Guest column: From bad English to worse finances
Bureaucrats reacted under the ‘condition of anonymity’ camouflage, fearing that the Doon-schooled minister might find fresh linguistic loopholes in their protest note. They could have argued that their handling of English is less pathetic than the state of Punjab’s finances.punjab Updated: Mar 20, 2018 10:13 IST
I am surprised that the controversy over Punjab finance minister Manpreet Badal’s observation on state bureaucrats’ inability to write correct English will not form the centrepiece of the budget session beginning Tuesday. I was expecting officers to boycott the session by refusing to provide any inputs to the finance minister unless he agreed to make liberal budgetary allocation for upgrading the officers’ English skills, preferably with state-sponsored trips to the Oxford or Cambridge University.
Adding insult to injury
But Manpreet’s observation appears to have drilled too big a hole in the ego and dignity of the “uncrowned monarchs” of our times for them to hit back. That the drilling was done by one of the politicians — whose English these bureaucrats routinely ridicule — must have added insult to the injury. Obviously, I had overestimated officers’ willingness to defend their pride.
Bureaucrats reacted only under the “condition of anonymity” camouflage, fearing perhaps that the Doon-schooled minister might find fresh linguistic loopholes in their protest note. They could have argued that their handling of English is less pathetic than the state of Punjab’s finances. But English remains a badge of intellectual superiority which a bureaucrat loves to pin firmly to his lapel.
An IAS officer friend of mine once told me that the secret of his selection was his deliberate “‘dumbing down” of intelligence. “I purposely looked dependably a mediocre so as to appear trustworthy for the system. I also acted disciplined (meaning a status quo genius) and organised (meaning incapable of thinking ‘out of box’ or of thinking for myself).”
Our bureaucrats waste no time on hairsplitting to distinguish astrology from astronomy or sophistication from sophistry.
DC or ‘dignified clerk’
Before I could recover from these stunning salvos, my friend fired yet another. “What is so intelligent about an officer’s job, anyway? All said a DC is only a “dignified clerk” capable of managing situations which a management graduate of average ability would handle with ease. When did you hear of a bureaucrat averting a crisis with his intervention?”
My bureaucrat friend is convinced that if “consistent and impressive mediocrity” guides you into the IAS, it takes even less to succeed in the profession – a euphemism for securing “plum” postings. “Cut to basics, our training teaches us only how to make impressive PPPs – or PowerPoint(less) Presentations prepared for us by our clerks and superintendents etc., and the sole purpose of these presentations is to impress the leader.”
Google walking on two legs
Our bureaucrats waste no time on hairsplitting to distinguish astrology from astronomy or sophistication from sophistry. Aaaaw! Sophistry! A bureaucrat can talk glibly on any subject from poetry to potatoes, or from Beant Singh to Beethoven or on whatever interests his political bosses. He can outtalk the devil with a five-minute discourse on any subject. In short, a bureaucrat is Google walking on two legs. But unlike Google, he can answer every question you never asked.
But I have met some truly great people in the civil service. HV Krishnamurthy was one of them. An excellent administrator and an adorable human being – HV was the most loving and caring friend of his drivers, peons and rural farmers, with whom he had worked closely during his field postings. Expectedly, he wasn’t the darling of his colleagues. His goodness sprouted from his heart. And I could gratefully take lessons from him in English.
‘Babus like All India Radio’
Among the countless memorable conversations which HV and I used to have with the celebrated journalist, late Prem Bhatia, I remember one in which HV suddenly burst out laughing loudly before he managed to say: “We bureaucrats are like All India Radio. You cannot talk back at us except by looking like utter idiots. We speak proudly to the universe knowing who is larger of us two! And the only thing larger for us than the universe is someone who can influence our postings or transfers.”
Prem Bhatia had a well-publicised contempt for bureaucrats and would often express it in deliciously unprintable Punjabi. He responded in his famous stentorian voice and in words whose printable English translation would be this: “Harcharan, when a bureaucrat opens his mouth, make sure it stays open for clean five minutes. That’s all the time it takes for him to exhaust his knowledge and intelligence. Do not interrupt him for he feeds and thrives on your interruptions. These enable him to digress and deviate and eventually make you forget your question.”
But there have been some truly brilliant people in the bureaucracy. The legendary Mennons for example, or TKA Nair and NN Vohra. Among those whom I knew personally and closely were the iconic MS Randhawa and also Tejendra Khanna. With Khanna, I could simply close my eyes and keep listening for ever to his serenading English in that succulent voice, words dancing on his lips in fluent rhapsodies and painting magical tapestries before the mind’s eye. Unlike most bureaucrats, Khanna believes that listening is an integral part of the art of conversation. Another one whom I have known to possess this adorable faith in the sacredness of listening is Ramesh Inder Singh. I know a few others too who do not qualify for Manpreet’s holy rage.
Why furore over English?
But why this rumpus over the English instead of Punjabi on the neglect of which any Punjab minister should be more worried about, and on which our bureaucrats need and deserve a few sharp raps on their knuckles.
In the good old days, when I used to share Manpreet’s love for Urdu, I once phoned him around midnight to share this Ghalib gem:
“Ik khel hai aurang-e-suleimaan mere nazdeek Ik baat hai ejaaz -e -maseeha mere aage”
(The emperor’s throne is a mere plaything and the prophet’s miracle too just an empty word for me.)
Ironically, a fortnight after this midnight mini-mushaira, Manpreet himself “lost his throne.”
My suggestion is that the forthcoming budget should have a liberal provision for educating the ministers and bureaucrats not just in language skills but also, more especially, in the forgotten art of civility in language.
(The writer is former CM Parkash Singh Badal’s adviser on national affairs and media)