Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is in the crosshairs of the Opposition and ruling parties alike for the alleged high-handedness of bureaucrats in the state.
So grave is the problem that a political analyst remarked that it is high time the CM stems the rot and curbs the tendency of bureaucrats turning ‘autocrats’.
Recently, Bihar social welfare minister Madan Sahni, a JD (U) leader, offered to resign because the additional chief secretary of his department, Atul Prasad, just won’t listen to him.
Sahni, a trusted aide of Nitish, said that he as a minister had given approval to transfers and postings in his department, but the official did not act. The minister also accused Prasad of arbitrariness in the departmental transfer process.
An upset Sahni said, “I’m not here to have a spacious bungalow or a car. I’m here to serve the people who elected me. Forget about the secretary, even the peons don’t bother about us.”
The matter was settled only after Nitish convened a meeting of Sahni and the officer concerned.
Sahni said he had raised the issue of officials not accepting genuine demands of ministers at a meeting of MLAs of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) too. He was backed by former Chief Minister and Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) chief Jitan Ram Manjhi. “About 20 per cent of Bihar’s bureaucracy doesn’t listen to ministers or MLAs,” he alleged.
Surprisingly, Jitan Manjhi’s son, Santosh Manjhi, who is SC-ST welfare minister in the Nitish cabinet, took a different view. “Bureaucrats and officers are all ears to ministers’ advice. I have experienced this. If Sahniji has any grievance, he should have directly approached the chief minister instead of making it a public issue.”
On the other hand, Bihar environment, forest and climate change minister and BJP leader Niraj Kumar Singh said the chief minister should take cognisance of the issue (bureaucratic hurdle) raised by Sahni, causing further embarrassment to Nitish Kumar. Singh said that in the past too legislators have voiced their concerns over officials’ attitude and demanded respect for public representatives.
Another minister, Alok Ranjan Jha, a BJP legislator, expressed his anguish over officialdom in Bihar during a TV interview.
BJP legislator, Hairbhushan Thakur, said that MLAs have been reduced to peons by the babus in the state.
JD-U legislator from Parbatta in Khagaria, Dr Sanjeev Kumar, also demanded immediate removal of the district police superintendent, alleging a threat to his life. In a letter to Nitish, he accused Khagaria SP Amitesh Kumar of having a nexus with criminals.
The issue of “shabby treatment”, meted out to ministers by officers, rattled the state soon after the new Nitish government was sworn in last year.
Mines and geology minister Janak Ram got upset when principal secretary Harjot Kaur remained conspicuous by her absence the day the minister took charge. As the top bureaucrat of the department was not present, Janak Ram, also a former MP, accepted the bouquet from a Class IV employee. Later, Kaur also arrived in the chamber and offered the minister a bouquet which he accepted.
Subsequently, two government employees were suspended for their failure to inform the department about the minister’s arrival schedule.
Bihar Health Minister Mangal Pandey complained to the chief minister about IAS officer Uday Singh Kumawat, the then principal secretary, health department. It happened when the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic was peaking last year. Pandey said, “The officer doesn’t listen to me and only does what he wants to,” Pandey had told Nitish Kumar during a Cabinet meeting. It is another matter that Kumawat was removed from the post later.
RJD, Congress and other opposition parties have attacked Nitish on several occasions for the alleged high-handedness of bureaucrats.
When the government proposed to shorten the budget session of Bihar assembly this year in view of the vaccination drive, Leader of Opposition and RJD leader Tejaswi Yadav said, “It is a ploy of the Nitish Kumar government to avoid facing elected representatives and listen to their grievances against the bureaucracy.”
Is the Nitish regime different from Lalu Raj?
There is a stark difference between Nitish Kumar and former chief minister Lalu Prasad, also RJD chief, if one takes into account their approach towards bureaucrats.
While Nitish is known for giving special treatment to bureaucrats, Lalu, as media reports claim, dealt with babus differently.
It is said that Lalu would publicly ask bureaucrats to prepare khaini (a tobacco concoction) for him. Once an officer delayed fulfilling his wish, to which Lalu said, “You are worthless. If you can’t prepare khaini, how can you run the administration?” The hapless bureaucrat had no choice but to sport a smile.
Another IAS officer, Abhas Chatterjee, resigned after Lalu called him ‘communal and eccentric’ in the state assembly way back in July 1992. Chatterjee had wiped out lawlessness from Bihar University and also cracked down on government officials, responsible for illegal constructions in Patna.
Former IAS officer, Vijoy Prakash, however, said that he never faced any such problem either with Nitish or Lalu. He said that there should be ‘clear’ principles and norms for transfers and postings to avoid any confusion.
There was a very good transfer and posting policy in the early stages of the Nitish regime, but Prakash said he is not aware what policy is being followed now.
Prakash said that bureaucrats should send files to the Chief Minister Office (CMO), chief secretary or other higher authorities by writing their own notings on them if they have difference of opinion with ministers.
Minister-officer face-off impacting governance in Bihar
It is understood that ministers and officers may differ on certain issues, but these differences should not escalate to a confrontation, adversely impacting the governance itself, said an IAS officer on the condition of anonymity.
“Of course, if ministers and bureaucrats do not work in tandem, it will have a bearing on governance,” remarked political analyst Dr Sanjay Kumar.
He said that both bureaucrats and ministers are bound by rules and regulations and they should follow them. He said there is no scope for confrontation if there is a clear transfer policy, adding that ultimately bureaucrats will be held accountable for any wrongdoing. Ministers have to understand and respect rules and regulations and should not approach any issue with any ego or a prejudiced mind, he added.
Nitish’s trusted officers running the show
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar heavily relies on bureaucracy for taking forward his government’s programmes and policies.
Insiders say a group of IAS officers is primarily responsible for execution of Nitish’s pet projects.
Chanchal Kumar, a 1992 batch IAS officer, has been associated with Nitish since the latter was Union railway minister in 1998-99. He is principal secretary to chief minister and is considered as one of the most trusted officers of the Chief Minister.
In September, 2019, Maheshwar Hazari, the state urban development and housing minister was shifted out from the department following his differences with Chanchal Kumar, who was holding the post of secretary in the department. The officer stayed put.
Another of Nitish’s favourite officer, Amir Subhani, was head of the home department for over a decade before he was promoted to the post of development commissioner. Nitish also relies on another IAS officer, Pratyaya Amrit, for promoting infrastructure growth, power connectivity and road construction. Amrit was brought to the health department when COVID pandemic started assuming dangerous proportions last year. Similarly, Anand Kishore is in the good books of Nitish, holding the post of Bihar School Examination Board (BSEB) chairman. Anjani Kumar Singh and Deepak Kumar were appointed advisor and principal secretary to the CM respectively on their superannuation. Both had served as the chief secretary of the state at some point in time.