B S Raghavan

Hold civil service top brass to account!

B. S. RAGHAVAN | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on April 30, 2013

In the manner the PMO has evolved and functions, it is now a bloated bureaucracy whose minions clutter up the processes of decision-making.

An immensely puzzling aspect of all the scams inflicted on the people of India — the Commonwealth Games scam, the 2G scam, the Coalgate scam and God knows what else is waiting to tumble out of the cupboard — is the ironclad immunity from any kind of disciplinary action continuing to be enjoyed by the Cabinet Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Not one report emanating from any of the committees of Parliament, Comptroller and Auditor-General, submissions before courts of law, or even the lynx-eyed media makes a reference to the exact role performed or not performed by the Cabinet Secretary or the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and the panjandrums in their secretariats. Nor do they fix responsibility on any of them for letting the scams happen.

One would have expected the members of parliamentary committees reporting on the scams would first go into the degree of efficiency and responsibility with which the top civil service brass carried out their duties.

In not doing so, they perhaps act on the presumed principle of cabinet system of government under which the Minister bears the ultimate responsibility for all the decisions of his Ministry, including those taken by subordinate officials under their delegated powers and without his specific approval.

If so, it is high time this principle was explicitly given the go-by, especially in regard to cases involving grave negligence or unconscionable and unacceptable deviations from the cardinal precepts of prudence and propriety that have involved enormous wastage or misuse of funds or posed dangers to national security or overall national interest.


I comment here on the Cabinet Secretariat and the PMO with an awareness born out of myself having been the Cabinet Secretary at the State level in my capacity as Chief Secretary and having observed the working of the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat at the Centre at close quarters for two decades.

Let us take the Cabinet Secretary. He is the adviser of the first resort to the Prime Minister and the topmost functionary whose duty it is to coordinate action on vitally important issues, in crises and emergencies, that arise from time to time. For this purpose, he chairs several functional committees of concerned secretaries.

Most importantly, he is the one who is meant to ensure that all matters taken before the Cabinet have been comprehensively and properly examined by the respective Ministries and the proposals made are in order and will not result in any transgression of laws, rules and laid down procedures or embarrassment to the Government.

This is the duty squarely cast on him and he is required to discharge it by asking the appropriate questions well in advance of the papers being placed before the Cabinet. In suitable cases, where he is dissatisfied, or in disagreement, with the way any matter of moment is being handled, he is expected to draw the Prime Minister’s attention and obtain his specific orders.

I am convinced that none of the scams would have reached the proportions it has if the Cabinet Secretary had performed his duties in line with his role.

The problem with the PMO is that all those working in it, beginning from the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister downwards, are selected on the basis of the proclivities and preferences of an individual (Prime Minister) and owe their allegiance to him as an individual.

Actually, when there is already a Cabinet Secretariat which is the adviser and conscience-keeper of the Government and the Prime Minister, there should be no need for a PMO. Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri got along very well without it.


All that the PM needs is a small complement of two or three Joint Secretary level officials, one for appointments, another for travel arrangements and the third to monitor and follow up on the progress of decisions that had been taken and any instructions the Prime Minister might give. I have heard, in my time, many Cabinet Ministers enthusiastically subscribing to this view.

In the manner the PMO has evolved and functions, it is now a bloated bureaucracy whose minions second-guess on files sent to the Prime Minister by Ministries, keep tossing them up and down and sideways, and clutter up the processes of decision-making.

This is because there is no transparency and accountability in what they second-guess and what subterranean directions they give and to whom and to what effect.

The second-guessed views are usually presented to the Prime Minister in separate notes to which Ministries have no access or in discussions in which the authorised functionary of the Ministry concerned may not be present.

It becomes very hard to know who in the PMO said what and when, and hold him to account for his negligence and incompetence.

Many have come up with their own prescriptions for preventing the recurrence of scams. I throw in mine for its penny’s worth: Go scrutinisingly into the acts of negligence and omissions in the performance of their duties by the top civil service brass and hold them to account in public view without any compunction and you would have stopped future scams in their tracks!

But, then, how can one expect any such stern action by politicians in power when they could not have prospered in scams but for the same civil service brass?

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Published on April 30, 2013
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