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Facts versus fiction

Ramachandra Guha's column had a number of factual inaccuracies, writes Jairam Ramesh.

india Updated: Nov 08, 2011 22:55 IST

My good friend Ramachandra Guha and fellow Nehruphile has authored a number of seminal books and written landmark articles. Sadly, his most recent column(History Matters, Comment, November 7) has a number of factual inaccuracies even though his main points are correct: the Janata government of Morarji Desai had some achievements, Desai himself was a very good administrator and there is a need to induct professionals from outside at the top levels of the Indian bureaucracy. But in his over eagerness to show his pet political peeve — Indira Gandhi — in poor light and, by comparison, to elevate Desai’s standing, Guha slips up.

Guha writes that Lovraj Kumar, India’s first Rhodes scholar and a chemical technologist, was appointed petroleum secretary by Desai. This is an egregious error. Kumar was made petroleum secretary in February 1981 by Gandhi after 14 years of government service. It is also true that Kumar was shifted sometime in August 1983 when he fell out with his minister P Shivshankar.

Guha writes that Manuel Menezes was appointed by Desai as secretary, defence production. This is true, but Menezes, a highly competent officer, was not an outsider. He was a Member of the Railway Board, very much in the system when he was made secretary, defence production, in April 1978. This was almost a year after Desai became PM and when the incumbent died. But he went back to the Board as chairman in June 1979 and retired in November 1980.

Guha writes that “Dr Manmohan Singh was appointed secretary to the finance ministry in November 1976 at the fag-end of the Emergency” and pays tribute to HM Patel, Desai’s finance minister, for retaining Singh. Patel certainly deserves credit for not getting rid of Singh. But here too, Guha’s facts are not accurate. Singh was appointed secretary in the department of economic affairs (and never designated as finance secretary, as Guha seems to suggest). Surely, Guha could have acknowledged in a more generous manner Gandhi’s personal role in elevating Singh to this post.

Guha writes that Desai appointed the famous agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan as agriculture secretary. Actually, Swaminathan was also in the system. He was brought in by Gandhi as secretary in the department of agricultural research and education. Desai did elevate him as principal secretary in the ministry of agriculture and irrigation at, to throw Guha’s own phrase back at him, “the fag end of his tenure as Prime Minister” in 1979.

Guha claims that Gandhi abandoned the experiment of inducting professionals at the highest levels of government when she returned to power in 1980. Factually, this is untrue. She had appointed engineers and scientists to top administrative positions during her earlier tenure (like Mantosh Sondhi as secretary, heavy industry, and MGK Menon as secretary, electronics) and she continued with this tradition. One of her first acts after returning to power was the appointment of DV Kapur, the noted power engineer and the architect of National Thermal power Corporation, as power secretary in June 1980. Guha himself writes approvingly that the first two secretaries of the ministry of environment were scientists with administrative experience. What he conveniently forgets is that these two gentlemen (SZ Qasim and TN Khoshoo) were appointed by Gandhi herself after she returned to power in 1980.

As I said, I agree with the thrust of Guha’s main thesis that the pool from which selections are made for top administrative posts must expand. But as someone who has worked very closely with both “professionals” and civil servants for almost three decades, let me also say that our experience in this regard has been mixed. And with the growing “professionalisation” of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), this distinction on which Guha bases his column, is becoming quite outmoded.

Let me admit that as minister in charge of environment and forests, I seriously considered getting an outside professional as secretary and had, in fact, sounded out a couple of them. But ultimately I felt that the balance of advantage lay in getting an IAS officer with “professional” qualifications and experience.

Guha makes much of Menezes’s appointment as secretary, defence production. Was the civil servant K Subrahmanyam (“Bomb Mama”), who came into that position a few months after Menezes had left, any less “professional”?

( Jairam Ramesh is Union rural development minister )

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Nov 08, 2011 22:52 IST