Keep India’s delicate federal balance intact - Hindustan Times

Keep India’s delicate federal balance intact

May 26, 2023 05:09 PM IST

Dual control of the IAS is at the heart of the federal structure. The Delhi ordinance challenges it. It can create fissures between Centre, states

Promulgated last week, the Government of India’s ordinance to wrest control over services from the Delhi government challenges India’s delicate federal balance. The unique context of Delhi, the blatant partisan politics underlying the promulgation of the ordinance, critical legal technicalities, and bureaucratic accountability have all been the subject of intense debate, including in these pages. There is, however, one critical issue that has received little attention, which lies at the heart of the federal challenge unleashed by this ordinance — the constitutional principle of dual control of the Indian Administrative Services (shared accountability between the Union and state governments) that has since Independence shaped the contours of the administrative architecture underlying our federal schema.

Sardar Patel’s logic for the IAS was powerful, which would ensure adequate state representation in policy decisions taken by the Union(HT Archive) PREMIUM
Sardar Patel’s logic for the IAS was powerful, which would ensure adequate state representation in policy decisions taken by the Union(HT Archive)

In its unanimous judgment of May 11, the Supreme Court (SC) upheld this principle, recognising that a democratically elected government must be able to have control, and hold to account, public officers posted in the service of that government. By appropriating powers for transfers and posting from Delhi, the Centre has subverted this key principle and, in so doing, has taken a step towards transforming India into a unitary, rather than federal state.

The underlying principle of the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) in its original design, as conceptualised by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was for the IAS to serve as the key administrative mechanism for preserving and nurturing national unity and integrity. The All India Services, of which the IAS is the most coveted, was thus designed to be “All India” in name and character. This was essential to keep a check on any fissiparous tendencies that may arise. In this framing, the IAS was designed to organise itself through state cadres. The Union government did not have a dedicated cadre. Instead, it was to rely on a proportion of officers deputed from state cadres.

Patel’s logic was powerful. By anchoring the IAS with state governments, provincial priorities would get adequate representation in policy decisions taken by the Union. At the same time, by coming to the Centre and participating in its administration, state governments would have the opportunity to gain a broader perspective on national challenges. They would also serve, in Patel’s words, as a “liaison between provinces and the government” and introduce a certain “vigour and freshness” in the administration at both levels of government.

To facilitate this administrative exchange between the Centre and state governments, the principle of dual control was embedded into the design and rules of the IAS. Under this structure, accountability is shared between the Union and the state. Cadre management (recruitment, cadre allotment, strength of cadre and emoluments) is under the Central government but through the bulk of their careers, officers are expected to principally serve, and hence, be accountable, to state governments.

Over the decades, a combination of political dynamics and the everyday realities of cadre management (balancing public interest, the needs of the “All India” character of the service, and personal life circumstances of officers) have diluted some aspects of dual control. Data shows that cadre representation at the Centre tends to disproportionately favour some states (Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala and the Northeast) and vacancies at the Centre are substantial.

Moreover, the Centre has often failed to consult states on critical issues such as cadre size and recruitment policy. States, on their part, have enjoyed untrammelled freedom in matters such as transfers and postings. And even when states have misused these powers, the Centre has been wary of intervening. This is how dual control — as a core organising principle for accountability — has been preserved and, in turn, balanced the federal bargain.

In my personal interactions with IAS officers, I have experienced the wide variation in administrative culture across state cadres, something that IAS officers take deep pride in. Each state cadre representative has brought their cadre’s work culture to the Centre, thus, at least in spirit, living up to the rationale laid down by Patel for dual control.

Unfortunately, the political impulse across regimes has increasingly been to encroach on the principle of dual control by finding ways to centralise power. Back in the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi attempted to open a direct line of communication with districts and was pilloried with the slogan “PM to DM without CM” for trying to bypass state governments.

In recent years, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s own centralising tendencies have again fuelled this practice. To improve efficiency, the Centre now plays a visible role in directly monitoring state cadres. Video conferences with district magistrates, meetings with chief secretaries and the aspirational districts programme are all illustrations of the Centre demanding direct accountability from the IAS, without substantial involvement of a state’s elected representatives. But even as these encroachments created the occasional fracas, they were restricted to administrative action, and never overtly challenged the principle of dual control.

By issuing an ordinance, overriding a unanimous SC judgment, to wrest core powers of accountability such as transfers and postings from a state, albeit one with a complicated administrative structure such as Delhi, this basic principle has now been challenged. You could argue, as the Government of India has, that Delhi is unique. But the principle of dual control is core to India’s federal balance. And when this principle is challenged even in one state, no matter how unique, it risks creating a deep federal crisis. How this plays out across the country will determine the future of India’s federal balance.

Yamini Aiyar is president, CPR. The views expressed are personal.

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