The stand-off between the political executive and the top rungs of the administration in Delhi is disturbing and quite unfortunate. It is unprecedented that a chief secretary was summoned in the dead of night and allegedly assaulted by MLAs of the ruling party in the home and presence of the chief minister. Acting on Delhi Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash’s complaint in February, the police registered a first information report against an Aam Aadmi Party MLA and others. The party has denied such an incident took place.

In India, there are scores of incidents of unwarranted humiliations or insults being hurled by politicians on officers of the Indian Administrative Service but assaulting the head of administration is clearly unheard of and unacceptable. Rightly, therefore, the IAS officers have said enough is enough and are showing their hurt, which has been interpreted as their being “on strike”. This, in turn, has resulted in a “counter-strike” by the chief minister and his senior colleagues, who have conducted a sit-in protest at the lieutenant governor’s official residence for over a week now.

There has been no clarity on the facts of the case. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has alleged that the IAS officers have been on strike for four months and have not attended any meetings or carried out instructions issued by ministers in the Delhi government. The IAS officers have unhesitatingly denied these allegations. On Sunday, they addressed a press conference to dispel what they called “misinformation” being spread that they were on strike and said they were working as usual, attending meetings and carrying out inspections. Soon after, Kejriwal appealed to the IAS officers to “return to work”, noting that they had “expressed concerns about their safety” at the press conference and assuring them that he would “ensure their safety and security”. He tweeted:

The lieutenant governor, the Centre’s representative in Delhi whom the Aam Aadmi Party accuses of backing the IAS officers, has said that the chief minister and his cabinet are on dharna over a non-existent issue and he, therefore, sees no reason to intervene.

In the absence of any investigative reports and fact checks by the media, which are merely repeating the statements made by various sections, people are confused as to what the truth is. One explanation being proffered is that the Aam Aadmi Party is simply using the officers’ distress to play a larger political game against the Central government in general and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular. The state government’s constant pleas for Modi to make “one phone call” to end the impasse, and the fact that four chief ministers of Opposition-ruled states have expressed solidarity with their Delhi counterpart are being cited as evidence of such a strategy.

Public service above all

Whatever the political motivations, the one institution that can put an end to this impasse is the lieutenant governor. He has the stature, power, authority and the primary responsibility to do so. His inaction is the reason for the various rumours and conspiracy theories flying around what is a relatively simple matter. In all this, governance is being affected in the state he is heading.

The Aam Aadmi Party has much to explain. Their behaviour against the chief secretary, who by all counts is an outstanding officer, is condemnable. It is only appropriate that the chief minister tenders an apology to the chief secretary and assures the bureaucracy that such incidents will not happen again. Such an action would only enhance his stature and standing, without which no chief minister can function. But this can be achieved only by the lieutenant governor who can use his powers and standing in the current scheme of things to get the chief minister and the chief secretary to sit across with him and sort the matter out.

The IAS officers enjoy a constitutional privilege that entitles them to powers and perks that no others receive. With power comes responsibility – of being in service of the Constitution and the nation. Public service must come first. This then implies that, no matter what the provocation, they have to rise above the situation. Therefore, it is required of the chief secretary as head of the administration, for the sake of public good, to intervene with the lieutenant governor and find an amicable solution to the impasse.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his ministers on dharna in the waiting room at Raj Niwas, the lieutenant general's official residence. (Credit: @sharmanagendar / Twitter)

Sardar Patel’s words

The incident in Delhi assumes importance because it sets a precedent that can have serious implications for the functioning of a federal structure, far beyond the tussle between the Aam Aadmi Party and the state’s bureaucrats. What if a Central government – which is the cadre-controlling authority for all Central services (the IAS, the Indian Police Service, Indian Forest Service and the Indian Foreign Service) – encouraged and provoked such behaviour in states ruled by Opposition parties? And what if state governments refused to implement Central government policies? The list can go on, with the potential to hurt the functioning of the Centre and the states and the principles of federalism that rest on the foundation of equality between the two.

It would be instructive at this point to recall how Vallabhbhai Patel advised his colleagues not to “quarrel with the instruments with which you want to work” even as he told the civil servants that they were “… pioneers in the Indian Service and the future of this service will depend much upon the foundations that will be laid down by you, by your character and abilities and by your spirit of service”. Sardar Patel passionately believed that “a country without an efficient Civil Service cannot make progress inspite of the earnestness of the people… They may make or mar the efficiency of the machinery of administration, a machinery so vital for the peace and progress of the country”. Fighting stiff opposition to the continuance of the Indian Civil Services in independent India, he argued, “I wish to assure you that… in the point of patriotism, in point of loyalty, in point of sincerity and in point of ability you cannot have a substitute…”

Patel went on to say:

“… The permanent executive is appointed by a different procedure and does not necessarily belong to the party in power. It maintains the continuity of the administration and the neutrality in politics that characterises the civil servants who constitute the permanent executive and accounts for their efficiency. While the ministers, generally, cannot claim any expert knowledge about the technique of administration and the details of the administrative departments, the civil servant, as a body, are supposed to be experts in the detailed working of government.”

That then settles the matter. Solving this deadlock is clearly the onerous responsibility of the lieutenant governor, who is a professional civil servant and knows governance. It is his duty and obligation to point out to inexperienced politicians how to govern and conduct themselves. I think that is what veteran bureaucrats like LP Singh or BG Deshmukh would have done. For not doing so would be to let down the immense faith Sardar Patel placed in the civil service. The lieutenant governor has a special obligation to the civil service that he belongs to, to uphold the service tradition. On the other hand, with the growing perception among politicians that winning an election gives them the licence to misbehave with citizens, doctors or officers, there is a need to expose them to the constitutional debates on federalism and the Constitution itself.

K Sujatha Rao is former Union Secretary, Government of India