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A quintessential babu

In the end, former Cabinet Secretary BG Deshmukh sticks a toe out and then backs off.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2004 10:45 IST

A Cabinet Secretary Looks Back
BG Deshmukh

Harper Collins
2004
Memoirs, Politics
Pages:
Price: Rs 500
ISBN: 81-7223- 474-0
Hardcover

We have come a long way from the time when bureaucrats were perceived as unidimensional figures who do nothing more than push pens — pundits of rules who hover in the background. That image of the bureaucrat, particularly those belonging to the elitist Indian Administrative Service, characterised by Sardar Patel as the steel frame of the country, has often been at odds with the social status that the bureaucracy enjoys. In this dichotomy, perhaps, lies the seed of the conflict that many bureaucrats seem to have with their environment.

Some resolve the conflict by developing other interests; they translate poems, legends, and folklore in many languages (some may even pass these off as their own). A few quit the system, often for big dollar positions, sometimes even managing to mount the moral high ground while they do so.

But BG Deshmukh neither is, nor was, clearly, ever a man in conflict with the steel frame he was a part of. In this book, he appears as the quintessential, even clichéd, version of the ‘IAS afsar’. He was always where it mattered, always jockeying for power, patronage and the paraphernalia of the power structure.

From the start, he has been in the corridors of power. He was private secretary to Maharashtra CM VP Naik, the first IAS officer to be a Chief Minister’s Private Secretary. SB Chavan, who went on to become the Union Home Minister, replaced Naik, but Deskhmuk continued.

Come Emergency, Deshmukh became the Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai. His explanation was that Emergency was stifling and he wanted to be out of the CM’s office. Even in that hot seat, he did not succumb to pressure from Sanjay Gandhi. He came to Delhi and held key positions during Morarji Desai’s regime. Later, he became Union Labour Secretary only after then Home Minister Zail Singh spoke to Indira Gandhi to clear her doubts that he was YB Chavan’s man. He later went back to Maharashtra as the Chief Secretary during Vasantdada Patil’s tenure.

One fine morning, he was called to Delhi, to become the Cabinet Secretary, the ultimate dream of a bureaucrat, and his version is that Rajiv Gandhi wanted to re-establish the importance of the Cabinet Secretary and use the institution as Jawaharlal Nehru used to do. As Rajiv Gandi’s ‘Sir Humphrey’, he was there with him during periods of crises: Union Carbide, Bofors, Panchyat Bills, Sri Lankan crisis, the Punjab crisis, Rajiv’s problems with President Zail Singh, the Malidives operations, to name a few.

After his retirement, Rajiv made him Principal Secretary in his PMO. Then Rajiv’s bitter critic VP Singh came to power — and retained him in the same post! So did Chandrashekhar, who after a few days humiliated him (reasons not explained). The book is replete with details about how Deshmukh discharged his duties, from snubbing General Sundarji when he tried to bypass the bureaucracy, to helping junior officers with postings.

So why should anyone but another bureaucrat be interested in reading such a tome? Obviously, when you know that this is a man who has been around, who has had a ringside view of major events in the nation’s recent history, who was privy to major decisions and may have even been party to them — well, you would expect to see some skeletons being brought out to rattle. But there is none of that, save for some tantalizing bits where he claims that Rajiv knew about the recipients of the Bofors kickbacks and wanted to shield them.

In the end, BG comes across as the quintessential babu; he hums and haws, sticks a toe out and then backs off and generally seems a dilly-dally raconteur who either does not recognize a good story when he sees it, or is reluctant to tell it. Rajiv Gandhi gets some harsh words, but these are supposedly tempered by his having been a “good human being”. When it comes to living Prime Ministers VP Singh and Chandrashekhar, he is even more careful. VP Singh is a sensitive person, a painter that he was impressed with. Chandrashekhar is a private person who knew how to conduct himself.

So why does a man like BG Deshmukh decide to write a book and leave out the story? Politics may have been a reason, but a man of BG Deshmukh’s generation probably has no political USP at this juncture. I must admit that I’m stumped by all that discretion.