State of Governance IV: Did Politics Outweigh Administrative Reasons In Chief Secretary Suresh Mahapatra Getting Extension?

Bhubaneswar: The Naveen Patnaik government’s recent decision to grant six-month extension to Suresh Chandra Mahapatra as Chief Secretary (CS) beyond his age of superannuation due in February-end has triggered discussions in the power corridors on what could have fuelled the move.

The fact that Naveen, helming the government for the fifth consecutive term, for the maiden time in his nearly 22 years as CM, chose to give the CS an extension has given rise to speculation that there is more to it than meets the eye. On January 13, the Centre gave its consent to the state government’s proposal. Incidentally, the last (possibly the only Odisha CS ever) to have got an extension was R N Das when the then CMs Biju Patnaik and subsequently J B Patnaik gave him three extensions of six months each in the mid-nineties.

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“Extension of service is always an avoidable tool. It affects legitimate aspirations of juniors; it promotes favouritism. Maybe this decision was justifiable in the present circumstances; but then this principle could have been followed in the DGP’s case as well,” retired IAS officer Prasanna Mishra noted.

“The central government of late is extending a Cabinet Secretary’s term almost as a routine. This policy is influencing states as well,” he told Odisha Bytes.

What then could have propelled Naveen to stick to Mahapatra, a 1986-batch IAS officer, as the state’s top bureaucrat at least till August-end? Here are some plausible reasons based on information with Odisha Bytes and speculation in different circles:

1). Replacement Not Ready: The frontrunners, going by sources in the higher echelons of the administration, to succeed Mahapatra were Rajesh Verma, a 1987 batch IAS officer who is currently on central deputation and serving as Secretary, Corporate Affairs, and Development Commissioner Pradeep Kumar Jena, a 1989 batch IAS officer.

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Going by the Odisha IAS cadre list, at least five officers (G V Venugopal Sarma, Sudershan Pal Thakur, Tuhin Kanta Pandey, Nikunja Kishore Sundaray and Raj Kumar Sharma) are between Mahapatra and Verma in terms of seniority. Similarly, C J Venugopal, Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra and Parag Gupta are between Verma and Jena.

However, sources said the top bosses in the government were inclined to bring Verma as the CS because he had previously served as Principal Secretary to CM and the powers that be are reportedly more comfortable working with him. But Verma is understood to have sought more time before he could shift from New Delhi to Bhubaneswar. Jena, though believed to be on good terms with a powerful group of the ruling coterie, is said “not to enjoy the same confidence”.

2). Panchayat & Municipal Elections: With the three-tier rural polls scheduled in February and the municipal elections likely to follow in a few months, the ruling BJD possibly preferred status quo over change. “A new incumbent would need time to settle down. Besides, everyone has his or her own style of functioning. Perhaps that could be a reason why the government chose to go for continuity,” opined a senior bureaucrat, wishing anonymity. “The move could also be aimed at stopping someone from getting elevated,” quipped another well-placed babu. Will then the ruling dispensation go for a new CS post-August? “One has to see if this six-month extension gets further extended to facilitate any particular junior favourite to get the assignment,” pointed out Mishra, a former Union coal secretary.

3) Political Transition: This could well be the most important factor that tilted the scales in Mahapatra’s favour. As such there is little secret that politics outweighs administrative considerations when it comes to crucial decision-making in a democracy like India; Odisha being no exception. Going by speculation, the BJD, which is in a state of transition with younger leaders gradually taking over the party reins, might shift gears to become future-ready in the next few months. Talk of IAS officers taking the political plunge has also gained momentum with Bhubaneswar MP Aparajita Sarangi (BJP), a former bureaucrat herself, in a recent interview to me, stirring the hornets’ nest by throwing a veiled challenge to officers to join politics “instead of engaging in political activities while being in government service, which is a contravention of service rules”. Keeping these in view, those keenly observing the ruling party feel Naveen & Co might have thought Mahapatra can “guard the fort” better while the stage gets set for bigger battles.

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