B S Raghavan

Subtleties of bureaucratic practices

B. S. RAGHAVAN | Updated on September 28, 2011

The Office Memorandum (OM) No.F.No.3/11/2011—Inf(Part) dated March 25, 2011 of the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), Ministry of Finance, sent under the signature of Dr P. G. S. Rao, Deputy Director, Infrastructure & Investment Division of the DEA to Ms Vini Mahajan, Joint Secretary, Prime Minister's Office (PMO), says that it is enclosing “a copy of the basic facts prepared on the allocation and pricing of 2G spectrum”.

Some sections of the media, including The Hindu, have erroneously stated that “The covering letter to Mr Rao's note says: “Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee approved the note after personally inspecting the 11-page document.”

The covering letter says no such thing. It only states that “This has been seen by the Finance Minister.” In this column, I shall not go into the merits of the contents of the enclosure which purports to give a “chronology of basic facts”.

Nor will it be my effort to find answers to the questions which had wormed their way into the lexicon of every commentator or investigator after the Watergate scandal: Where is the smoking gun and who was found to be holding it? Who knew what, and how much, and when?

The matter is in the safe and competent hands of the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court, and their eagerly awaited findings will no doubt bring a lot of clarity to the general public's understanding of the true state of affairs. At this stage, I am only sharing with readers my knowledge of the subtleties and intricacies of bureaucratic usages and practices.

I find it necessary to do so as fair-mindedly and dispassionately as I can, because in all my nearly six decades of having served as a bureaucrat and dealt with bureaucracies both in India and abroad, I have never seen more heat generated and a more exhaustive exegesis of a text undertaken than in the case of this OM and its enclosure. Particularly, the word “seen” has been subjected to minute scrutiny as to its precise connotation.


First, an Office Memorandum, in official parlance, is taken to be a solemn and weighty document carrying with it the authoritative stamp of the Department or Ministry issuing it. It is not to be mistaken for a mere note of the kind confined to files or handed by officials to each other by way of interpreting, clarifying, explaining or elaborating an issue.

The person signing it, whether with or without its being seen by his superiors, does so on behalf of the Ministry/Department concerned, regardless of whatever rank, title or designation is held by him. So long as the OM is reflective of the settled stand of the Ministry, the signatory can be an Under-Secretary or sometimes even a Section Officer.

Thus, the OM on spectrum pricing, even without an express reference to the Minister having seen it, is to be viewed as an authoritative exposition of the Ministry's perspective on various stages of dealing with the issue by Ministries, Departments or agencies involved.

In this case, the official has taken the additional precaution of adding that the OM has been seen by the Finance Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee. No official of a Ministry, however high, will dare to make such a categorical statement without its being actually shown to the Minister with a clear indication of the office (PMO) to which it was being sent and with an explicit mention of the fact of the Minister having seen it on the body of the OM

It is always open to the Minister to stop its dispatch if he did not agree with it. The unambiguous meaning of his permitting its issue is that he has approved its contents. This is a principle that harks back to British days and is followed in every well-oiled bureaucracy even today.

Hence, any attempt on the part of Mr Mukherjee or the Government to quibble their way out of a centuries-old universally-accepted practice will deal a mortal blow to the harmonious relations based on trust and confidence that should prevail between Ministers and civil servants.

Published on September 28, 2011

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