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Concerns Raised Over Engaging Civil Servants in Activities that Influence Voters

E A S Sarma, former Secretary, GoI, and Jagdeep S. Chhokar, former Dean of IIM Ahmedabad, write open letters to President and CEC highlighting concerns.
Women cast their votes for Panchayat elections at a polling station, in Nadia district of West Bengal, Saturday, July 8, 2023

Women cast their votes for Panchayat elections at a polling station, in Nadia district of West Bengal, Saturday, July 8, 2023. Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI

New Delhi: In a letter addressed to the President of India, Droupadi Murmu, two eminent individuals, E A S Sarma, a former Secretary to the Government of India, and Jagdeep S. Chhokar, the former Dean of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, have expressed deep concern regarding the recent actions of the political leadership at the Centre with regard to civil servants being made ‘Rath Prabharis’.

Sarma and Chhokar assert that these actions blur the line between the party in power and its role as the head of the executive, potentially giving an unfair advantage to the ruling party in the upcoming State Assembly elections.

They have highlighted the Department of Personnel's instructions to various ministries to nominate senior officers as "District Rath Prabharis" to participate in the "Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra" from November 20, 2023, to January 25, 2024. This Yatra coincides with the forthcoming State Assembly elections, and the move is seen as an unprecedented move where officers of various ministries, including the Ministry of Defence, are to be engaged in showcasing the government's achievements on the eve of elections. 

“The Department of Personnel, vide 1-28047/8/2023 dated 17-10-2023 seemed to have instructed all Ministries to nominate 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″, a time frame that immediately precedes the ensuing State Assembly elections and overlaps the electioneering period. Several Ministries, including the Ministry of Finance (Department of Revenue) and the Ministry of Defence, have issued instructions based on it,” the letter reads.

These actions are considered to be inconsistent with the apolitical role that civil servants are expected to play and potentially infringe on the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), which should attract urgent attention from the Election Commission of India (ECI).

They emphasise that the civil services in India have a historical commitment to maintain impartiality and incorruptibility in administration and not participate in politics. They also cite relevant conduct rules prohibiting government servants from taking part in any activity likely to exert undue influence on the electorate.

The concerned citizens have pointed out that deploying Central government officers for electioneering activities during an election in which Union Ministers are contesting could potentially lead to disqualification under the relevant election laws.

In addition to these concerns, they highlight the wider implications of the Centre's actions, which could set an unhealthy precedent for political leaders in each state going for elections to follow suit, thereby undermining democratic values and causing irreversible erosion of democratic principles.

Call for Urgent Action from the Election Commission

In a separate letter addressed to the Chief Election Commissioner, Shri Rajiv Kumar, and Election Commissioners Shri A C Pandey and Shri Arun Goel, E A S Sarma has written in continuation of his previous letter dated October 21, 2023.

He reiterates his concerns regarding the violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) by the instructions issued to nominate senior officers as "District Rath Praharis" to showcase the government's achievements just before the State Assembly elections. He calls upon the Election Commission of India (ECI) to act as an independent authority under the Constitution to ensure that the elections are conducted in a free and fair manner.

Furthermore, Sarma raises issues related to public servants engaging in activities that influence voters, which contravene the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules and Indian Penal Code (IPC). He emphasises that government servants should not participate in or assist any political movement in India, per the Ministry of Home Affairs Office Memorandum dated October 10, 1949.

He also points out that at least four Union Ministers are contesting the State assembly elections, and deploying Central government officers for canvassing for the ruling political parties would likely lead to their disqualification under relevant election laws.

Sarma highlights the dangerous precedent set by the Central government's actions, potentially incentivising political leadership in other states to follow suit, which could lead to anarchy and an erosion of democratic values.

He urges the ECI to act urgently to prevent any political party from gaining an undue advantage in the upcoming State Assembly elections. Sarma states that the Commission's failure to fulfil its responsibilities as envisaged under Article 324 and the relevant election laws would be detrimental to the core democratic values enshrined in the Constitution. He emphasises the importance of open public discussion and debate on these concerns.

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