Anecdotes on funny side of bureaucracy

Anecdotes on funny side of bureaucracy

After a patient scan of the political, economic and social environmental space, another journey down memory lane - to recollect a few more snippets of...

After a patient scan of the political, economic and social environmental space, another journey down memory lane - to recollect a few more snippets of wisdom, experience, sagacity and, yes, a sense of humour, which this columnist had the honour and privilege of being exposed to while working with senior colleagues, political leaders and statesmen - appeared to be the best course of action for this week – the first one of the new decade, as it happens.

So here they are, a few more of such experiences.There is no substitute for patient research and thorough knowledge of the book of rules – especially while taking a position with superiors.

In 1982, Giani Zail Singh, the then President of India, needed to undergo a heart bypass surgery and was to be hospitalised for six weeks. Justice Hidayatullah was the Vice President of India. This columnist was posted as the Secretary to the Vice President, a posting that became a great learning process, providing, as it did, a valuable opportunity for close interaction with an eminent jurist and versatile statesman.

Hidayatullah was a highly principled man who possessed many qualities. His choice of words was also précise and politically correct. He had originally accepted the post of Vice President as his candidature had been unanimously accepted by the ruling as well as all the Opposition parties.

After N Sanjiva Reddy completed his tenure as the President, speculation was rife about the possible successor to the highest officer in the land. At one point of time, all senior Opposition leaders at that time including LK Advani, HN Bahuguna, Harkishan Singh Surjeet and others called on Hidayatullah and tried to persuade him to run for President. The Vice President insisted on this columnist sitting through that discussion, explaining later that he wanted no misinterpretation or out-of-context reference to what was to transpire.

One felt totally out of place being witness to such an important and historic occasion. At the end of it all, Hidayatullah, firmly but politely, declined the offer, saying that contesting an election was inconsistent with his image in the public. ("Zeb nahin deta", in Urdu, were his actual words). Subsequently the ruling party chose Giani Zail Singh as its candidate who went on to become the President of the country.

One interesting exchange (among Hidayatullah in the capacity of the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the irrepressible Piloo Mody, then a member of that august House) has appeared in this column earlier. It was on the same day that another witty exchange also took place among the same parties.

It was a Thursday, and, therefore, the Prime Minister's day for replying to questions in the Rajya Sabha. While the discussion was going on, Piloo Mody found that Hidayatullah was repeatedly leaning to his right, craning his neck and turning his ear towards the Prime Minister whenever she spoke.

Having observed this for a few minutes, he stood up and asked the Chairman whether, while the Prime Minister was undoubtedly a strikingly good-looking lady, there was any need for the Chair to look in her direction so many times. Bashfully, Hidayatullah was forced to make a confession that brought out a fact that even this columnist had not known earlier. Apparently, he wore a hearing aid on the left side of his spectacles and, had, therefore, to turn his neck to hear clearly, whenever someone spoke on his right side!

Academic qualifications, training at the academy, the initiation through exposure to grassroots realities in the districts put together are not quite enough by way of preparation for the civil service. What one learns through observing seniors whether by way of what they think, say or do, is perhaps much more useful and of practical value. I, myself, enjoyed the benefit of such exposure to many senior colleagues, especially during the early part of my service. In this week's column I shall recollect a few of the more telling examples.

Jayakar P Johnson was an unforgettable character for many reasons. He was as tall as his ideals were lofty, and his bearing as erect as his principles were upright. A classic representative, in other words, of the dyed-in-the-in-the-wool, 'steel-frame' class civil servant cast in the original mould.

I recollect a case of a Minister in charge of the Municipal Administration portfolio who overruled recommendation of Johnson (the then Secretary in that department), that a request by a builder for relaxation of building by-laws be rejected. The Minister had written that he had personally inspected the structure in question and was satisfied that there was no violation of the by-laws.

And Johnson interrupted further circulation to the Chief Minister. Beginning his note with "Kudos! Ministers are now conducting field inspections," he went on to write a telling note that, in a wry and crisp tenor, reminded the political master of the sharp distinction between the roles of civil servants and Ministers.

And without actually insinuating that the Minister had been influenced by ulterior motives, pointed out the pitfalls of political leaders carrying out the functions of administrators, especially those of a technical nature, and successfully managed to get the Chief Minister to overturn the orders of the Minister. That the Chief Minister possessed the wisdom and maturity to intervene in favour of the system, no doubt, helped matters. The fact remains, however, that Johnson had proved his point.

Gaining the willing support of one's team members and winning their loyalty are virtues that contribute immensely to the efficacy of leadership. This columnist had the good fortune to work with many such bosses and, to this day, treats them with utmost respect, their merest whim being his command. He treasures precious memories of incidents which brought out the large heartedness and genuine infection that people such as Sharda Mukherjee and K Chandraiah showed their attitude towards him.

Another person who possesses the same qualities in abundance is K Madhava Rao. He was the Principal Secretary (Agriculture) in the government of Andhra Pradesh when this columnist was posted as the Registrar of Cooperative Societies. When the time came for him to write this columnist's Annual Confidential Report, he simply called him and said, "Mohan, you write such good English. I have seen that in the manner in which you write assessments of people working under you.

Why don't you help me in filling this form?" And he handed over the assessment form! That incident not only showed his sincere appreciation of this columnist's work but also served as an abject lesson about how one should conduct oneself with team members.

With and humour always lighten the atmosphere, especially in the somewhat austere and cold ambience that pervades the Secretariat. BPR VithaI is known for his irrepressible satire. The Chief Secretary sent him a note once asking for a particular officer to be posted in the finance department which VithaI was heading at that time. The recommendation not being to his liking, VithaI wrote back, "I concede we practise idiocy in the Finance Department. However, it is of the cultivated variety not the congenital one!"

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