At a time when Tamil Nadu is keenly watching the entry of actors and superstars into the state's political field, another crossover is silently underway in the backdrop. Bureaucrats who have served across the country, are resigning or opting for voluntary retirement from their posts to join political parties ahead of the state assembly elections.
From former IPS officer Annamalai who joined the BJP to former IAS officer S Sasikanth Senthil who joined the Congress, these entrants have opted to leave behind a hard-earned career in civil services to become politicians. And while the switch is not without precedent, the multiple crossovers have prompted questions on whether there is a larger problem within the Indian bureaucracy that is forcing these men and women to take the political route to inspire change.
"After 70 to 80 years of independence, if there is a surge in the number of bureaucrats entering politics, it is quite clear that there is a big issue in relation to governance," says former IAS officer Senthil, who joined the Congress in November. He had quit the civil services last year, citing a totalitarian attack on the country by the BJP and was also at the forefront of the CAA-NRC protests. "A divide in values is pushing people in civil services to politics because we have realised the ideological fights currently playing out in the country need a political solution. The current system is not about people versus the government but it is letting people fight other people. That is why, even though the opposition is currently perceived as 'weak' in the country I have decided to join them in the hope that I can help them fight the current government," he adds.
But Senthil does admit that in some cases, bureaucrats overlook ideology and choose to grab an opportunity instead. Retired bureaucrat G Devasahayam tells TNM that officers who decide to join politics are of three categories. The first are bureaucrats who have retired from their services, with established contacts who enter the system for 'profit making'.
"They are merely looking to gain further from their nexus with politicians and will have no independence even after joining a party," says the retired bureaucrat. "The second type are youngsters like Senthil and Annamalai who have got no benefits from their positions yet or have strong relationships with politicians. These people are ideologically driven and have sacrificed their civil service careers for what they hope will be the betterment of the state or country," he explains.
The third type, according to the retired bureaucrat are officers who choose to resign or retire just before their service ends due to dissatisfaction with how the government has functioned but have established contacts throughout the administration and have years worth of knowledge to offer parties.
Former IAS officer Santosh Babu, who falls under this third category tells TNM that through the years of any IAS officer's service there will be pressure from politicians, offers of money and threats of transfer when you don't fall in line.
"An IAS officer's hands are tied sometimes and I blame the system that breeds this kind of governance for the problems. I am extremely clean and have no personal agenda. My only aim is to improve this low level of governance in Tamil Nadu which has high level potential. Only world class governance with support from technology can enable people of the state to realise its potential," he explains.
The former IAS officer who retired voluntarily from public service in August joined the Makkal Needhi Maiam in December. During the press conference to announce his political entry, he admitted that he applied for VRS after problems arose in the Rs 2000-crore BharatNet project, which was floated by the Tamil Nadu FiberNet Corporation (TANFINET), when he was Principal Secretary to the government in the Department of Information Technology.
"I had actually written a manifesto in 2012 to visualise how it would be if I were to run a party," says the MNM leader. "I tried to launch it but people told me you don't have the face or the money to contest elections alone," he admits.
Can former bureaucrats attract votes?
Retired bureaucrat Davidar explains that those who choose to leave behind civil services for a career in politics bring with them domain knowledge that will definitely add value to any party.
"They can help draft policy, something that just a political leader may not be able to do without an expert at hand," he says. "But when it comes to attracting votes, that is a different ball game altogether. In the past some former bureaucrats have succeeded while others have failed," he says.
Santosh Babu admits this was amongst the chief reasons he chose to join an established party.
"MNM has already been in the political battlefield for a while and they have a good leader as the face and chief of the party. They have already contested one election and I chose them because I believe they have an honest leadership," he states.
In fact in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, MNM's candidate in South Chennai retired bureaucrat R Rangarajan polled over 1 lakh or 12% of the total votes, coming third in the race for an MP seat. In the assembly polls, the party is expecting an even better performance.
Senthil points out that who people vote for depends on the party, symbol and how they are perceived.
"To be attractive as a candidate you need to really work on the field and be part of people's struggles. That is the definition of politics," he says. "If you don't work on the ground and establish yourself amongst the people, you will have to depend on the party's performance or a wave of support."