A civil servant’s career usually follows a predictable trajectory. Tejendra Khanna had an extraordinary one. In his memoir, 'An Intent To Serve', he paints a fascinating picture of a stellar career, spanning over four decades. The narrative, dotted with interesting vignettes, gives a chronological account of his service life which began in Punjab and culminated with his tenure as Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. For an uninitiated reader, it offers a peep into a unique career profile of someone who straddled the agrarian economy, to the world of international trade negotiations and diplomacy. The book also provides a fleeting glimpse of Khanna’s philosophical worldview: a “Sufi view of life” and the need for “carrying one’s duties towards others because of the concept of dharma”.

A profound commitment to fairness, a sense of humility in public dealing and non-partisanship in decision-making are running themes throughout the book. Most civil servants end up dribbling the ball, making incremental changes in their sphere of work. Khanna comes across as a bold decision maker, who stood by his convictions, backed by a strong scientific temperament. At the incipient stage of green revolution in Punjab, he pioneered the tractor movement in the state, going against the wisdom of central ministries and instinct of his own minister. Punjab Tractors Limited was born, which later played a crucial role in transforming rural Punjab. His management style has a distinct corporate flavour, apparent through some of his key decisions during his stints as secretary in ministries of commerce and food. As chief secretary, he led the bureaucracy of Punjab during a tumultuous phase, with terrorism at its peak.

His memoir is a reflection on his own professional ethic and core values. At the same time, it holds a mirror to the current malaise which beleaguers the civil service. The political ecosystem in Punjab, at the commencement of his career, did not have ministers “firing the gun from the civil servant’s shoulders”. This stands out in sharp contrast to present realities, where the political executive feels “unhappy with civil servants whose advice is at variance with their own opinions.”

He is anguished at the “symbiotic relationship” between politicians who receive unethical support and compliance from a section of civil servants. A breach of the “ethical code” allows civil servants to “use the instruments of power and authority for personal gain.” He recalls the dictum of “committed” bureaucracy, which gained salience under the watch of Indira Gandhi. The question posed for the reader is..commitment to what?

This fall in standards of probity would resonate with several people. He recommends a drastic solution. Apart from the usual evaluation of performance, he suggests an ‘exit poll’ by people who interface with civil servants on three crucial tests—honesty, courtesy and judicious exercise of authority. Clearly, these are attributes which he holds essential traits in officers with “an intent to serve”. Khanna also frowns upon the tendency of over centralisation, which he surmises, is rooted in the feudal history of society. The “feudal lord” must then be obeyed in all circumstances—right or wrong.

His stint as Lieutenant Governor of Delhi is an illustration of his convictions. He initiated ‘LGs listening post’ as a medium to allow citizens to air their grievances and put in place a mechanism to track their redressal. In a novel experiment, he deployed ex-defence officers in areas of municipal management. The underlying premise was that being a mission-oriented force they would be able to deliver much better than civilian officers in creating clean and habitable urban spaces. His tenure also had a fair share of controversy during the Commonwealth Games. He goes to great lengths to explain the role of Delhi Development Authority, headed by him, in taking pragmatic decisions for timely execution of projects related to the Games Village. He also calls into question the role of the media during the saga of the Games. ‘Instead of bolstering national morale’, he laments, the media ‘shoots us in the foot.’ Some interesting anecdotes reveal his relationship with chief minister Sheila Dikshit, which appear to have remained largely cordial, despite niggling differences.

For the current generation of civil servants, the book is a lodestar on leadership and courage. It is an exhortation for officers in senior positions to “create an environment of free expression and collegial-style exchange of views”. Democratic decision-making style has been strongly advocated, even though it might lead to some delays. His reflections on the current civil service milieu presents a rather dismal view. Most of his observations on the challenges facing the service are apt. Yet, instead of sounding as though all is lost, he could, perhaps, have ended on a happier note with some sagacious advice for youngsters.

(The reviewer is a civil servant, currently posted with the Delhi government. Views are personal. )

About the book

Title: An Intent to Serve

Author: Tejendra Khanna

Publisher: Harper Collins India

Price: ₹558 (218 pages)

Check out the book on Amazon