A temporary truce between the ECI and the NDA government not to take up “Rath Prabhari” campaign in poll-bound States should not give rise to complacency about the future of civil services in India

Shri Rajiv Gauba

Union Cabinet Secretary

Dear Shri Gauba,

You must have closely followed the concerns expressed by some of us about the prudence on the part of the Central government to engage senior officers as “District Rath Prabharis” under their purview to “showcase/celebrate achievements of the NDA government during the last nine years through ‘Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra’ from 20th November 2023 to 25th January 2024″.

Apparently, after a public outcry and complaints before the Election Commission of India (ECI), the ECI and those in the government seem to have arrived at a cosy, truce not to extend the campaign to those States where Assembly elections are scheduled to be held shortly (https://thewire.in/government/pushback-forces-modi-govt-to-climb-down-on-calling-ias-officers-rath-prabharis)

While it may at best be a temporary relief for civil servants, it is only a half measure, as it merely provides a palliative to a far more serious malaise that seems to have already afflicted and spread fast in the body of the civil services in India. Let me clarify that deploying civil servants as Rath Prabharis in poll-bound States violates the election laws, deploying civil servants at any level, anywhere else, at any time, is also undesirable and illegal, as it amounts to engaging civil servants in campaigning for a particular political party and wholesale politicisation of civil services in general.

In this connection, I invite your attention to a letter addressed on the subject to Rashtrapatiji by Prof. Jagdeep S. Chhokar,Former Dean, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) and myself, raising longer-term concerns about politicisation of the civil services and the Constitutional implications of the Rath Prabhari campaign. While a copy of that letter was sent to you, the same may also be accessed in the public domain at https://countercurrents.org/2023/10/open-letter-to-president-of-india-regarding-ruling-party-using-its-power-to-influence-elections/

I would request you to examine each one of the issues raised by us in that letter carefully, as they not only relate to the illegalities arising in the immediate context of the ensuing Assembly elections but also relate to the likely adverse impact of the Rath Prabhari campaign on the 2024 Parliament elections and, more importantly, the irreversible damage that such a campaign will cause to the role and the morale of the civil services and the irreparable damage it will cause to the political neutrality of the civil services, that is implicit in Part XIV of the Constitution.As pointed out by us in our letter, it was Sardar Patel, who laid the foundation for the civil services in India. While addressing trainee civil servants on April 21, 1947, he emphasised that they should “maintain the utmost impartiality and incorruptibility of administration. A civil servant cannot afford to, and must not, take part in politics”  It was on that basis that the civil services conduct rules were framed by the government. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived Rath Prabhari campaign involving civil servants makes a mockery of Sardar Patel’s vision.

The civil services, like any other wing of the government, owes its existence to the Constitution. As an instrument provided by the Constitution, it is expected to be seamless time-wise, and politically neutral. Its allegiance is and should be to the Constitution and the rule of law, not to an individual or a particular political party. It is bound by the democratic values implicit in the Constitution. 

With specific reference to the Rath Prabhari campaign, the crucial questions that arise are

  1. Considering that the campaign engages civil servants, why should it be confined to the achievements of the government during the last “nine years” alone? Why should it not cover the achievements during the last seven and a half decades of independent India when the country made progress in leaps and bounds?
  2. If it is a “Rath Prabhari” campaign in which civil servants are to be engaged, whose “Rath” is it? Does it belong exclusively to the NDA government or the system of a seamless governance system that the Constitution has provided?
  3. Why should civil servants be forced to “showcase/ celebrate” the achievements of the NDA government, when the Constitution envisages them to be a politically neutral instrument of continuing governance? The responsibility of the civil services is to administer the policies of the government to the extent they remain consistent with the provisions of the Constitution, not “celebrate” their implementation. Celebrations should lie exclusively within the domain of the political parties.

Considering that the idea underlying the Rath Prabhari campaign exclusively revolves around the NDA government’s so-called “achievements” during the last nine years, inevitably, it has a political connotation. Irrespective of the limited perspective of its implications for the ensuing Assembly and the 2024 Parliament elections, there are far more serious implications with reference to the laws that govern both politicians and civil servants.

As pointed out in our letter cited, under Section 171C of the IPC, “whoever voluntarily interferes or attempts to interfere with the free exercise of any electoral right commits the offence of undue influence at an election“. For any public authority, including the political executive, to coerce public servants into such an activity is therefore punishable not only under the relevant election laws but also under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). 

Under Rule 5(1) of the Civil Services Conduct Rules, 1964, and the corresponding provisions of the Conduct Rules applicable to the All India Services, the Audit and Accounts Service and the other services mentioned in the Ministry of Personnel communication File No. I-28047/08/2023-coord dated 17-10-2023, “No Government servant shall be a member of, or be otherwise associated with, any political party or any organisation which takes part in politics nor shall he take part in, subscribe in aid of, or assist in any other manner, any political movement or activity.

Engaging members of any of the central civil services in the Rath Prabhari campaign, which is clearly political in nature, would therefore infringe the Civil Services Conduct Rule. All those public functionaries including senior civil servants who become a party to engaging other civil servants in this campaign would also be responsible for violating those rules.

I feel concerned about the symptoms of politicisation of the civil services already visible all around. 
It is distressing, for example, to find undue extensions granted by the political executive to those who head crucial institutions involved in governance, including the Central investigation agencies, which in turn compromise their political neutrality and their overall effectiveness. For the civil services to be effective and credible, to be able to invoke public trust, they should remain apolitical and resist any attempt to politicise their rank and file. 

In the long term, politicisation of the civil services is not desirable either for the civil services or for the political executive. Sooner they realise it, the better it is for either of them.

As the head of civil services, I would urge you to appreciate the wider implications of moves such as the ongoing Rath Prabhari campaign for the future of civil services in India and for the well-being of our democracy. 

I sincerely hope that you will consider each one of the concerns expressed by us in our appeal to the President of India and act decisively, and unhesitatingly, keeping in view the long-term interest of our democracy. Failure to do so would amount not only to damaging the political neutrality and effectiveness of the civil services that the Constitution envisages but also to damaging the very fabric of our hard-earned democracy.


Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma

Former Secretary to the Government of India


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