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Nothing comes from Nothing

Nothing comes from Nothing
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Nothing Comes from Nothing. Prime Minister VP Singh’s administration was distinguished for its human touch. There was a certain calmness and absence...

Prime Minister VP Singh’s administration was distinguished for its human touch. There was a certain calmness and absence of unwarranted pressures in the way the PMO worked. This does not mean that life was not hectic as it always is in a PMO. What distinguished this PMO was there was no wholesale transfer of officers from the PMO because there was a regime change. All the officers who had served Rajiv Gandhi continued in the PMO. Two things struck me, which had nothing to do with the new regime itself. Both were a sad reflection of the way the civil service functions. The first pertained to the persistent questions from my colleagues in the IAS on how I happened to reach the PMO. The implication was that the PMO, being a purely political office known to dispense patronage, was destined for those who were close to the incumbent establishment and so to whom did I owe such a rise in my career?

The Establishment Officer in the Ministry of Personnel is the guardian of the civil service in regard to all officers’ service records and it is his responsibility to propose to the Cabinet Secretary names of suitable officers for vacancies that arise in various ministries and public sector undertakings, not to mention of every senior appointment in the union government, after calling for proposals from the Ministries where vacancies arise. As for me, the fact was that I did not have to owe anything to anyone for my posting to the PMO. JC Lynn, the Establishment Officer, had proposed my name for this job based on my record since my predecessor Vasudevan was leaving on promotion as Secretary in the Department of Power, and the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister BG Deshmukh himself a former Cabinet Secretary accepted his recommendation and PM VP Singh approved it.

The second thing that distressed me was the way many senior civil servants of all services would angle for post-retirement jobs and lay siege to the PMO. Let it never be thought that I am questioning the dignity or integrity of the civil servants as a class. Far from it. A majority of them do not indulge in this but those who do are a danger to the civil service and the country for it often stems from a system of quid pro quo and as Julie Andrews sang in the ‘Sound of Music’, “Nothing comes from Nothing”. They would literally start a debasing campaign with the PMO with about a year of service remaining which would include handing favours to the powers that be that hold the reins of patronage. Such post-retirement jobs are for past services rendered to the regime and for future services to be further rendered. Exceptions are few.

Regardless of where my posting would have been proposed I should record that JC Lynn was a most distinguished and objective IAS officers ever and he adorned his enviable office with a unique grace, sophistication and apolitical impartiality. An Anglo Goan, Lynn was a practitioner of true Christian values and towered over many civil servants of his vintage through his uncompromising integrity. The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) of which the PM is Chairman,and which clears top civil service appointments, contrary to some public and journalistic perceptions does not actually meet formally but disposes of its business by circulation of files. Its other members are the subject minister concerned from whose department the proposal for appointment originates and the Home Minister. There could be an occasional change as it happened when the Deputy Prime Minster Devi Lal was a member. The Establishment Officer proposes the names of officers including often in a panel to the Cabinet Secretary, who in turn circulates them to the members of the ACC. The file reaches the PMO after seen by them. The senior officer who handles the subject in the PMO maintains closeness with the Establishment Officer and the Cabinet Secretary given the fact they are the originators of the proposals, and the urgency and implications involved in the PM clearing them. In my time, for most part of my tenure, I was handling the ACC in the PMO before I told PM Narasimha Rao one day that I would like to be relieved of this responsibility. Of this, more at the appropriate time. I would scrutinize the proposals coming to the PM in the ACC and submit my recommendations to him through the Principal Secretary. Throughout the number of years I handled the ACC for the three PMs I served I had the impeccably honest assistance of one of the ablest officers AK Tewary, who, was first deputy secretary and later director in the PMO.

VP Singh as Prime Minister was committed to promote the concept of social justice in the country, a concept foreign to most elite castes of our polity. He was unpopular with them, and the media run by them has made him a “controversial and divisive” leader because of his Mandal reforms. In addition he ran a Government dependent on a conglomerate of political parties that spanned a whole spectrum from left to right. Every supporting party was pulling in its own direction including the BJP whose leader launched a dangerously destabilizing Rathyatra. The Babri Masjid came under threat. Above all VP Singh’s own Janata Dal was split and there were leaders from within the Janata Dal conspiring overtime to topple him. The main aspirant Chandrasekhar was in touch with the Congress and Devi Lal was such a disruptive force from within that governance looked often like a farce. Despite all this the PM applied himself to the cause of the marginalised. Important ideas were brought to the Cabinet such as the right to work which was discussed at least in two cabinet meetings. The later creation of the National Commission for Women was facilitated by his getting passed in his time the National Commission for Women Act 1990.The importance of the idea of an inclusive India that cared for the marginalized was constantly on his agenda. If that appeared divisive to some, he could not help it. A perception also exists that reservation for the other backward classes was a political card VP Singh played for his own survival, the so-called Mandal card. Those who witnessed the efforts that VP Singh was making to address issues affecting the people on various fronts like agriculture, power, free flow of credit for farmers, issues relating to the new policy on education, health, women’s rights, minority rights and religious reconciliation would not subscribe to this. Added to all this was his bringing to the fore the idea of the NSC. Mandal was on the agenda as part of his philosophy but it was also on the agenda of people who were opposed to social justice and driven by internecine ambitions. In the words of PS Krishnan IAS, then Secretary to the Government of India in the Welfare Ministry, the year 1990 was a brief “ Annus Mirabilis” as it saw the statutory restoration of the Scheduled Caste (SC) status to SC converts to Buddhism under the Presidential orders in terms of Article 341 of the constitution; conferment of the Constitutional status on the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; and recognition of Socially and Educationally Backward Classes at the national level and provision of 27 percent reservation for them in civil posts of the Central government and central public sector undertakings.

The PM had a special spot of affection for and trust in me. He greatly liked the speech I wrote for him for a public meeting in Visakhapatnam and once he directed me to frame a statement to the press on his behalf after a important meeting with Muslim divines and scholars in the Babri context, where I had not even been present! Above all, late on the night of the 16th October 1990, the PM called me when I was working at the office to the PM House and asked me to draft an ordinance for the protection of the Babri Masjid involving acquisition of the land in dispute; get it discussed and finalized in a meeting of the Cabinet Secretary, Home Secretary and the Chief Secretary, Uttar Pradesh for further action before the Cabinet. The time I met him was 11-35 pm and he wanted it all done by 6 am! This also involved getting the UP Chief Secretary fly into Delhi from Lucknow before that hour. All this was achieved, the meeting taking place around 6 am at the residence of the Cabinet Secretary. After all this, the ordinance was not issued. Earlier, the PM exhibited personal concern for me by asking how long I could keep awake at night and sported apparent surprise purely as a gesture of appreciation when I replied, “Two consecutive nights, Sir”. Then he turned to Subodh Kant Sahay who was with him and said: “I rely on Venugopal because he never uses his position for himself”. That was tribute enough from a nation’s leader.

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