Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is, normally, polite to the core. Social grace, or small talk, may not be his strong point. But friends and foe agree, alike, that he is courteous. “I try not to hurt even a worm, I sidestep it,” he said in the just-concluded monsoon session of MP assembly recently.
Hence, affable Shivraj took everyone by surprise recently when he publicly threatened to “hang upside down” District Collectors if they failed to clear pending land dispute cases.
Warning officers of strict action on pending patta (land ownership right) and demarcation cases, he said: “If they don’t resolve the issue within a month, I would make sure that they are removed. “Collectori karne ke layak nahi chhodunga”, was the colourful phrase used in colloquial Hindi.
Chouhan is being hauled over coal for his comments, and rightly so. The Opposition Congress leaders criticised him for using “inappropriate and intemperate” language against civil servants. Among the bureaucrats, both serving and retired, there is a sense of disbelief.
“I can’t believe that CM could have used those words,” said MP IAS Officers Association chief Radheshyam Julaniya. Commented a former chief secretary: “This is not the language of a chief minister. I suspect he has been watching too many Bollywood movies.” Officers are miffed that it would send a wrong message to BJP workers. “Would not they be encouraged to use similar language against officers,” pointed out a Principal Secretary.
In Madhya Pradesh, political bosses have traditionally enjoyed cordial relationship with bureaucrats, unlike other States in Hindi hinterland like UP or Bihar.
In UP, a short-tempered Mayawati is known to have slapped an officer once. In Bihar, a rustic Laloo would spit out his mouthful of khaini , chewing tobacco, in a spittoon placed strategically between him and chief secretary, with the chief minster hurling choicest abuses in colourful Bhojpuri against officers with whom he was displeased.
But in MP, Chouhan’s predecessors were always civil with civil servants, at least in public. DP Mishra believed in mutual respect. GN Singh, known for rustic vocabulary, could work with someone as ramrod as the legendary RCVP Noronha. SC Shukla was too cultured, Arjun Singh too suave and Motilal Vora too meek to insult officers publicly.
PC Sethi was prone to use colourful language, but he was extremely cautious in dealing with officers. Kailash Joshi was a thorough gentleman. Sunderlal Patwa and VK Sakhlecha were known for measured speech. Digvijay Singh was on back-slapping terms with most officers. Mercurial Uma Bharati used to throw files, but never in public. Babulal Gaur would let officers work in peace.
Hence Chouhan’s remarks – ulta latka dunga – have triggered an avalanche of jokes on social media. A wag suggested that Institute of Good Governance, started by the Chouhan Government, should start a crash course on how to hang officers upside down.
Sample another stinging one.
Hanging upside down from a roof one bat asks another: “How are you feeling?”
“Like a Collector,” comes the reply.
It ought to ring a warning bell when subjects start making jokes, whether printable or unprintable, about rulers. Remember Rajiv Gandhi’s last few months in power. His catch phrase, “ham dekheinge, hamein dekhna hai” became a butt of joke. So did the thundering threat – “nani yaad dila denge”.
Social scientists believe light hearted political jokes trending on media are not to be taken lightly. “In a democracy, jokes can help shape public opinion,” says an analysis of jokes in the revered Foreign Policy magazine. “A joke shared through the media has so much more value than a whispered one. Ultimately, this strengthens civil society and can translate either into votes or calls for action.”
Most agree that Chouhan’s remark was in bad taste, if not downright insulting. But let us also analyse why someone as polite as Chouhan lost his cool? What caused the outburst?
The recent farmers’ movement was a watershed. It signalled the first ever decline in Shivraj Singh’s popularity. As he started clearing the agitation’s debris personally and interacted directly with farmers, he discovered that many of his Collectors had managed – without any assistance from political class – to alienate farmers by neglecting their primary duties in revenue department.
The neglect of this basic task that is expected of each Collector has resulted in huge pendency of land transfer and demarcation cases. E-Khasra has become a nightmare, with reports of farmers’ lands being recorded in the name of other landowners. The Government has added to the farmers’ woes by going in for a digital system of dubious pedigree, creating a cesspool of corruption.
The scenario in parts of rural Madhya Pradesh looks straight out of Raag Darbari, the immortal Hindi classic by Shrilal Shukla, written almost half a century ago. His Langad is still making round of tehsil offices to obtain ‘naqal’, a certified copy of application. The creator of Raag Darbari was, incidentally, an IAS officer himself.
Everyone concedes the revenue department in MP is in a big mess. And who is responsible for it? The present mess, everyone concedes, is the sole creation of IAS officers, and lesser mortals like tehsildars and patwaris – as corrupt a tribe as you can imagine –who are directly under their command.
The Government recently unearthed a mammoth land scandal involving officials in Revenue Board, the dumping ground of discarded bureaucrats. There are talks of disbanding the archaic Board because the feeling is that it has become the latest breeding ground for unbridled corruption.
Revenue department was once the heart of administrative services, Now a posting there is considered being shunted to a loop line.
Comments Atindra Sen, MP cadre IAS officer of 1978 batch: “Can anyone recall the names of the last five Commissioners of Land Records and Settlement in the State? Does the post even exist anymore? When we joined service it was the terror named Sathyam. We took our land records training pretty seriously then. Wonder if it is given any importance now.”
Sen was referring to S. Sathyam, a 1961 batch officer, who was considered a strict disciplinarian.
What in the hell the District Magistrates were doing then? Senior officers in administration confide that they were busy doing everything else except their basic work. They were, mostly, busy focussing on CM’s pet projects.
Over the past few years their energies were channelized towards high profile schemes like Namami Devi Narmade, creating world record by planting 6 crore trees in a day, purchasing onions for farmers in distress, procuring buses for CM’s periodical political gatherings and garnering crowds for his frequent rallies.
They focussed so much on earning brawny points with the powers that be that they neglected everything else, including the basic revenue and land record work, and landed in a situation where CM had to threaten them to hang upside down.
Most senior officers I talked to for this article said the erosion of steel framework started during the regime of former chief minister Digvijay Singh, who started the routine of calling DMs and SPs every evening, bypassing divisional commissioners and IGs.
Chouhan has borrowed a leaf out of his predecessor’s book. He has, actually, perfected the practice of talking to Collectors directly, ignoring feedback even from his political colleagues. A frequent complaint from Chouhan’s rivals like Kailash Vijayvargiya, national general secretary of BJP, has been that bureaucracy has gained upper hand during his tenure.
The irony is that most of the Collectors, whom the Chief Minister is threatening to “hang upside down”, were handpicked by him. He depended upon them for delivery. The sense of hurt is more when people you rely upon fail you. And that is why Shivraj Singh Chouhan is angry.
But is not the mess of his own making? Said former chief minister Babulal Gaur: “The fault does not lie with the horse. It is the rider who should know how to ride a horse.”
My column Powers That Be in DB Post of 30 July 2017