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How a pair of sandals saved the day for the Morarji Desai govt

Humility and humour dissipate the worst of tensions. The worry is that the existing breed of politicians and civil servants are mostly untouched by such traits. Had Arvind Kejriwal showed up with a bouquet of flowers at Anshu Prakash’s residence, the face-off would’ve had a happy ending. But that wasn’t to be

opinion Updated: Mar 06, 2018 11:47 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times
AAP,Arvind Kejriwal,Anshu Prakash
Chief secretary Anshu Prakash (seated right in the front row) along with other officers and employees of Delhi government during the March for Dignity protest, Rajghat, New Delhi, February 28(Sanchit Khanna/HT)

There’s a spousal dimension to top bureaucrats’ working relations with ministers. They can and must disagree in the interest of diligent decision-making. But all that has to be behind closed doors — not in public.

A veteran civil servant drew the analogy when a secretary-level official who is now a central minister attacked his former political boss for “preventing” interrogation in the 2G case of a businessman with “links” to Dawood Ibrahim.

The bureaucrat levelled the charge post-retirement and on getting elected to Parliament on a party ticket. That he retrospectively felt a prick of conscience reflected poorly on him.

It always takes two to tango. The episode involving Delhi chief secretary (CS), Anshu Prakash, is another unfortunate case of one half letting the other down; the onus being on chief minister Arvind Kejriwal who let his party legislators misbehave with his chief of staff.

There undoubtedly was that ‘pati, patni aur woh’ dimension that resulted, so to speak, in domestic violence. Notionally, the Delhi CS has two bosses, including the CM; but, in reality just one, the lieutenant governor.

Open relationships do not work in politics even when jurisdictions and power hierarchies aren’t as confusing as they are in Delhi. But the breakdown arising out of the Anshu Prakash incident is a result as much of competing egos and conflicting temperaments.

In the end, neither side covered itself in glory. Having summoned Prakash to his residence past midnight, the onus was on Kejriwal to prevent things from getting out of hand. Equally abhorrent was the raid in which 60-odd policemen descended on Kejriwal’s residence to secure CCTV footage.

The lesson for Kejriwal could have been in what Morarji Desai’s health minister, Raj Narain, did to make amends for having publicly humiliated an official of the Indian Information Service. The official was late in reaching the minister in Nirman Bhawan as he broke his sandals while walking down from his office in Shastri Bhawan.

Devastated by the boss’ public outburst, the officer, who rose to become adviser to J&K governor, put in his papers. But that very night, he had Narain on the phone dictating his own resignation to him. “I’d also quit if you do not report for work tomorrow…”

Next morning, Narain personally received the official at Nirman Bhawan. Even more touching was the gift the veteran socialist had kept packed on his work table for him: a pair of new sandals!

“That should,” he joked, “solve the problem ….”

In public life, stooping is conquering. Had Kejriwal shown up with a bouquet of flowers at Prakash’s residence, the face-off would’ve had a happy ending. But that wasn’t to be. Nor did the L-G try to broker peace by having both of them over to his office for a rapprochement.

If not the L-G, home minister Rajnath Singh could have stepped in early. There was precedent, in fact, for Singh to follow from LK Advani’s days. As home minister, Advani overruled the L-G to let the then Delhi CM, Sheila Dikshit, have the CS of her choice.

The Anshu Prakash incident brought back memories of the way Rajiv Gandhi removed foreign secretary, AP Venkateswaran, in the 1980s. The Indian prime minister announced the change of guard at a press conference in response to a question by a Pakistani journalist. Venkateswaran was among those in the audience.

The seasoned diplomat wasn’t a yes-man and had opposed many ambassadorial proposals by the PMO, then run by such important civil servants as Gopi Arora and Sarla Grewal. That he kept intact his sense of humour in his worst professional crisis was obvious from his response to my request for a meeting after the public sacking: “Yes, yes please come. I’m lying in State and you can file past me…”

Humility and humour dissipate the worst of tensions. The existing breed of politicians and civil servants seems mostly untouched by such qualities. Such is the lure of the camera, the fame, the urge to be one up that lines are crossed, not respected.

There can be no defence of elected representatives getting physical with a bureaucrat. But if politicians tend to bully and bulldoze, civil servants, too, aren’t averse to pulling rank. The former dominate when power is absolute; the latter when strings are pulled from above.

There are instances of such tussles in other states and the Centre. The rules of business are decided by where the power lies.

vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Mar 06, 2018 11:06 IST