On a chilly December 1992 night, Uttar Pradeshs new chief secretary was halfway through a drink at a welcome dinner organised for him in Lucknow when the phone rang. It was the states Governor, B. Satyanarayana Reddy.
Reddy said he had a list of key officials who had to be transferred. And it had to be done immediately. The chief secretary replied that he had just taken over and needed to study the situation first. When Reddy insisted, he retorted: Then you find another chief secretary or issue the orders yourself. He added that a days delay would not matter and said he would call on the Governor the next day. And then, the 1961 batch officer of the Uttar Pradesh cadre all but hung the phone up on the states highest constitutional functionary.
T.S.R. Subramanian, 71, chuckles as he now recalls that encounter. It is 9 am and we are sitting in his study on the second floor of his house in Noida on the outskirts of Indias capital. The table is cluttered with papers and labelled files are strewn across the room, one of which relates to his second book Govern Mint in India.
Subramanian, an alumnus of St Xaviers, Calcutta, very clearly isnt quite ready to meet the world yet, his short chubby frame covered in a red housecoat. But the former cabinet secretary is full of beans and witty one-liners as he remembers the many skirmishes he had to face when he was sent to Uttar Pradesh just days after the Babri Masjid demolition and the imposition of Central rule in the state on December 6, 1992.
Subramanian had moved to Delhi from the state only six months earlier and was then secretary, textiles ministry. He had had heard his name being mentioned as one of the likely state cadre officers stationed in Delhi who could be sent as chief secretary to Uttar Pradesh, for all top state officials had been transferred. He had requested A.N. Varma, who was principal secretary to the then Prime Minister, the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, to let him stay on in Delhi considering that he had just about settled in. But a week after the demolition, he got an early morning call from Varma. The Border Security Force plane that is to take you to Lucknow will leave at 8 am. I want you to call me at 9.30 from there, reporting that you have taken charge.
So he called Varma at 9.30 am — and then burnt the wires over the next five-and-a-half hours ringing up people within and outside the government trying to assess the mood of the state. The first thing that struck him was the atmosphere of fear and gloom. There was unease in eight to 10 districts with stray stabbings — by both communities, he stresses. Local leaders were whipping up passions. And here I will not spare anybody. The Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Samajwadi Party and the Muslim elements. Everybody was playing this game. Everybody was fishing in troubled waters. Its a phrase that recurs through the conversation.
Worse, he found the babudom also playing politics. He called up key district officials and gave them a clear message — the killings must stop. Peace must come back. I will hold you personally responsible. And then there was the tough talk. If you do anything on political grounds, I will finish your career. But if you take any strong action I will support you if I am satisfied that action is bona fide.
He himself was quick to show the political class its place when it interfered in administrative matters. When he called on the Governor to discuss transfers the morning after theyd spoken on the phone, Reddy told him the list had been prepared by Jitendra Prasada (the now-deceased all-powerful Uttar Pradesh Congress leader). Subramanian asked, Who is Jitendra Prasada? Is he the Prime Minister or home minister? Even after he was told that Prasada had consulted the Prime Minister, he asked for time. After a few days, he went to Delhi and called on Narasimha Rao and in the course of their conversation asked if he had ordered any transfers in UP. Rao told him, I have sent you to look after the state. I trust you and I am not going to interfere in local affairs. A week later there was a bureaucratic reshuffle, but without any reference to the list.
Thats vintage Subramanian, who always laments about the politicisation and pliability of the bureaucracy. That and improving the cutting edge of administration (where it directly interacts with the public) were the focus areas of the administrative reforms that he drove when he was cabinet secretary from 1996 to 1998.
Then Union home minister, the late S.B. Chavan, also got snubbed. When Chavan visited UP in early January, 1993, for a review meeting, he sought a formal report from the state government about the events of December 6. While the Governor agreed, Subramanian butted in to point out that all the relevant papers had been submitted to the Union home ministry. The Central Bureau of Investigation was investigating the matter and the Justice M.S. Liberhan commission had been appointed. What report can we give, he asked.
When Chavan suggested that the report be based on accounts of local officials, Subramanian gave what he terms a gratuitous lecture about how the state enjoyed communal harmony for a long time and that this discord had been deliberately forged for political reasons. He suggested that the government let things be for a while and wait for the Liberhan commission report. In retrospect, it was highly cheeky, he laughs.
He suspected — its only a feeling, I dont want to impute motives — that the central government wanted a report indicting the Sangh Parivar that could be used as a political weapon. When a livid Chavan pressed for the report, the incorrigible chief secretary said that since he didnt have the papers, the Union home ministry officers should be asked to write it. In the one year that Chavan remained home minister after that, he never granted Subramanian an audience.
I could meet the Prime Minister, but not the home minister, he chuckles. The Prime Minister didnt have the time to look at Uttar Pradesh. The home minister was very angry with me. We had a Governor who was, shall we say, not very effective. For a year we were able to do what we wanted without interference.
Slowly, Uttar Pradesh started recovering from its wounds. The stray killings had stopped after Subramanians tough talk. But the mood really changed after an India-England cricket match in mid-December. It was a small event but in a state where not too many international events took place, this was a turning point, psychologically.
Though he wasnt privy to what went on in the corridors of power in the months before the demolition, he blames all political parties for the events of that day. My own feeling is all the parties got boxed into a corner from which they couldnt resile without loss of face. It was like one of those Greek tragedies where all the actors know what is happening but they all move towards the end. Not for him excuses about how the administration was taken by surprise. It happened two years earlier (in 1990, when kar sevaks first climbed the Babri Masjid and planted saffron flags on the central dome). It is naïve to say it wasnt expected in 1992.
Does he agree with the Liberhan reports findings, released earlier this week? That sets the excitable Subramanian down another path. Forty-eight extensions! It should go into the Guinness Book (of world records), he says, referring to the number of times the commissions tenure was renewed.
He recalls how the commission kept rejecting options for a location for its office on the ground that the place was not secure. Among them was a section of the Lucknow High Court complex and the chief ministers office (since there was no chief minister). Finally, he sarcastically asked if he should get the Governors residence vacated for the commission.
The first meeting of the commission finally happened in April or May, 1993, well after the three months within which it had to submit its report was over. There is a built-in tendency of all inquiry commissions to prolong their tenure. By the time the reports come out, the issue is dead.
So had he always been cheeky? I was not particularly cheeky; maybe I was a bit bolder than the others, he says and, forgetting my time is up, immediately gets on to his favourite hobby horse — the decline of the independence of the bureaucracy. But then, the son of an electrical engineer has seen it all from close quarters.