New Delhi: Can you think of an IAS officer who can remove a chief secretary who got into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) 11 years before him? Praveen Prakash, a 1994-batch IAS officer who now serves as Principal Secretary in the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) of Jagan Mohan Reddy, did exactly that a year ago.
Andhra Pradesh got a new chief secretary last week in Adityanath Das, a 1987-batch IAS officer. But the stakes of power remain pretty much the same a year down the line.
Although much junior to the half-a-dozen advisers in the CMO, Prakash, civil servants in the state say, is still the one who calls the shots. The two posts he holds — Principal Secretary to the CM as well as secretary of the crucial General Administration Department (GAD), which controls all senior appointments in the state — give him enormous influence over all crucial decisions in the state.
Prakash, who is from Uttar Pradesh, has been the most powerful civil servant in Andhra Pradesh since he moved back to the state in 2019 after a two-year stint as the state’s resident commissioner in New Delhi — a post now occupied by his wife, Bhawna Saxena, an IPS officer of the 1996 batch.
Colleagues describe Prakash, an IIT-Kanpur graduate, as a man of undisputed competence and honesty, but questions have emerged about the level of power he wields. Just last year, he stoked a row when he shunted out then Andhra chief secretary L.V. Subrahmanyam, an officer of the 1983 batch, after the latter issued a show cause notice to Prakash over an alleged procedural lapse.
Prakash, however, denies allegations about centralisation of power in the CMO under him. Chief Minister Reddy, he told ThePrint, has a one-on-one equation with all civil servants.
An ‘instant chemistry’
A first-time chief minister, Reddy picked Prakash as his principal secretary just months after coming to power in 2019. Speaking to ThePrint, Prakash said there was an “instant chemistry” between them.
“I didn’t know the CM at all when he picked me for the post of principal secretary… There was an instant chemistry,” Prakash said.
“I met him in Delhi a few months after he became CM, and I was still the resident commissioner,” he added.
“This one time, just after one or two interactions with him, I was dropping him to the airport from Andhra Bhawan. The CM told me that ‘I’ve never known IAS officers very well, but in my experience, only 30 per cent of what you want gets done (by the officers). Why is that the case?’”
Prakash, who was seated at the back of the car, said he told the CM, “Sir, telling doesn’t work unless you do two things. One, set quantifiable goals, and two, have the perseverance of monitoring — that is my experience in administration.”
The CM then, Prakash recalled, looked back, and asked him if he would join as his principal secretary in the CMO — a position Prakash described as the most fulfilling for an IAS officer after that of a district magistrate.
Reddy’s go-to officer
Since his arrival in Andhra Pradesh, Prakash’s stature as Reddy’s go-to officer has increasingly grown. While Reddy’s CMO is packed with advisers, officers in the state say, many have limited authority compared to Prakash.
In July 2020, the CM stripped two of the most senior advisers in his CMO of their portfolios, and assigned them to Prakash, who now oversees the subjects of general administration, home, revenue, finance, and legal affairs, among others. He has also been given the “exclusive” responsibility to deal with the central government, correspond with the PM, other Union Cabinet ministers or constitutional authorities, and accompany the CM on his visits to Delhi.
The reason why Reddy relies so heavily on Prakash is because, like many civil servants, he is known to have the old tried-and-tested “yes, boss” approach, say Andhra civil servants.
“The CM has a very business-like style of functioning. He wants to get things done, and that is what explains Prakash’s proximity to him,” said a senior officer who requested anonymity. “If the CM wants something done, Prakash would issue the orders for it in less than an hour. There are no consultations, no discussions on its implications. If the CM wants it, he (Prakash) delivers it,” the officer added.
Duality of power
The influence wielded by Prakash and his proximity to Reddy, who is known to rely on a small coterie of officers, has led to allegations of centralisation of power at the expense of other departments.
“It is rare for an officer to be both in the CMO, and hold a regular post in a department,” said former Andhra Pradesh chief secretary I.Y.R. Krishna Rao. “That makes him very powerful since it allows him to take decisions in his capacity as the Principal Secretary to the CM, and execute them as the Secretary of the GAD.”
It is a decision that stems from this duality that has been the most controversial for Prakash so far. In November 2019, L.V. Subrahmanyam, then chief secretary of the state, issued a show cause notice to Prakash for allegedly introducing items in a cabinet meeting without following procedure.
Three days later, Subrahmanyam received an order from Prakash — in his capacity as GAD secretary — shunting him out as chief secretary.
“There was nothing wrong with the order technically since, as Secretary, GAD, he is supposed to issue the transfer orders of any officer in state,” said another senior officer from AP who didn’t wish to be named.
“But what was egregious was that an officer who was asked to explain his conduct ended up removing the officer who had asked him to explain his conduct,” the officer added.
Prakash, however, denies allegations of centralisation of power. The reason he holds two posts in the government is because of the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in 2014, he says, adding that several officers have had to hold multiple posts since then to address a staff shortage.
The CM has a one-to-one equation with every officer, he adds. “As his principal secretary, I can only give the icing on the cake, all the work is done by secretaries of the respective departments, and the CM relies on their advice,” he said.
Speaking on the incident with the former chief secretary, Prakash said, “Sometimes, there is a conflict between law and justice. As a civil servant, my calling is to throw my weight behind justice over law.”
‘A larger problem’
Prakash’s pre-eminence in the Andhra Pradesh government is symptomatic of a centralisation of power in the CMO that dates back before Jagan Reddy’s tenure, say insiders.
“Prakash is very powerful, but that is because the CMO enjoys unbridled powers,” said Rao, who had, in 2017, filed a case in the Andhra Pradesh High Court over the alleged centralisation of power in the CMO, and the lack of transparency in the office.
“The CMO cannot overlap with the existing formal structures of bureaucracy such that an officer from the CMO is ringing up officials across the state and issuing orders. That is what is happening in Andhra… All orders and decisions come from the CMO,” he said.
“It is not good for the general fabric of the administration that the CMO becomes so powerful that all decision-making shifts out of the departments,” he added.
EAS Sarma, a retired officer from the state agreed. “The CMO has become the hub of centralisation of all government activity. There is no concept of collective responsibility. It is the CMO that issues orders directly to even the DMs.”
‘A lot more to learn’
Yet, Sarma, like several of Prakash’s colleagues in the state, including his detractors, said none of the allegations of centralisation of power in Reddy’s CMO takes away from the fact that he is an extremely competent officer.
“The issues of centralisation of power in the CMO are valid, but Prakash is an extremely honest and competent officer,” he said. “He has taken some very tough decisions through his career, for which he has suffered as well.”
In 2011, as the chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation (APMDC), Prakash had written to the state government highlighting the issue of mining leases being granted to companies without any competitive bidding. While the state government took no action on his letter, Prakash was transferred out of the APMDC.
For Prakash, who along with former Drinking Water and Sanitation Secretary Parameswaran Iyer, spearheaded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat programme from Delhi, the biggest excitement of being an IAS officer remains the diversity of experience his job gives him. Obliquely responding to the rumours in Andhra’s power corridors of him seeking to come back to Delhi on central deputation, Prakash said, “Gaining a diverse experience, and moving on for any IAS officer is important… There is still a lot to learn.”