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Regime change jitters for babus

New Delhi, April 21: The prospect of a new alliance coming to power is keeping many senior bureaucrats on tenterhooks.

The question being asked at New Delhi’s seat of power is whether, if a BJP-led government assumes office, it will remove the Union home and defence secretaries.

Occupants of these two posts have fixed two-year tenures and the incumbents have almost half their terms to complete. But new governments tend not to treat fixed tenures as binding, as previously shown by the Manmohan Singh administration in 2004.

The cabinet secretary — the senior-most bureaucrat — and the heads of the Intelligence Bureau and the Research & Analysis Wing too have fixed two-year tenures. Cabinet secretary Ajit Seth is set to retire on June 14, and several hopefuls are wondering whether the new Prime Minister would go by seniority or pick a favourite.

Sources said that senior officials at Raisina Hill, who now have little to do because a general election is on, have been busy discussing how Narendra Modi might deal with senior civil servants if he becomes Prime Minister.

The external affairs ministry too is expecting major changes if a new alliance comes to power. South Bloc mandarins are wondering how such a government would deal with the new envoys to the US, China and Russia, appointed just a few months before the general election was called.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had pioneered the idea of fixed tenures, giving a two-year tenure to cabinet secretary T.R. Prasad and then to his successor Kamal Pande. In 2006, the United Progressive Alliance government extended the privilege to four other posts.

However, after coming to power in 2004, one of the first acts of the Manmohan Singh government was to remove Pande as cabinet secretary and shunt out 25 other senior bureaucrats manning the home and other key ministries.

The BJP had protested against Pande’s transfer citing his fixed tenure, of which he had about a year left to complete. But Singh, himself a former bureaucrat, vetted 10 other senior civil servants’ credentials and chose to replace Pande with the then petroleum secretary, B.K. Chaturvedi.

Pande was sent to the Inter-State Council secretariat, considered a bureaucratic purgatory.

Among the others transferred were home secretary Anil Baijal and Intelligence Bureau director K.P. Singh, who was viewed as close to then deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. K.P. Singh, however, had only a little over a month left before his retirement.

The 2006 amendment that fixes a two-year tenure for the home and defence secretaries and the intelligence chiefs invokes “sustained continuity”, the “public interest” and the need to provide better administrative delivery.

Prime Minister Singh himself favours a fixed tenure for senior bureaucrats on the ground that most secretary-level officials do not get enough time to get a grip on their ministry. By the time they begin to understand their ministry’s functioning, they are shifted to another ministry.

Most bureaucrats accept the need for fixed tenures in key posts but some others feel that the rule gives the political class another handle to keep their favourites in strategic positions for longer periods, scuttling the chances of those they don’t like.

A bureaucrat is allowed to complete his fixed tenure even if it stretches beyond his stipulated date of retirement.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) too is preparing to bid farewell to several senior officials.

Manmohan Singh’s personal assistant Vikram Mistry, a 1989-batch Indian Foreign Service officer, will now be posted as ambassador to Spain.

Indications are that another of Singh’s personal secretaries, Indushekhar Chaturvedi, an IAS officer from the Jharkhand cadre, will get an assignment at the International Monetary Fund.

Arindam Bagchi, a director-level official, is set to take over as deputy high commissioner in Colombo.

Three top PMO officials — principal secretary Pulok Chatterjee, national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon and the adviser to the Prime Minister, T.K.A. Nair, would quit office the day Singh steps down as they have retired from service.

Nair and Menon enjoy the status of ministers of state. Menon plans to settle down in Chennai.