Governance of the self

A top bureaucrat retiring away without sinecures is indeed noteworthy these days. If he is Hasmukh Adhia, it is outright unbelievable. Here’s why

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Ashish Mehta | December 26, 2018


#Arun Jaitley   #Narendra Modi   #Hasmukh Adhia   #bureaucracy  


The Razor’s Edge, a 1944 novel by Somerset Maugham, explores the dichotomy between materialism and spirituality. The title is derived from a line of Katha Upanishad: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” The edge is bound to be all the more sharp if one has spent one’s whole career in the exercise of immense power. That is why the immediate public reaction was disbelief when finance minister Arun Jaitley in a Facebook post in November, announced that finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia would retire at the end of the month and his services would no longer be available to the government.

“He had informed me earlier this year that he would not work for a single day after the 30th of November 2018. His time thereafter belongs to his favourite passion (spirituality and yoga) and of course his son,” Jaitley wrote.

Adhia, a 1981 batch IAS officer of Gujarat cadre, has been called prime minister Narendra Modi’s blue-eyed bureaucrat. He served for a while as principal secretary to the chief minister, when Modi was in Gandhinagar. When Modi became the prime minister, he too moved to Delhi, in the finance ministry, serving as secretary (financial services), secretary (revenue), and finally the finance secretary. He has been credited (or blamed) as the man behind the GST rollout. If a media report is to be believed, he was the only person who knew the PM’s mind before the demonetisation announcement. In short, Adhia has been the PM’s go-to officer when it comes to economy. 

Ahead of his superannuation on November 30, efforts must have been made to retain his services. Indeed, as Jaitley hinted, he was offered the position of the cabinet secretary, the top position a bureaucrat can aspire to, when the role was vacant in May. (It would have entailed two extra years too.) He was apparently also offered the RBI governorship. He said no to each. Bigger men have been known to fall for far smaller things.

Bureaucrats, if they have administered their careers carefully, can look forward to a delicious dilemma at the time of superannuation: a sinecure within government or a consultancy position in the private sector. For someone on the right side of one of the three most powerful PMs in India’s history, fate should be far kinder. Instead, he leaves the sarkari bungalow and is just walking away into the sunset.

And hence the disbelief. Media reports have been incredulous, though his record sheet is available in public domain, clearly showing where is personal compass has been pointing to all these years – “to his favourite passion (spirituality and yoga)”, in Jaitley’s words.

Personal circumstances prompted Adhia to go on a two-year study leave in 2006 (when he was principal secretary to the CM), and he studied at the Vivekanada Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (‘VYASA’) in Bangalore, resulting in his PhD. Apart from yoga, he found discourses on Advaita Vedanta fascinating, and thus began the spiritual journey. That was the first time when he requested Modi to relieve him of his cumbersome duties as principal secretary to Gujarat chief minister and allow him to initiate into yoga and spirituality.

At that moment Adhia’s wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was advised by his boss, Modi, to take her to VYASA where yoga and care would mitigate the debilitating disease.

In two years at Prashanti, the VYASA headquarters, she learned to come to terms with her condition and achieved serenity, thanks to the spiritual guidance. Adhia eventually lost his wife though gained another precious gift for his future endeavour – yoga and spirituality. He gradually practised detachment in the yogic sense and kept himself away from trappings and lure of power despite his proximity to the country’s most powerful centre.
At times, he found himself at the receiving end of wild allegations by the likes of Subramanian Swamy and even a dubious subordinate in his office. He responded with an equanimity and poise that was quite extraordinary and worth emulation for the new generation of bureaucrats. In the midst of these allegations, he neither showed anger nor fear in continuing with his action – which he may as well call ‘karma’.

At the height of his career the fact he forsook the desire of fruit is clearly a culmination of his yogic self. His guru had warned him that he should devote fully to spiritual life only after fulfilling his worldly duties that came to an end on November 30.

So, when many laud him for his “sacrifice”, for not going for the dangling carrot, he reportedly tells them it is no sacrifice at all; indeed, he has chosen the better of the two options before him – which is to devote more time to spirituality, with his guru in a small ashram near Mysore or in Ahmedabad where he has his home.

This comes at the end of a sterling record in administration. Former chief economic advisor to the finance minister, Arvind Subramanian, not exactly a man known to mince words, said on Twitter, “Not only was he [Adhia] a great colleague, history will & should remember his critical role—along with that of @arunjaitley & central & state tax officials—in implementing the transformational GST. Thanks & best wishes Hasmukhji.”

The image of someone in the know of most confidential and historic decisions, however, does not gel easily with the talk of withdrawing into the forest, as it were, and studying scriptures. A section of media has been reading tactics and tantrums behind his moves including a including a fortnight-long leave in May this year. Adhia, as workaholic as he is introvert, did not reply then, but has finally answered his detractors with this final decision of walking away without asking for anything.

He is certainly not a first top-level administrator to have refused post-retirement benefits. Bureaucracy, as well as other wings of the state, has seen notable exceptions. They, however, have been few and far between in recent times.

Adhia’s example only highlights the moral deficit among those running the country in our name. He, with his reading of the Upanishads, may have learned how to walk on the razor’s edge; most do not.

(The article appears in December 31, 2018 edition)

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