Amitabh Kant is a 1980-batch IAS officer who retired five years ago. Ram Sewak Sharma, his senior in the service from the 1978-batch, retired even earlier in 2015. But these are two men the Narendra Modi government cannot seem to do without, especially in handling key and priority jobs.
Kant bagged his third consecutive extension as the CEO of NITI Aayog on June 29. He was appointed to this position for two years post his retirement in 2016. He got a year’s extension in 2018, a two-year extension in 2019 and a year’s extension now.
In other words, Kant could complete over six-and-a-half years in the same chair by June 2022, which is longer than the maximum tenure of four years that the Cabinet Secretary typically gets.
Kant’s senior, Ram Sewak Sharma, is due for an even longer run since retirement. He was appointed the chairman of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in 2015 for three years and then given an extension of two years until September 2020.
This January, he was first appointed as the chairperson of an empowered committee for the administration of vaccination and then as the CEO of the National Health Authority (NHA) for two years.
Stress on Policy Continuity, Expertise
Senior government officials describe the longevity of these two bureaucrats as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s insistence on “policy continuity” in key government bodies. For example, in NITI Aayog, many projects are works in progress and Modi has complete trust in the “expertise” of the said bureaucrats.
Kant, one official said, who asked not to be named, had impressed the PM during his term as the Secretary, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DPIIT) before his retirement. This is said to have cleared his way to the top job at the NITI Aayog before he was to hang his boots.
Sharma’s work as the chief of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for four years during the launch of Aadhaar in UPA tenure, and as DiETY Secretary after Modi became the PM in 2014 is also said to have registered with the PM. He was recently made the chief of the CoWIN portal to administer vaccine rollout in the country and head the NHA which is handling projects close to the Prime Minister’s heart, Ayushman Bharat free medical insurance and the National Digital Health Mission.
“CoWIN is now a big success story as multiple foreign countries want to adopt it for their vaccination programme, a development which the PM has appreciated,” another government official told Moneycontrol. NITI Aayog has work-in-progress projects like Aspirational Districts Programme and Sustainable Development Goals that need policy continuance, he said.
Both the retired IAS officers have solid credentials too. Sharma completed a PhD from IIT Delhi in 2018, did his Masters in Computer Science from UC Riverside in 2002 and did his Masters in Mathematics from IIT Kanpur in 1976. Kant did his graduation in Economics (Hons) from St. Stephens and Masters from the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
UPA too did it
While critics may scoff at the Modi government for its dependence on retired bureaucrats in the Prime Minister Office (PMO), the truth is the UPA had followed a similar policy. That Congress-led government placed its trusted bureaucrats in key positions in PMO. Shining examples are TKA Nair and Pulok Chatterji.
The UPA government also continued with economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia as Deputy Chairman of the erstwhile Planning Commission (now NITI Aayog) for a decade from 2004 to 2014.
“If a retiring official has the requisite expertise and the energy to continue when he hangs his boots at 60 years of age, it is best to utilize them in contractual positions, which all governments have done,” the official quoted earlier said.
This practice however does cause heartburn among serving bureaucrats and technocrats who eye such plum positions, and put into question the lateral entry plans of the government. “This may raise allegations of favouritism but in the larger scheme of things, it still makes sense as these bureaucrats know how the system works rather than an outsider who will have to start from scratch,” a retired official, who worked on contract, said.At 65, Kant and Sharma keep a punishing schedule. That in many ways measure up to the high expectations and heavy workload demands of the Modi government.