For bureaucrats these are the best of times, and the worst. On the one hand they rule supreme with all MPs, Ministers, MLAs and judges cowering at home behind their masks, and can lock down millions of people with a stroke of their pens. On the other, they can be transferred or superseded equally quickly with one spray of the sanitiser if the Corona does not behave itself. For the fact is that our bureaucracy is subject to an even more deadly virus of its own- the GOTCHA (Get Off That Chair) virus- which circulates freely in its bloodstream, pulling down the unwary. This virus targets not the host but his/her post, it mutates with each change of a Prime Minister or Chief Minister, and only a few can develop immunity to it (ask Mr. Khemka, who I believe has been struck down by it at least 45 times so far and is yet to acquire herd immunity to it). Social distancing does not help because it’s one’s own cadre mates who carry the pathogen. Originally native to politicians, the virus jumped from them to “homo prostratus” (the generic term for Indian bureaucrats) sometime after 1975. It does not kill them, however, it simply makes them hang on to their posts, or hanker after those of other colleagues.There are, however, some moments in one’s career when one is most vulnerable to it, as I have learnt through long exposure to it.
Studies show that 70% of airline accidents take place during the process of landing and take-off. That’s because things are most likely to go wrong precisely when an existing status quo is altered and new dynamics are introduced. It is the same with the civil services, I have noticed: the maximum turbulence occurs at the moment of transfers- the handing over and taking over of charge of a post, a period of transition which has to be handled with extreme care by those piloting the nation, as it were. More often than not, dog fights can break out, for IAS types, like the tiger, are territorial in nature and do not look kindly on rivals trying to elbow their way into a lucrative patch. One must always be on high alert at such moments to preempt a hijack or forcible ejection from the cockpit.
I myself have generally cruised through my career on auto-pilot, sleeping at the controls, and have not had too many instances to complain about, primarily because I was rarely assigned the greener pastures owing, I must confess, to my proclivity to quote Confucius in my file notings (eg. on a Ministerial diktat to exempt taxis from installing meters – ” It takes many nails to build a crib but only one screw to fill it.”) But there will be the odd slip now and then, and sometime in the first decade of this millennium I was, as a result of an oversight by the Chief Minister, posted as Secretary Tourism. Now, Tourism is a much sought after assignment in Himachal- you get to stay in fancy hotels, go abroad for tourism marts, bump into nubile starlets shooting at Manali, obtain a lot of IOUs from important folks in Delhi; why, you may even, like Mr Amitav Kant, become CEO of Niti Ayog on the strength of a well devised slogan like ” God’s own country!” (even though God himself may be aghast and disown the country). But I hope you get the thrust, as Jack the Ripper was fond of telling his victims.
I was into my second year in the department, looking forward to an impending tourism mart in Bali, when the government changed and all Secretaries were asked to attend the swearing-in (why do they call it that?) of the new Cabinet in the Raj Bhavan at ten o’clock. I dusted off my “bandh galla”, hot footed it to the Raj Bhavan, dutifully wagged my tail at the new Chief Minister and returned to my office to draw my foreign exchange for the Bali trip (I had already purchased the swimming trunks and dark glasses). I should have bought a jock strap, however, for when I entered my room I found a lady officer sitting in my chair, brandishing a transfer order: in a midnight coup our current President would be proud of, she had had herself appointed as the Tourism Secretary and had “taken over” while I was singing hosannas to the rising sun in the Governor’s mansion. It was a lesson learnt the hard way: always lock your room when going for a swearing in, or at the very least remove the rug so that it cannot be pulled from under your feet. This was my Kamalnath moment and I slunk off to the Ayurveda deptt. (my new posting) for some much needed first aid. I’m told that in later years this enterprising lady tried something similar with the then Chief Secretary. This gentleman, however, had read his Confucius (“Man who bend over backward cannot keep eye on own backside”) and lived to wag his tail another day.
Not every officer, however, is willing to throw in the towel so easily. I recollect a sturdy Sikh gentleman who occupied one of the most sought after posts in Shimla, its office located in a heritage building bang in the middle of the Mall road. He spent a few happy years there and in the fullness of time the day of his retirement dawned. His successor arrived to relieve him of his onerous burden but this gentleman refused to “hand over” charge! He insisted that the Chief Minister had assured him of a six month extension in service, and since he was a trusting kind of fellow, he fully believed the CM’s words. Problem was that the CM was abroad and could not be contacted. The retiree would not heed any advice of his seniors, he locked himself up in his office, brought in his sleeping bag and a shot gun and prepared for a siege, as it were. The Chief Secretary considered sending in an emissary- they are called interlocutors in these Shaheen Bagh days- to reason with him but, given that he was almost seven feet tall and weighed 200 pounds with or without his jock straps, no volunteer was forthcoming- there are, after all, no gallantry awards in the IAS, only reemployment, but one has to be in one piece to avail of that, you understand. The impasse lasted almost a week: it ended when the officer’s PA informed him that he would get neither pay nor pension for this period, for he was neither in service nor retired, neither fish nor fowl- a bit like that old Ajit joke about a guy hung upside down with his head in a jar half full of water: ” Paani tumhe jeene nahi dega aur oxygen tumhe marne nahi dega.” The crisis was quickly resolved and the reluctant retiree hauled himself off to Punjab where he raises broilers, but now he makes it a point to count his chickens only after they are hatched.
And then there was the case of the income tax officer who had devised his own ” shukrana” slabs for favourably deciding assessment cases, colloquially known as “sircharge” because the proceeds went to “sir” and not to the govt. This accounting sub-head was not regarded well at headquarters and he was placed under suspension. The chappie, however, had a trick or two up his own sleeve: he collected a dozen or so pending files and had himself admitted to an obliging private hospital where he promptly went into a self induced coma. This coma amounted to a full stop for the department, however, because the officer was now in no position to hand over his charge and, more important, the files of his office! No inquiry was possible in this limbo. The stalemate continued for a few weeks. Once in a while, when no visitors were allowed, the officer would surreptitiously emerge from his coma, sign a couple of files to extract some more “sircharge”, and promptly relapse into a coma. I am not aware how this saga finally ended, but I would not be surprised if he has by now joined a major political party where such skills are in great demand.
One could do no better than end this piece with another Confucius quote: “Bureaucrat in coma is pain in the colon.”