Memoirs by civil servants are generally a delightful read.
But sometimes — circumstantially — some become questionable, as has happened in the cases of Sanjaya Baru and PC Parakh, both of whom have shown the Manmohan Singh government in a poor light.
Their books have arrived when the Lok Sabha elections are just about halfway through, leading to allegations of a breach of neutrality. Both have provided enormous grist to the opposition mill. Finally, for both the authors, there are antecedents with which there are clear correspondences with what they have written.
Coming to legality first, it has been suggested in some quarters that since Mr Baru is (or was) not a career civil servant, the Official Secrets Act does not apply to him. This is untrue.
Every such appointment — whether its press adviser or chief economic adviser — is done through an official procedure and such functionaries are indeed bound by the provisions of the Act.
If the Act did not apply to him, Mr Baru could well have written the book sitting in office.
And even if the point is conceded that there is an extent of grey zone in his case, the same latitude cannot be given to Mr Parakh, who is a retired IAS officer.
Mr Parakh can support his decision to write the book on the grounds that since the CBI had filed an FIR against him in the coal scam, he had to defend himself publicly. But he went much beyond his remit and said things that didn’t concern the coal ministry, to which he was secretary.
Also he took the legally untenable position — earlier, when the FIR was filed, and also in the book — by asking why the CBI did not include the prime minister’s name in the FIR. That amounts to saying “if I am guilty, so is the prime minister”.
Mr Baru has left himself open to the PMO’s charge that he is trying to get even with the establishment because he could not get a second shot in office.
The question, therefore, is not one of legality but of propriety.
If the two gentlemen strike the posture that they were doing a service to Mr Singh by writing what they did, their effort has been counter-productive. But since propriety is sometimes a matter of individual choice, the new government can revisit the Official Secrets Act and make clear how much civil servants, serving or retired, can reveal.