NK Singh’s autobiography takes us through his journey over half a century of public policy making in India.(Courtesy Rupa Publications)
NK Singh’s autobiography takes us through his journey over half a century of public policy making in India.(Courtesy Rupa Publications)

Review: Portraits of Power by NK Singh

An autobiography of an eminent Indian bureaucrat that could well be a vivid biography of the Indian Civil Service itself
By Prachi Mishra | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON NOV 07, 2020 06:16 PM IST
472pp, Rs 595; Rupa
472pp, Rs 595; Rupa

Few people know more about India’s systems than NK Singh (or NK as he’s often referred to by friends). Even fewer have the authority that he commands, having been at the helm of several positions in the central government, in Bihar, in parliament, and in his most recent role as the chairman of the Fifteenth Finance Commission of India. I was introduced to NK by my PhD thesis supervisor, Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, and my association with him grew when I worked closely with him as the secretary to the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Review Committee, which he chaired.

This book takes us through his journey over half a century of public policy making in India. It starts with an eloquent recounting of his roots – the migration of his ancestors from Rajasthan to Banka in Bihar’s Bhagalpur district, where his paternal grandfather was a school headmaster. The difference with his maternal side was stark as his maternal grandfather was one of the richest zamindars in north Bihar. The next two generations forayed into the Indian civil service and the reader learns of NK’s connections through marriage with royalty in Rajasthan. An interesting reflection of how civil service was entrenched in his family was that a cabinet meeting was once held to decide on Singh family postings! Surprisingly, the civil service was not NK’s first choice; he was content with a teaching job at St Stephen’s college in Delhi but was forced to take the civil service examinations to fulfill the quintessential dream of Bihari parents. He narrates how his wife with her royal lineage once noted that even her junior managers were paid more than the Rs 750 per month that he received as his starting salary from the government. NK Singh’s beginnings truly reflect his own personality – a unique blend of royalty and authority and a deep respect for education and learning.

This autobiography of an Indian bureaucrat could very well be a vivid biography of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) itself; perfect material for a Yes Prime Minister type series set in India. Indeed, the book beautifully illustrates the complexities of the ICS: the author writes of going through land records, titles and tenancy rights written in Persian during his first posting in Madhepura district in north Bihar; he recounts numerous instances of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund post the 1991 BoP crisis, and with Suzuki in Japan leading to the creation of the iconic Maruti Suzuki in India. The book is also full of fascinating anecdotes about the interaction of the civil service with politics. A classic one is the instruction to him by a superior to create grand confusion in the brief on commerce-related issues for the NAM summit in Zambia: “Till you create enough confusion, there will be little scope for me to sort out the mess!” Another was a statement by former Prime Minister Vajpayee post his announcement of the Golden Quadrilateral, where he noted “Maharaj, aap logo ne ghoshna karwa di, ab banwa bhi dijiye.”

NK’s central tenet of “optimism, optimism, and optimism” flows through the book. I like that he is eternally optimistic about India, and believes in solutions to problems. Unlike several of his contemporaries, he is not at all suspicious of markets and the private sector and this is reflected in his long-standing friendships with the elite in India’s industrial and services sector. He favours “rules” to “discretion”, as the former can offer support and signal commitment, and he has been a modernizer in his several roles. At the same time, he has always preferred non-corner solutions to allow for flexibility and accommodation. This was evident in the recommendation to allow the contentious escape clause in the FRBM Review Committee, and in the range of fiscal deficit by the Finance Commission, both of which he chaired.

Several puzzles emerge too after reading this book: why has the Indian Civil Service not attracted even a single individual from NK’s future generations despite the strong family tradition? Is this reflective of the fact that the global ecosystem has changed and so have the aspirations of younger generations? Perhaps the best and the brightest would no longer mechanically (or by brute force of parents) opt for jobs unless employers proactively attempt to attract them. It is important not only to attract them, but to be able to retain them with an enabling and simulating environment, where they can grow in their careers. Indeed, all of NK’s future generations are highly competent.

NK talks about the need for “economic mandarins” along with “occasional” lateral entrants in India’s civil service to get things done. One wonders why this distinction at all given that the global and Indian economies have become abundantly complicated with increasing liquidity and depth of private markets. Why not view the role of regulators as being that of enabling labour markets to function efficiently to create a level playing field, supporting an environment for both entrants and incumbents to flourish, and promoting a spirit of healthy competition at all levels?

This is somewhat intriguing coming from one of the key architects of and believers in India’s drastic import liberalization of the 1990s. If opening goods markets to international trade can increase competition and enhance efficiency and offset any short-term costs, the same arguments would indeed also apply to the opening up of factor markets to domestic and global competition.

Prachi Mishra is an economist with the International Monetary Fund.

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