A witness to transition

Wajahat Habibullah | Updated on November 06, 2020

Core concern: Rajiv Gandhi felt it was unconscionable that India, having won freedom decades ago, should still be afflicted with poverty   -  PIB/FILE IMAGE

Indira Gandhi gave orders, while Rajiv, as Prime Minister, sought ideas to steer India towards modernisation

* Rajiv would lace his frequent interjections with provocative comments, with the intent of inspiring lively argument

* ‘Congratulations Seshan, it is the first time I’ve seen one bureaucrat beat an army of not one but three chief ministers!’

Rajiv saw his own term as prime minister as a quest for modernisation that would unleash India’s nascent potential. He particularly sensed the immense potential of India’s youth, which was as yet dormant in every sphere — cultural, economic and political. To start with, Rajiv would, in official meetings, encourage debate. He would lace his frequent interjections with provocative comments, with the intent of inspiring lively argument that could spark ideas and arrive at definitive conclusions. We in the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] got used to it. And the final result of this sophisticated management practice of inviting criticism was the unflinching loyalty of all those that worked for Rajiv, lasting well beyond his term in office, even to the time that I write this. But sadly, because Rajiv also used this technique in high-level meetings with interlocutors habituated from bureaucratic practice to simply obey, this invited resentment, even disdain. Having worked with Indira, I immediately recognised the cause. Mrs Gandhi would speak little in meetings. She would listen closely, mull the suggestions, and conclude the meeting with her own assessment. This conclusion was an order, and her interlocutors certainly treated it so. This was Indira’s management technique. To offer a suggestion after her pronouncement or to raise questions was lese-majesty. But Rajiv subscribed to the then emerging management principle of Total Quality Management (TQM), which encouraged argument at all levels, even in his meetings with ministers and secretaries. An example was a 1987 meeting seeking the consensus of chief ministers of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh — the states through which the river Narmada runs its 815 miles to debouch into the Gulf of Cambay in the Arabian Sea — and the then infant Ministry of Environment and Forests, of which the secretary was the redoubtable TN Seshan. The meeting was called to contemplate the harnessing of the Narmada waters. The debate around the Narmada Valley Development Project has highlighted the opposing concerns of the forces of the state governments and those of environmentalists. Ecologists have always considered the price too high for questionable development. The key issue is one that has continually vexed development agencies in the third world: Can poverty alleviation and environmental conservation go together? At the end of the meeting at Race Course Road, which lasted several hours, an agreement based on the terms set by the ministry was thrashed out, withholding approval until these terms were met. Rajiv said to Seshan, ‘Congratulations Seshan, it is the first time I’ve seen one bureaucrat beat an army of not one but three chief ministers!’

In such meetings, I initially confined myself to taking notes and assisting the PM whenever he or she needed information. I was witness therefore to this transition between prime ministers but was hesitant to speak up in official meetings. I broke this hesitation in a meeting of the Planning Commission of which Manmohan Singh was vice chairman — the PM being designated as the chair — when Rajiv made a characteristic provocative statement regarding the formulation of the housing scheme for the poor (to be known as the Indira Awaas Yojana) which was met with complete silence, thereby amounting to acceptance. I broke the silence, explaining the difficulties in the implementation of the PM’s suggestion. As if on cue, Vice Chairman Singh spoke up, purportedly pointing out my fallacy, but actually rejecting the PM’s suggestion. A discussion followed, which resulted in a scheme which thrives through different nomenclatures, and has provided homes to thousands.

Among my responsibilities was the prime minister’s twenty point programme, which Rajiv wanted updated and modernised with critical monitoring and reform based on the experience of past years. Hence, it led to the initiation of a concurrent evaluation. In this, centres of learning in different parts of the country were identified and canvassed to monitor the impact made and the benefits accrued in specified areas from schemes of development, especially on poverty reduction. The format for this was designed under the personal supervision of the secretary (Rural Development), a position held in Rajiv’s time by two of the most outstanding officers of their time — the wry Vinod Pande (never hesitating to criticise even his seniors, and who went on to become cabinet secretary in the succeeding VP Singh government), and the dynamic Debabrata (Debu) Bandyopadhyay (of leftist bent, of the Bengal cadre of the IAS and friend to the state’s communist chief minister Jyoti Basu) to whose credit must go the designing of the structure of Panchayati Raj, an endeavour that was to fructify only under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao.

Rajiv felt it unconscionable that India, so many years after having won freedom, should still be so afflicted with poverty. The target was to bring the poverty line, which according to the World Bank standards of the time hovered in 1980 at nearly 50 per cent, down to 20 per cent.

My Years With Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy / Wajahat Habibullah / Westland / Non-fiction / ₹799


(Excerpted with permission from ‘My Years With Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy’, brought out by Westland in October.)

Wajahat Habibullah was the first Chief Information Commissioner of India, and an officer in the Indian Administrative Service for nearly four decades

Published on November 06, 2020

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