Column | How bureaucrat-turned-politicians flew high and fell low as masters clipped their wings

Representational image
Representational image

Former bureaucrats who have joined a political party often stick out like a sore ​thumb unlike other leaders who have come up from the bottom of the organisation or those who are from political families. This oddity is mainly because their entry into politics itself comes when they are in their middle age or even after retirement, and they would have been inducted directly into state legislature or parliament.

Several ex-bureaucrats like the current External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Railways Minister Ashwani Vaishnaw were first made Union Cabinet ministers by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after which they were inducted into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

India's External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar delivers remarks during the fourth U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue at the State Department in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2022. Photo: Michael A. McCoy/Pool/Reuters

Often just before Lok Sabha polls and assembly elections too officials who are close to a party quit close to the date of nomination and are announced as party candidates as the BJP did for Kanpur police commissioner Asim Arun, and Enforcement Directorate officer Rajeshwar Singh, who went on to become MLAs.

Why Nitish dropped former aide

Two bureaucrats close to powerful chief ministers and who parachuted into politics are in the news because they have been denied nomination to the Rajya Sabha. The more galling is the case of Union Minister of Steel R C P Singh, who has had a meteoric rise along with that of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in the last two decades.

Singh, who represents the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) in the Narendra Modi Government, got a shock when he was substituted by a party activist belonging to his caste, putting a question on his future in the party.

Singh, an IAS officer of the Uttar Pradesh cadre, was the private secretary to Kumar and became the leader's right-hand man. Both belongs to the Kurmi caste. When Kumar became the chief minister heading a Samata Party-BJP coalition in 2005, Singh was by his side reshuffling the bureaucracy till then controlled by the Lalu Prasad family. Singh's efficiency and ruthlessness ensured that both the civil and police forces acted as per Kumar's dictates. But serious differences cropped up between two stalwarts of his party — George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav, who had been MPs even before Kumar. The latter duo were presidents of the Samata Party which later — late 2003 — became the Janata Dal (United).

Nitish Kumar, RCP Singh
Nitish Kumar, RCP Singh

As Kumar didn't trust full-time politicians, he inducted Singh into the party in 2010. Soon Singh was entrusted with the charge of its organisational affairs as general secretary and was made its national president in 2020. Their equations were good until Kumar returned to the National Democratic Alliance after a three-year gap. By then Singh was also a powerful member of the Rajya Sabha.

Two years ago when the JD(U) joined the Narendra Modi Government, Singh was the automatic choice for the lone Cabinet minister's post allotted to his party. But Singh found that his wings were clipped as the Steel ministry bureaucracy were very careful, as it happened to ministries given to other smaller allies of the BJP. Further there was resentment among other senior leaders in the JD(U) that all the big posts seemed to be first reserved for Singh, who had never participated in any political struggle nor had taken on main competitor Rashtriya Janata Dal in bihar. There were murmurs that the poor performance of the JD(U) in the 2000 assembly elections was due to Singh's mistakes.

A gulf developed between CM Kumar and Singh as there were whispers that the latter was in touch with BJP's aggressive leaders who wanted Kumar to give chief ministership to one of their leaders as theirs is the bigger party in the coalition. All these developments now have ended Singh's tenure in the Rajya Sabha, and he would have to resign from the Union Cabinet, unless dramatic political developments happen.

A similar case in the Congress

The second bureaucrat who has been upset over denial of a Rajya Sabha ticket is from the Congress. It is Pawan Khera, the national spokesperson who has been close to Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. He was the all-powerful secretary of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit up to 2013, before he moved into the headquarters of the All-India Congress Committee. Even though he was officially called a spokesman, he was involved in party management work also, especially when Ashok Gehlot was general secretary in-charge of the organisation.

Pawan Khera. Photo: PTI

A regular in television debates for the Congress, Khera had told his supporters and media that his nomination to the Upper House from Rajasthan was certain. But when three names were announced, his name was missing. Khera tweeted that there must have been some shortcomings in his "tapasya".

Two contrasting cases in the BJP

Even though there were many former bureaucrats who were looking for favour from the BJP, none have voiced discontentment, knowing that the party's retribution can be irrevocable. Even though R K Singh, a former IAS officer who was the Union home secretary, and General V K Singh, who was the army chief, won the Lok Sabha elections in their early 60s and became Ministers of State in 2014, and again won in the 2019 general election, R K Singh got promoted as Cabinet minister last year. But the former army chief, however, has remained a Minister of State, which has upset his supporters. Since both are Rajputs, the retired General's supporters point out that Singh's contribution to party was bigger as he swung the votes of armed forces personnel, ex-servicemen and their families in favour of Modi, and yet has not been compensated with a Cabinet position. But the former armyman has continued to soldier on.

The fate of a big-time Odisha bureaucrat

Another big-time bureaucrat who flew high and fell low was Pyarimohan Mohapatra of Odisha. The IAS officer was private secretary to Chief Minister Biju Patnaik in the 1990s, and when Biju's son Naveen became the CM in 2000, Mohapatra ran the administration. Mohapatra was described as "super CM" without whose word nothing moved. He had resigned from the government service, joined Biju Janata Dal and became party leader in the Rajya Sabha. But the friendship soured and he was expelled from the party in 2012. (Mohapatra passed away in March 2017.) Patnaik has since then nominating party leaders for Rajya Sabha posts, and given importance to party MPs like Pinaki Misra, Prasanna Acharya and Bhartruhari Mehtab in party affairs. But V K pandian, the IAS officer who is secretary to the chief minister, is now described as his eyes and ears, but steers clear of politics.

Other non-politicos who made a mark

But in the last 75 years, bureaucrats, economists, diplomats, scientists and technocrats have served the government and politicians including former president K R Narayanan, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, atomic energy scientists M G K Menon and Raja Ramanna, former diplomat K Natwar Singh and electrical engineer Sankar Sen, who solved West Bengal's chronic power crisis as long-time chief minister Jyoti Basu's power minister.

Interestingly, the BJP's hopes in tamil Nadu are now riding on the shoulders of a former police officer K Annamalai as he has been made the party's state president. He came to be known as the "Karnataka Singham" for his strict actions during his short service.


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