come here to extradite them. They ensure there is punishment in the crime committed. We are a big nation with a huge arms budget, with a huge trade budget. How come we are unable to bring the scamsters who flee our country? And who runs away from the country to other countries – petty thieves?
So once a scamster runs away, the country is made to believe he cannot be extradited and, therefore, he cannot be brought to book. If another fraud happens, the fraudster would, obviously, run away to some foreign country.
When there were acquittals in the 2G scam, you tweeted challenging that those acquitted should sue the Comptroller and Auditor General and all others who slandered them for indulging in corruption. Why did you challenge them?
Acquittal does not necessarily mean the accused were innocent. It means the prosecutor was either incompetent or did not produce evidence in the court. If the latter is the case, then the prosecutor might be complicit. Those who say they are innocent on the basis of being acquitted by the court, they should sue the CAG [Comptroller and Auditor General] and others who milked the scam in 2013-’14. They are wealthy and powerful and can very well afford to sue those people who defamed them. What stops them from doing that?
You have also tweeted favouring state funding of elections. Is it because you think elections are the principal reason why corruption is so pervasive in India?
Yes. I am completely opposed to corporate funding of elections. Corporate funding of elections should be made a criminal offence. Corporates are not voters. Not all shareholders give consent to their board of directors to donate money to political parties. These donations do not come free. The cost to the nation is very high.
That is because corporate donors expect the government to frame policies favouring them, right?
Yes. Corporates do not vote. It is the individuals who vote. State funding of elections is not rocket science. Like the education cess or the health cess, we can impose 1% election cess. The money collected from the 1% election cess should be sufficient to fund elections. The fund should be placed at the disposal of the Election Commission. The EC can evolve appropriate criteria for distributing funds amongst contesting candidates.
The problem is that politicians will still spend over and above the funds they get from the Election Commission.
No, murders and other crimes occur despite the offences existing in the Penal Code. Likewise, funding of political parties or contesting candidates by persons other than voters should be made a penal offence.