TN Chaturvedi: A scholar in bureaucracy and politics| Opinion
It was sunset time on November 14, 2019.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary was being observed at what had been his official residence for 17 years — Teen Murti House, New Delhi. Now home to the Memorial Museum and Library that bears his name, its gracious auditorium was filled to capacity for a lecture to be given by the scholar, Madhavan Palat. On the dais and in the seats were people whose adherence to the Nehru school of thought and the Indian National Congress’ perspectives was deep and frank. One could say that everyone present was either a partisan or a sympathiser of what may be called the Nehruvian way of looking at India and the world.
With one exception.
Triloki Nath Chaturvedi, two months short of 90, quietly took a corner seat in the first row of the hall. He was guided to that row, for he had headed that organisation from 1999 to 2004. Left to himself, he would have preferred to take a corner seat in any row in that hall. But front row or last row, he would have attended the programme. Anything unusual in that? Not really, except that Chaturvedi was nowhere near being a Congressman, far from being of the Nehru mould. The only party he had ever been associated with was the Congress’ polar opposite — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), having served as a member of the Rajya Sabha from that party, and been appointed governor of Karnataka by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And he knew that his attending an event like Nehru’s birth anniversary would not have gone unnoticed by his party, his party’s loyalists. And by those who are currently “widening” Teen Murti’s remit to cover all PMs of India beyond the Nehru years.
That made no difference to him.
Chaturvedi would have attended a commemoration of Nehru simply because he wanted to and liked to participate in any event that had to do with modern Indian history and India’s renaissance. An Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of exceptional stature, he was an intellectual at the disposal of India’s bureaucracy, not an IAS officer who dabbled in matters of the mind. A highly respected member of the BJP, he was a scholar in the echelons of the BJP, not a party-man with scholarly interests.
His appointment at Prime Minister Vajpayee’s behest to the Raj Bhavan in Karnataka was a perfect one. Vajpayee knew that as governor, Chaturvedi would be true to the Constitution and the laws, which meant that on entering that mansion, all his political affiliations would go into deep hibernation, if not vanish from his mind. There was universal respect for him in Karnataka, universal faith in his impartiality. He was the Constitution’s model of a non-partisan head of State.
When in 2004, the NDA was defeated, Chaturvedi readied to relinquish his office, in the best traditions of democracy. But such was his stature, such his reputation for impartiality that he was requested to stay on. And when he agreed, there was no obsequious gratitude for what any lesser person would have considered a favour done.
Chaturvedi had one partiality. In fact, two, and they were related. And that was for books and people who wrote or read books. He would, on going to any new city or town, search out its book stores and browse and buy books. And he would also seek out book-people. In Kolkata, for instance, he would invariably find time to spend with an ideological opposite — the veteran Marxist Ashok Mitra. They would spend hours in book-chat. In Bengaluru, he made friends with one who was decades younger, miles apart in political chemistry — Ramachandra Guha. Even as of 10 days before he fell critically ill, he bought, not “got”, but bought a copy of the last volume — the 100th — of Nehru’s Selected Works.
My association with Chaturvedi had a double distinction to it. I was his “probationer” in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, and then, some 40 years later, a fellow governor with him.
Seeing him at my swearing-in at Kolkata’s Raj Bhavan, I recalled an episode in Mussoorie, 1968. A friend of mine from college happened to just drop in one evening. We talked and talked. It became late, and by the time he left it was well past regulation hours. The next morning, I thought I would “just mention” this to TNC Sir. “You see, Gopal, it is not about the rightness or wrongness of this particular matter… Today your friend overstays, tomorrow other guests may feel they can do the same…”. I looked down at the ground, ashamed. “No, no…Only remember that a public servant has to always think of what his action does and means to others…”.
I could not have been taught a more valuable lesson.
Rest in Peace, TNC Sir.