‘Summoned’ IAS officers Are Pawns In A Political Game

By Sandeep Sahu

Amid the hullabaloo over the two-day national executive meet of the BJP beginning Saturday , a piece of news that would have certainly created a flutter at any other time has not received the kind of attention it deserved. After all, it is not every day that six senior IAS officers, among them some of the supposed ‘blue-eyed boys’ of the Naveen Patnaik government, are served a notice asking for ‘personal appearance’ by a government agency – in this case the Bhubaneswar Development Authority (BDA). [Curiously, some of the officers summoned have headed the agency in the past.]

What explains the notice to these powerful officers in a government that has been accused – not without reason – of leaning rather heavily on bureaucrats? One school of thought attributes the notice to a factional feud within the bureaucracy. Another believes it is the handiwork of an all-powerful bureaucrat, who suddenly finds himself out of favour after the less than satisfactory performance of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in the zilla parishad elections. A third dubs it as an exercise in refurbishing Naveen Patnaik’s image as someone who ‘doesn’t spare anyone’: an image that has suffered a serious dent in his fourth term as Chief Minister.

It is possible that the real reason behind this admittedly extraordinary move is something entirely different. Whatever the actual reason, its significance can hardly be overstated because it marks a decisive change in the way the government treats its bureaucrats. It goes without saying that such a move could not have been taken by BDA – or the Department of Housing and Urban Development that oversees it – without the sanction of the highest quarters in the government.

The timing of the move is significant. It comes at a time when the ruling BJD suddenly finds itself on a sticky wicket in the wake of its below par performance in the panchayat elections, which has given the BJP a tremendous shot in the arm. The notice served on the six officers was based on the Task Force headed by former bureaucrat Tara Dutt, which had been tasked by the government to probe all allotments of plots and houses since January i, 1995 in the Twin City under the thoroughly discredited discretionary quota (DQ). Everyone had thought the damning report by the upright Tara Dutt was dead and buried – like so many other reports, including those by Commissions of Inquiry – when it was fished out all of a sudden.

Of course, the official explanation for the move by the BDA is that the notices for personal appearance were served to the six IAS officers only after they failed to respond to show cause notices served earlier, thereby trying to give the impression there was nothing unusual about it. But as anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the way the wheels of this government move knows, it was anything but a routine move. Even if the notice itself was routine, the speed with which it found its way into the media was not.

It would, however, be a complete misreading of the move to believe that the government has finally got serious about acting tough on those who availed multiple plots and houses in the Twin City for themselves by abusing the discretionary quota provision – or even on the six officers in question. This columnist, for one, is convinced that nothing would come out of it in the long run. Its importance lies in symbolism, in sending out a message to the people that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has rediscovered his will to act tough on wrongdoers, something that has been conspicuously missing since the stupendous victory in the 2014 Assembly elections. Like the sudden outreach to the hoi polloi, this move too is part of an exercise at an image makeover for the beleaguered BJD supremo with the six IAS officers being mere pawns in what is essentially a political game.