Bureaucracy's 'Subramaniam Swamy'

The book provides interesting insights into the Vadra deal and the repercussions Mr Khemka faced
Journalists Bhavdeep Kang and Namita Kala note in their book Just Transferred The Untold Story of Ashok Khemka  that India’s bureaucrats fall into three broad categories. There are the dishonest and incompetent ones, the dishonest and competent ones and the honest and incompetent ones. Ashok Khemka, a Haryana cadre Indian Administrative Officer (IAS) fell into the rare fourth category. That of an honest and competent bureaucrat “often treated as an oddball and viewed with suspicion by peers.” But was that really the case? 

Though patronisingly written and shoddily edited, Ms Kang and Ms Kala’s book provides a detailed account of Mr Khemka’s administrative career, including his handling of the Robert Vadra-DLF case. Mr Khemka’s punitive action when he was posted as director general of land, records and consolidation in Haryana against Mr Vadra’s alleged misdeeds still defines him in public memory. A significant part of the book is about Mr Khemka’s personal life and early days, but his administrative career is described in detail in the later half. The biggest flaw of the book is the vague narrative that is prominently visible in its operative parts. The authors make sensational allegations against un-named people and then drop them like hot potatoes. 

For instance, Mr Khemka decided to withhold the salaries of doctors he found were largely absent from primary health care centres and came only to collect their salaries, he was subjected to intimidation. The authors describe the threat as coming from “a son of the CM” [chief minister] who ordered him to remit a particular doctor’s salary and said it was impossible to defy the CM’s son. Then an unnamed MLA is described as demanding parole for a relative while Mr Khemka was posted as the deputy commissioner of Jhajjar. The parole is granted after the un-named MLA meets then CM Om Prakash Chautala. The “same MLA” objected to Mr Khemka’s anti-encroachment drive and the authors seem to indicate that this resistance led to his transfer. This was one of 53 transfers in 27 years of service. 

Just Transferred: The Untold Story of Ashok Khemka
Author: Bhavdeep Kang and Namita Kale Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 265
Price: Rs 599
There are serious allegations that the transporters’ association lobbied with Haryana’s “political leadership” to effect another one of his transfers after he decided to blacklist a few of them. There are allegations of one of his transfers being partly due to a “senior Congress leader” who had an interest in a toll bridge project that Mr Khemka had questioned. Then, there is the mention of an unnamed “godman” who approached him to join a new political party after he came into limelight during the Vadra controversy. The pattern the authors set soon becomes familiar: Allega­ti­ons are raised, nobody is named and the book immediately moves to a new event. 

Although the narrative may be flawed, the underlying message of the book  would make anyone question the abysmally low levels of probity in India’s political leadership. The book details the nightmares of a bureaucrat who dares to reform a rotten system and innovate in a rigid bureaucracy. It outlines the perils of decision-making; where those in power can lie with impunity and make a simple and honest administrative decision look like a devious act when their own interests are at stake. 

In many ways, Mr Khemka’s career holds true for many in India’s private sector as well. Young professionals are often encouraged to be the yes-men of their superiors to move ahead in their careers, never question a morally or ethically problematic decision by their bosses. As the authors note, “The witch hunt against him is a sad commentary on the Indian bureaucracy and the corruption therein. His own colleagues have proved all too willing to join hands with degenerate elements to fix an official who not only does not fit the mould but is unwilling to stand by silently while the public exchequer is being pillaged.” 

The book provides interesting insights into the Vadra deal and the repercussions Mr Khemka faced. The book also raises questions on why the  Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which is in power at both the Centre and in Haryana, has failed to act against either Mr Vadra or DLF despite the exposed illegalities. The authors would have found the answer if they had examined the income statements of the BJP over the past few years. Despite being considered by the Modi government for a central posting immediately after coming to power in 2014, Mr Khemka is still in the state where he was posted to the archives department by the Manohar Khattar government in November 2019. Although the book won’t give you the reason, it does offer a scintillating theory. Mr Modi was dissuaded by certain sections of the BJP to not bring Mr Khemka on board because he was the “Subramaniam Swamy of the bureaucracy”. By the looks of it, scam busters as much as scams seem to scare the BJP.   

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