A lawyer from Chennai goes to Britain. He gets a degree from London School of Economics; returns to India to be a government officer; becomes a professor of economics; enters the legislative council; swings back to the government as director general of statistics; enters the private sector and serves as vice-chairman of Tata Steel and Tata Motors; re-enters quasi-public service as president at the Indian Institute of Science; then winds up as minister for railways and the finance minister of India.
In an India where public and private sectors are largely watertight compartment, this sounds quite a fanciful resume. Yet, John Mathai lived in an India that allowed talent to follow its fancies, to toggle between diverse careers and experiences. In 1950, he resigned as India's finance minister, accusing his prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, of wasteful expenditure and disagreeing with the need for planning. (Some irony here: the 1944-45 Bombay Plan, of which Mathai was one of the architects - JRD Tata and GD Birla were among six others - recommended State intervention in the economy and segued into the first five-year plan.)
Once the public sector and the civil service took charge of the commanding heights of the economy and India itself, the flow of talent between public and private service halted. Now, mindful of the revolution of expectations redefining public life and politics, governments eager to show results are trying to bring some shine back to the rusting frame of India's vast, largely inefficient, civil service.
Whether NDA or UPA, successive government haven't had the courage - or inclination - to restructure the powerful bureaucracy. In this era of coalition governments, it's hard to imagine something so drastic. Yet, it's obvious that national and state administrations require the disruptive force of innovation if they are to respond to the myriad needs and demands of emerging India. So, efforts to bring in 'outsiders' grow.
At senior levels, this is not new. In 1984, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi chose an Indian expat in the US to be his technology advisor. Satyanarayan 'Sam' Pitroda energised India's telecommunications revolution. In his latest avatar as innovations advisor to Manmohan Singh, Pitroda is trying to construct the National Information Infrastructure, a project to take broadband to India's panchayats, so that real-time, transparent administration can stretch from parliament to village.
There are others in the government's top echelons who have been hired from among India's global elite. India's chief economic adviser, Kaushik Basu, who is presently involved in writing the 2011 Economic Survey, is still a professor at Cornell University. Rhodes scholar and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, gained lateral entry into the bureaucracy after a bright career at the World Bank. Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of India's second-largest technology company, Infosys, is chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, the agency that aims to provide 600 million Indians with a 12-digit identification number by 2014.
Nilekani's organisation is a harbinger of the new civil service. At his agency, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers work with engineers and other professionals - many on sabbatical, paid and unpaid - from a slew of private-sector companies, including Cisco and Intel. Why do they do this? As one investment banker from Singapore, now working for Nilekani, told me, "Where else in the world would I get an experience of this scale and complexity? Public service and a beefed-up resume."
Nilekani also heads an expert group that last week recommended that the government should use India's vast private-sector technology talent for public purposes: set up private companies (with a majority government stake) that will be nimble, flexible and independent enough to handle the complex job of grafting technology onto administration. For now, Nilekani's group has suggested these companies run projects that could handle various taxes, pensions and expenditure worth billions of dollars. It would be a pity if the government doesn't give the group more ambitious tasks. With five government officials, Nilekani and Nachiket Mor, president of a foundation for inclusive growth set up by ICICI, India's largest private-sector bank, the expert group is an amalgam of talent that represents the new world it seeks to create.
But how can this new world enter the lower and middle bureaucracies? How can they be infused with private-sector talent to ensure delivery of services?
The draft of the Right to Food Bill, the contentious effort to make food a constitutional right, has one suggestion - give people from any walk of life, between 35 and 45 years of age, a one-time, five-year shot at public service. The drafters of the bill, the National Advisory Council (NAC), have a great worry - it's all very well to provide a raft of new economic entitlements to the poor, but who will enforce these? Their answer is the district redressal officer, who will - and this is controversial, to say the least - sit in judgement over the district collector, the undisputed king of the district for more than a century. "You can select people from the pool of idealism across India," an NAC member told me. "This will be a mid-career, lateral entry [into public service]. Can we not find 700 idealistic people for 700 districts?"
This is laudable. It could also mean another layer of bureaucracy over the bureaucracy. The fundamental challenge remains: how does India increase the opportunities for professionals to enter public service on a large scale? When can a John Mathai waltz in and out of public service - as easily as he could more than 60 years ago?