India in the nitty-gritty | Business Standard News

India in the nitty-gritty | Business Standard News


As Good As My Word – A Memoir

Author: K M Chandrasekhar

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 294+XIV

Price: Rs 599

A few months before he demitted office as Cabinet Secretary, K M Chandrasekhar had taken an interesting decision during his visit to the Mussoorie academy where newly recruited officers of the Indian Administrative Service undergo training. Even as he was filled with nostalgia for the days he spent as a young IAS officer at what used to be the Charleville Hotel, its then director, Padamvir Singh, recounted to the country’s topmost civil servant the difficulties he was facing in procuring from the state authorities a much-needed licence to open a bar at the academy.

Mr Chandrasekhar was moved by the plight of young IAS officers, who had to trudge all the way to Landour Bazaar to enjoy a drink or two in the evening or during the weekends. If the National Police Academy and the Administrative Staff College at Hyderabad could enjoy the facility of a bar, why not the Mussoorie academy?

The Cabinet Secretary’s views were remarkably modern and liberal. Controlled and time-restricted drinking within the academy was better than forcing the officers to go out to Landour. He asked the director to prepare a note so that he could approve it right then. The approval ensured that the department of personnel acted on it promptly and the bar at the Mussoorie academy became operational in 2011. However, a few years later the bar was scrapped “mercilessly” when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the academy.

This incident may appear trivial, but the Cabinet Secretary’s intervention in facilitating the opening of a bar at the Mussoorie academy says a lot about the avuncular character and catholic spirit of a man, who was the country’s Cabinet Secretary for about four years from 2007 to 2011, when Manmohan Singh was prime minister. The unceremonious scrapping of the bar also reveals how the world has changed in many ways in the last decade or so. Mr Chandrasekhar’s memoir, As Good As My Word where this incident of a bar at the Mussoorie academy is recounted, offers a peek into many more instances of how the world has changed in several other ways.

Here is the story of a man, who as a child wanted to be a railway engine driver, but eventually decided to be a civil servant and ended up being Cabinet Secretary because life is a “string of coincidences and unanticipated events”. Here is an administrator who successfully ran the Spices Board but found that more satisfying was his contribution to shaping the country’s approach to international trade negotiations during one of the most tumultuous years in the evolution of the World Trade Organization.

Indeed, those who have closely watched Mr Chandrasekhar’s eventful four-year long tenure as Cabinet Secretary will find his account of his stint as India’s Trade Ambassador at Geneva no less exciting. In explaining how Murasoli Maran and Arun Jaitley, commerce ministers under two different political regimes, led India’s stout defence of its positions at the multilateral trade forum, the author provides a riveting account of the games that are played in the theatre of global trade negotiations.

But the account of his days as the Cabinet Secretary will stand out for his clarity of thought and analytical ability, contributing to a largely objective examination of the many events that took place during his tenure. His assessment that the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 exposed the country’s intelligence weaknesses is candid. Clearly, Mr Chandrasekhar should not be judged by either his inexplicable failure in the ninth class in Delhi Public School, where Montek Singh Ahluwalia was three years his senior, or by the fact that even as an accomplished civil servant he would sweat profusely in an air-conditioned room, something that made Prime Minister Manmohan Singh enquire after his health.

He takes credit for speeding up the resumption of the Enron project, hanging fire for many years. But his intervention in resolving the contentious Krishna-Godavari basin gas pricing issue failed to prevent what he believed was a series of steps taken by successive governments that “enriched a company and an individual at the cost of the nation”. The author’s pithy comment at the end of recounting the K-G basin gas pricing issue says a lot. He writes: “The saga of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ continues.” His account raises many questions about the role of many ministers and experts asked to handle this controversial issue. What comes out clearly is that even a Cabinet Secretary can make little difference when pitted against the might of politics and corporate clout. The highlight of the book is Mr Chandrasekhar’s exploration of a new dimension of the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General or CAG in using performance audits to question government policies. The infamous 2G spectrum allocations took place when the author was the Cabinet Secretary, although they became a full-blown controversy after he had completed his tenure. But he points out that he was quick to entrust the CAG among other agencies to examine the spectrum allocation issue to find out if there was any wrongdoing.

His account is not about the alleged violation of policy, but the desirability of the CAG’s performance audits pointing out notional losses, even as a few years later the courts let off everyone, though a minister, a secretary to the government of India and an industry leader were among those who had to spend months in jail. Something similar happened with the coal mine allocation controversy. The author rightly questions the need or justification for harassing a coal secretary, who did his job, but a CAG report had found traces of controversy in it.

Mr Chandrasekhar’s memoirs are also remarkable because he refrains from beating his own drum, a failing common to the autobiographical accounts of most civil servants. He is candid and his storytelling abilities are as good as his analysis, even though you might disagree with his assessment on how the management of the 2010 Commonwealth Games was handled.


Source link