Alapan Bandyopadhyay: Why a chief secretary can’t make excuses

Alapan Bandyopadhyay, by all accounts, is the last person one would imagine in the middle of a political controversy. In a state known for its sharply contested, at times violent, political space, the former West Bengal chief secretary seemed to possess the skills to not just stay out of trouble, but also endear himself to whoever controlled the levers of authority in Kolkata – be it CPM in the past or Trinamool today.

But inexplicably on May 28 at Kalaikunda, when the Prime Minister visited West Bengal, those skills deserted him. He found himself in an unenviable position to choose between the PM and the Chief Minister. Bewilderingly, instead of astutely navigating past the dilemma, as would have been expected of a seasoned civil servant like him, he actually ended up choosing the CM over the PM — thus creating a rare precedent, where none existed.

Worse, he did not even get another senior official to fill in, make a presentation to the PM on Cyclone Yaas and project state’s requirements. There are over half a dozen additional chief secretaries in the West Bengal government who could have been deployed. After all, central assistance is vital to any state dealing with a natural disaster.

The entire episode, thus, puts the spotlight on the office of the chief secretary. It’s the job of the person holding this office to ensure that daily administrative work with the centre goes on regardless of the political entity in power. It’s what we loosely call the ‘system’. And inadequate as it may be, it’s this frame that runs wheels of administration on a daily basis, prioritizing the essential from the necessary and the desirable.

For instance, when political temperature were high in Delhi NCR over oxygen supplies and the matter also reached the courts, it was this silent frame which eventually managed matters on the ground. The chief secretaries of Delhi, UP, Haryana and Rajasthan were asked to set aside political, legal constraints and coordinate among themselves to put things back on track until availability improved.

To deliver despite political contradictions and compulsions is the job of a civil servant. It can be testing no doubt, but then that’s the job profile. This system has seen the highs of central authority, navigated the coalition era when regional parties acted tough on the Centre and so on. Yet through all of that an Alapan Badyopadhyay-like precedent is not found, simply because even if they occurred, they were effectively handled.

Somehow, Bandyopadhyay failed. He could neither explain the administrative nuances to the CM and gain her consent to brief the PM, nor could he make alternate arrangements for the PM to get an overview, let alone conveying the state’s urgent requirements.

Quite frankly, protocols, rules and propriety aside, this reflects serious administrative incompetence. And somewhere linked to this is the question of lack of professional exposure. Bandyopadhyay never served in the Centre. In fact, he has barely served outside the Kolkata-Howrah-24 Parganas catchment.

The rancorous politics aside, it makes sense that some basic criteria are laid out for anyone occupying the office of the chief secretary. Logically, it ought to be held by someone who has a more rounded profile, experienced in the functioning of both centre and the state. After all, it’s incumbent on this office to ensure that constitutional decorum between the centre and state is maintained at all times.

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