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Modi regime’s lengthening reshuffles

It’s been only eight months from the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi met all government secretaries in an atmosphere of bonhomie, soon after taking charge last year.

On June 4, 2014, Modi assured the 75 top bureaucrats that they could reach out to him anytime. The signal that came out was there should be no cause for fear of a bureaucratic reshuffle with the change in regime. Some officials had noted the earlier such meeting with a PM was about eight years earlier.

The initial months of the Modi government were slow in top-level changes. However, these have come over a period of time, sometimes in multiples on a given day (rather, the late evening). As of Wednesday, the count of secretary-level appointments and shuffles since the Modi government took over have crossed 50. The latest are the dismissals of home secretary Anil Goswami and external affairs secretary Sujatha Singh.

Besides new secretaries at both ministries, there were apex changes at the ministries of finance, health, urban development, tourism, labour, housing, coal, steel, disinvestment, defence production, civil aviation, environment, heavy industries, telecom, minority affairs, tribal affairs, panchayati raj, water resources & Ganga rejuvenation, chemicals & petrochemicals, justice, higher education, drinking water & sanitation, and women & child development, among others. Some of the changes, close to 20, were because of secretaries reaching retirement age.

A former secretary told Business Standard: “Any government of the day has the right to choose the head cook.” He added most political regimes believe in bureaucratic reshuffles to pursue their own agenda. In favour of the Modi government, he noted the cabinet secretary, Ajit Seth (1974 batch, Uttar Pradesh cadre IAS), has been given extensions, and that the regime has not rushed to effect big changes. “The couple of secretaries who have been told to go recently are the ones making news,” he said.

Another former secretary recalled how the earlier government, when it came to power in 2004, was much faster in this regard. Soon after taking charge, the Manmohan Singh government had removed then cabinet secretary Kamal Pande (1965 batch, UP cadre IAS), cutting his tenure by five months, appointing B K Chaturvedi (1966 batch, UP cadre) in his place. Among the other top changes in 2004 were shuttling of then defence secretary Ajay Prasad to civil aviation and Home Secretary Anil Baijal to urban development.

Bureaucrats speak of other big-time shuffles. When the Janata government took over after Indira Gandhi’s government was voted out in 1977, many secretaries were sent back to their cadres “in an act of purge”, said an official. When Indira Gandhi came back in 1980, there were again string of changes.

It is tough to say whether the volume of secretary-level changes in the Modi government is higher than in other regimes, especially as retirement is a continuous process, saidan official.

The first major bureaucratic change in the Modi government was in October 2014, when Rajiv Mehrishi (a Rajasthan cadre, 1978 batch IAS) was brought in as department of economic affairs secretary, and later appointed the finance secretary. The then finance secretary, Arvind Mayaram, was moved to tourism and, within days, to minority affairs. More recently, Sujatha Singh (1976 batch, IFS) was replaced as foreign secretary by our ambassador to America, S Jaishankar (1977 batch) and home secretary Anil Goswami (1978 batch, J&K cadre) by department of rural development secretary L C Goyal (1979 batch, Kerala cadre).

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