The Cabinet Secretary as the helmsman of civil service captured popular imagination in the British sitcom ‘Yes Prime Minister’. Humphrey Appleby, the fictional cabinet secretary, portrayed by Nigel Hawthorne, would make us believe that the civil service sets the rules of the game for ministers to follow, while discharging matters of state. KM Chandrasekhar, in his memoir As Good as My Word gives us a reality check.
The Cabinet Secretary reports directly to the Prime Minister and is the conscience keeper of the council of ministers. He is also a custodian of national secrets. The interest of a reader would naturally be piqued by the possibility of a juicy nugget tumbling out of the pages of a memoir authored by such a personality. This memoir would disappoint those looking for some anecdotes for cocktail gossip. This narrative has been written with the cautious pen of a civil servant trained in traditions of exercising discretion. Yet it covers a period of history, which was marked with much tumult – the 26/11 attack, the global financial crisis and the series of insinuations of political corruption: Commonwealth Games, 2G scam and the coal scandal.
Chandrashekhar expresses his consternation on the role of the Comptroller and Auditor-General which resulted in a veritable ‘policy paralysis’. The “fault finding mission initiated by CAG” and the theory of “presumptive losses’ brought into play has been called into question. The ‘dramatic findings’ of CAG in its report on spectrum allocation had ‘high publicity value’ but holds the prospect of eroding the credibility of the institution.
Human dynamo Sheila Dikshit
For the Commonwealth Games, the author had ‘explicit direction from the PM’ for successful coordination of the event. He is unsparing on the role of Suresh Kalmadi, who ‘exerted pressure’ to become Chairman of the games organising committee, and created a ‘personal fiefdom’. The games presented an opportunity to overhaul the city infrastructure. Chandrashekhar pays glowing tributes to Delhi’s former chief minister Sheila Dikshit, describing her as a ‘human dynamo’, who had the capacity to ‘stimulate her officers to almost superhuman levels of performance’. Her leadership in the construction of the Barapulla flyover, induction of a new bus fleet, and construction of the city airport has been commended. For the Lieutenant Governor, who was responsible for construction of the games village, he is less charitable. In spite of the last minute scramble for completion, the opening ceremony was a ‘resounding success’.
The memoir is also a critique of institutions. Chandrashekhar expresses disappointment with Indian media, which demonstrated “irresponsibility and callousness” while reporting the 26/11 attacks. There was a “cavalier disregard for preserving secrecy of operations.” He also reflects on the flawed intelligence architecture, which suffered from lack of coordination. The CAG, was “no friend of the games or the government.” Judiciary wading into policy domain, strictly an executive preserve is also frowned upon.
Chandrashekhar’s career is a unique case study of an officer who was bestowed a rare opportunity of specialising in a domain, while being in a generalist service. The positions he held in Kerala, and later in the Central government were predominantly in the economic domain. For enthusiasts of trade policy, the book gives a rapid tutorial on the intricacies of WTO and global trade negotiations.
As Indian ambassador to the WTO in Geneva, he writes about India’s leadership role of the developing nations and the trade G20, whose bread-and-butter dynamics are far removed from the diplomatic niceties of foreign affairs. In this forum, alliances change, based on domestic realpolitik and national interest. As ambassador, Chandrashekhar forged alliances with Brazil, China, Africa and even the EU, on matters of agricultural trade. He describes his tenure in Geneva as the “high point” in his career. During his tenure, India’s stand on compulsory licensing safeguards, perhaps led to strengthening of the generic pharmaceutical industry for life-saving drugs at affordable prices for developing nations. Chandrashekhar is effusive in his praise for successive Commerce Ministers - Maran, Shourie and Jaitley. Working with Chidambaram, as Revenue Secretary, was ‘no walk in the park.’ After his retirement, he moved back to Kerala as vice-chairman of the state planning board. But he missed the ‘strains and stresses’ of Delhi.
Reflections on civil service reform
Chandrasekhar paints a benign picture of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, dismissing the ‘two centres of authority’ during UPA. He recalls his conversations with him that ‘a hundred years later, history would recognize him and his comrades in arms during those exciting years of change as the saviours of India.’ The book has been written with broad strokes - with reflections on contemporary polity to civil service reform.
He ends the book on a philosophical note on lessons of life - which are imbued with a sense of detachment. He confesses that retirement has been a window for looking at the spiritual side of life and he is particularly drawn to the Advaita, Zen and Tao schools of thought. Revealing a Sufi world view, he draws parallels across diverse religious teachings. Glimpses of his persona can read between the lines - for instance, him being a foodie. Interestingly, for someone who was amongst the toppers in the civil service, his school record was less distinguished - he flunked the class nine exams. This turned him into a recluse and books became his ‘sole refuge.’ In the fitness of things, things ended up rather well, as he wrote a brilliant one himself.
(The reviewer is an IAS officer. Views are personal)
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