Drama at the airport

Quite often an IAS officer's posting in a state is made at the behest of local politicians close to the chief minister, with many an officer unwittingly caught in the crossfire between rival political factions, says former IAS officer Vivek Agnihotri, who retired as the secretary general  of the Rajya Sabha

Former IAS officer Vivek Agnihotri''Sir, the finance minister wants to speak to you''. My personal assistant told me over the intercom.

''Please give me the line'', I said.

In a little while I heard the minister's voice: ''Agnihotri garu'', he said firmly but politely in Telugu, ''please do not hand over charge as the district collector''. 

He went on to explain that a move was afoot to cancel my transfer orders.

''Chustam, sir,'' I replied after hearing him out. It was a standard and stereotyped reply of a typical bureaucrat in situations in which he did not want to commit himself.  It meant, ''I shall see.''

I had been in Visakhapatnam as the collector and district magistrate (CDM) for about six months when another minister had arrived to review the functioning of his department in the district. 

According to the statutory division of work between me and the joint collector who was the officer next in command, the subject of review was part of latter's jurisdiction.  There was, in any case, a whole retinue of staff belonging to the minister's own department stationed in the district. 

But the minister insisted that he would like me be present for the review. 

The minister had been briefed well. At the start of the meeting he reeled out data about the shortfalls in the performance of his department's staff in the district. 

At the end he asked me to explain. I suggested that, with the minister's permission, I would ask the joint collector to respond. 

The minister did not permit, he wanted me to reply. 

Being broadly aware of the problems and issues in the district I tried to make out a case in defence of his staff.  The minister was not satisfied and got up and left the meeting in a huff, saying ''chustam'' as he left.

And ''see'' he did.  A few days later, rumours started floating that I was going to be shifted.  A month or so later, I had to go to Hyderabad to attend a meeting convened by the chief secretary.  It was the month of May. 

At the end of the meeting I sought an audience with the chief secretary.  I met him in his private chamber and asked him whether there was any move to shift me. If there was, I would do the rounds of schools in Hyderabad for the admission of my children in the new session that was about to begin.

The chief secretary smiled and said that there was no truth in the rumours and that I should not worry.  At the end of the brief interaction, while leaving, I said, ''Sir, your predecessor was gracious enough to post me to Visakhapatnam for my first assignment as district collector.  In case the government decides to shift me, please do not post me to another district, because it would seem a demotion.  I would like to have a posting in Hyderabad.'' 

According to a well established convention in Andhra Pradesh those days, officers were posted as CDM, Visakhapatnam, only after they had been CDM of at least one other district.  It must be said to the chief secretary's credit that he honoured this request.

The orders came in September.  I waited for the officer who was to replace me in order to hand over charge to him.  This officer had been the CDM of Visakhapatnam earlier. 

Actually, in a sense, he was a victim of local politics. The district had two groups of the ruling party, ably led by two MLAs.  Depending on which group was in the good books of the chief minister of the day, the concerned MLA used to become a minister in the state cabinet and used to dictate local politics. 

One such leader who then happened to be state cabinet minister had favoured the then CDM. 

The chief minister changed and the mantle passed on to the other MLA, who was the leader of the rival faction; and he sought and obtained a change of the CDM, whom  I had succeeded. 

But again the tables were turned and the previous MLA came into favour and sought the return of the previous CDM, who had been unceremoniously removed. 

I happened be in the seat at that moment and, therefore, came to be unwittingly caught in the political drama, as the group which was out of favour had some well-wishers among the state's ruling elite and attempted to obstruct the move to bring back the earlier CDM.

Several days went by but there was no sign of my replacement. I was in touch with the happenings in Hyderabad's political circles. The news came that the new CDM had come to the airport but was not allowed to board the plane by the supporters of the local group which had got him removed earlier. 

I thought enough was enough. I did not want to be a pawn in the murky game of political chess that was going on. 

I spoke to the chief secretary and sought his permission to hand over charge to my next in command, the joint collector.  He permitted me to do so and I started to complete the formalities for my departure to facilitate the arrival of the officer who had been posted to replace me and thus avoid the embarrassment to the chief secretary of having to retract his earlier orders. 

The finance minister, who had spoken to me earlier, spoke to me again, but I had handed over charge by then.

I reached Hyderabad to take immediate charge of my new assignment in order to make my posting a fait accompli.  As I came out of the arrival lounge at Hyderabad airport, I could hear some commotion in front of the adjoining departure lounge. 

I was later told that the supporters of the group that did not want the CDM-designate back in Visakhapatnam were raising slogans, even as the police stealthily escorted him to the aircraft.