Retired bureaucrats writing memoirs is like a double-edged sword. If they reveal a lot, they can be called mischievous. If they conceal more than they reveal, their account runs the risk of being termed superfluous.
Notwithstanding this, bureaucrats should be encouraged to write memoirs, because if journalism is termed as the first draft of history, accounts of bureaucrats serve as primary source material. And if the bureaucrats concerned happen to be officers of the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Police Service, the source material is richer and varied.
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Talking of books by civil servants, two works instantly come to mind. For the study of Emergency of 1975-77, a perusal of BN Tandon’s PMO Diaries is a must. Tandon, who served as joint secretary in Indira Gandhi’s secretariat, wrote an exhaustive account of those times, which provides rich insights into machinations of our rulers. Similarly, former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian’s Journeys through Babudom and Netaland is a must read if one wants to understand both the central and state governments.
KM Chandrasekhar, a 1970-batch, Kerala-cadre IAS officer, served as cabinet secretary in the Manmohan Singh government. Prior to that, he also served as revenue secretary in the ministry of finance. The timing of his being in the highest office a civil servant aspires to be during the United Progressive Alliance government assumes significance. The period has been referred to as the most corrupt in the post-independence period, with the 2G, Commonwealth scam, the Anna Hazare movement, etc, happening during this time. In most cases, then prime minister Manmohan Singh was found to be silent.
Chandrasekhar’s account could have been richer and more interesting had he delved deeper into these aspects in his book, but sadly he has dealt with them in a manner of a true bureaucrat—rationally explain them to conclude that there was no wrongdoing either on part of the government or Manmohan Singh. He is entitled to his views, but as a journalist having written on the 2G matter, I found his account and analysis disappointing. To be more apt, he’s avoided being mischievous and ended up being superfluous.
However, the same cannot be said about his book in totality. Ideally, as a reader, one should not look for much in the accounts of any official that are more recent, as personal biases do creep in. It’s best to look at the initial career of the bureaucrat concerned, and Chandrasekhar’s book shines here. Accounts of his various postings in Kerala, his stint in the commerce ministry and as a WTO ambassador are rich in detail, providing vivid accounts of various trade negotiations.
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His personal story also comes across as quite interesting, telling us that honest bureaucrats also get rewarded in their careers. Also interesting are the thought-provoking insights into public administration. For instance, the role and function of the office of the cabinet secretary and the limitations of its functioning when the government has become more prime ministerial in nature than parliamentary. In such a scenario whether the cabinet secretary wields more influence or the prime minister’s principal secretary are relevant topics.
Since it leaves the readers with lot of food for thought, for people interested in theory and practice of public administration and economic policy making, Chandrasekhar’s account is quite informative and insightful.
As Good as My Word: A Memoir
Pp 312, Rs 599