Under normal circumstances, on June 12, Cabinet Secretary PK Sinha would have been relinquishing office on Raisina Hill. But the 1977 batch UP cadre IAS officer has got a second extension till 2019 to remain as the country’s top bureaucrat. This means Sinha will have been cabinet secretary for four years at the end of 2019.

Though it has raised eyebrows, Sinha’s extension is by no means unprecedented. Before him Ajit Kumar Seth and KM Chandrasekhar had also served for four years as Cabinet Secretary.

Before Sinha, an M.Phil in social sciences and a certificate holder in French, got this extension, the corridors of power were buzzing with a list of probables. Finance Secretary Hasmukh Adhia and Petroleum Secretary Kapil Dev Tripathi were among those tipped as most likely to get the top job.

While many feel Sinha’s extension is to ensure stability, others feel it robs bright bureaucrats of career prospects and disrupts the whole chain.

It may be recalled that when Chandrasekhar got an extension in 2009, Sudha Pillai, then labour secretary and seniormost in line, lost the chance of becoming India’s first woman cabinet secretary. Similarly, Sinha’s current extension, many think, has robbed commerce secretary Rita Teotia of the chance of being appointed as cabinet secretary. She was one of the contenders for the post, especially as there has been a clamour of late to have a woman cabinet secretary.

But there are many who defend the government’s move.

All for stability

Talent expert Hemant Sharma, former HR head of Sun Microsystems, says that for such senior positions, it is important to contextualise. “In the case of Sinha, given that he has been given two extensions, one can assume he is doing a competent job. It is also pertinent to note that we have the Lok Sabha elections coming up within a year. Given this, if a new person had been brought in, then he would have taken at least six months to settle down in his/her new role.”

He adds, “The key role of the Cabinet Secretary is to drive implementation of the government policies. It would have impacted and delayed the implementation process of various policies. So extensions do bring stability to the system.”

An argument which BK Chaturvedi, who himself was Cabinet Secretary from 2004-2007, and earlier Secretary in important ministries, agrees with. It was during his tenure that the terms of Home and Defence Secretaries were fixed. He feels that it is more to do with stability.

But, doesn’t it mean killing opportunities for the next in line? Unlike the private sector where a junior can aspire to the top job on the strength of performance, in government, promotions are based on the year of joining. “If there was a greater weightage to performance and the people were clear about this as the main criteria for promotions, then there will be less angst,” says Sharma.

Chaturvedi counters this, saying, “By the time officers reach this level only a few remain in the reckoning so the options are limited.”

Morale dampener

Says Sharma, “Obviously the morale of the next in line would definitely be impacted.” Even if no extensions had been given and one of them selected, those left out would remain demotivated.

Essentially, it’s about one person’s demotivation. “When compared to the priorities of governance, this is a small price,” he says. “Having said that, I think the senior bureaucrats are mature enough to take it in their stride, albeit with some disappointment.”

Jawhar Sircar, a former IAS officer who has held key positions as Secretary at the Centre including as Culture Secretary and CEO of Prasar Bharati, while agreeing with the stability factor, also says that “wherever there is scope for discretion – appointment of Cabinet Secretary and other such important positions, it opens the floodgates for negotiations. So there are bound to be chances of a quid pro quo.”

Make it transparent

“As an HR person I believe that it is important that people should be made well aware of the personnel/HR policies, across the board, including for promotions,” says Sharma, adding that as long as people know the rules, the decision-maker is not being unfair while taking people decisions.

A serving bureaucrat sums it up, when he says, “There is no happy ending here as it is a never-ending story. By giving extensions you are killing the opportunities for at least two batches down the line. Solutions lie within the system. But, who wants to let go?”