The PM isn't a robot; shrewd he could be!

Many commentators have said that Friday’s press conference by the prime minister was as if by a robot. A book by former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian offers, perhaps for the first time, that Manmohan Singh is far cannier than that. Who do you believe? Read on and make your choice!

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Rohit Bansal | January 4, 2014


is that silence an act? Even in the early 1970s, bureaucrats in North Block had
is that silence an act? Even in the early 1970s, bureaucrats in North Block had

As an insider to the sanctum sanctorum of power, the cabinet secretary, India’s senior-most civil servant, has post-retirement sinecures for the asking.

BK Chaturvedi, who was the first to serve in that position when Manmohan Singh took over as PM, got an extended tenure on the hot seat, before settling down as member of the planning commission. Chaturvedi’s successor, KM Chandrasekhar, too is vice-chairman of a state planning board, in the rank of a cabinet minister.

Kamal Pande, the incumbent before Chaturvedi, fell on the wrong side of a governmental change – so he was sidelined to the inter-state council, a body with serious constitutional relevance but useless in the glamour sweepstakes of babudom. Before Pande, TR Prasad got two extra years on the saddle, and a membership of the tenth finance commission.

In the same tradition, Prabhat Kumar, the cabinet secretary before Prasad, got a shot as governor before he had to quit amid controversies.
So, TSR Subramanian, India’s cabinet secretary before Prabhat Kumar, is for all practical purposes an oddity in the flock over the last 15 years, unpolluted by post-retirement governmental dole.

Of course, there are those who live by the dictum that not having Ashoka Stambha on your stationary is the end of the world. They sympthise with Subramanian and blame his directness. But I would say, ‘Thank God for that!’. How else would we have had Subramanian’s candor and assertions in public life? Where would we have, as a recent example, the seminal petition he would co-anchor with 82 distinguished silvers to try and relieve today’s civil servants of the morbid fear of oral instructions and mid-night transfers?

Having given himself the freedom that none of his successors managed (he ascribes it to a foreign posting and additional pension therein!) Subramanian has gone on to articulate merciless essays on what’s going wrong with governance.

Take, for instance, Journeys Through Babudom and Netaland: Governance in India, his first book, written nearly 10 years ago. It was a bold and rapid-fire account of what’s self-evident from the title itself; it’s quality confirmed from the fact that the peerless Gopi Arora, a famously reclusive civil servant, agreed to review it for the Financial Express, where I served at that time.

So, Subramanian’s forthcoming book, India at a Turning Point: The Road to Good Governance (Rupa, 2014) is, once again, shorn of any burden to court the neta, the babu, or even the media. It gives valuable perspective on the who’s who of India’s powerful.

The content is direct, bold and rapid-fire, but with a charming turn of phrase. So I can’t help but steal one such charming para to counter the dominant discourse after PM’s press conference on January 3, a misplaced characterisation that the PM is a robot: “I recall a conversation with the then Deputy Secretary in the finance ministry, who attended the junior ‘lunch club’ in North Block in the early 1970w. At that time Manmohan Singh as Deputy Economic Advisor used to attend the same lunch club every day and the participants would exchange gossip and notes about the goings-on in the ministry.

“My friend, the then Deputy Secretary told me later that the lunch club knew even then that Manmohan was destined for ‘greatness’ and that he would go ‘far.’ They had assessed that Manmohan would quickly and shrewdly grasp what the boss wanted – the Additional Secretary or the Finance Secretary or the minister as the case may be – prepare a case for ‘approval’ by the boss of exactly what he (the boss) wanted even before he articulated it, couch it with arguments replete with economic theory, make it sound profound and put it up for the boss’s approval, before finally announcing the policy as emerging from the boss, which indeed it actually did.”

Are we surprised that the humble deputy economic advisor of the 1970s bolted past Congress maharathis like K Natwar Singh, Arjun Singh, and P Chidambaram (and fellow econocrats like Arjun Sengupta and IG Patel) to get Sonia Gandhi’s nod on that fateful day in May 2004? Is Manmohan Singh really a robot, or is that a class act that has kept internal opposition at bay for nine-plus years?

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