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Book review: Challenges of Governance

B K Chaturvedi’s memoir is definitely not a kiss-and-tell-all book. That only raises its credibility because he busies himself with issues rather than personalities and grievances

By TCA Srinivasa Raghavan
  • Published 11.07.19, 7:19 PM
  • Updated 11.07.19, 7:19 PM
  • 3 mins read

Picture source: Amazon
Title: Challenges of Governance -- An Insider's View
Author: B K Chaturvedi
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Genre: Memoir
A former cabinet secretary's memoir, the book provides an insider’s view of the various duties and challenges faced by a bureaucrat

Nearly two decades ago I wrote an article lamenting the fact that Indian bureaucrats rarely wrote their memoirs. Things have changed since then and now there is, if not a flood, at least a steady flow. Not a quarter goes by without someone from the bureaucracy telling their life’s story.

The latest contributor to this flow is B K Chaturvedi, a low-key civil servant. He joined the IAS in 1966 and rose to become cabinet secretary in 2004. That’s the highest position a civil servant can aspire to.

However, as often happens in India with institutions which we airlifted from England, the position has been greatly undermined. Some of this happened when Mr Chaturvedi was cabinet secretary but the process had started earlier with the creation of the post of NSA.

Mr Chaturvedi was Manmohan Singh’s choice for the job over three others. The two seem to have got along very well perhaps because they were similar people.

Dr Singh didn’t always take his advice. Mr Chaturvedi understands why not. Not once does he complain.

B K Chaturvedi was Manmohan Singh's choice for cabinet secretary
B K Chaturvedi was Manmohan Singh's choice for cabinet secretary Wikipedia

Before becoming cabinet secretary Mr Chaturvedi was petroleum secretary in the Vajpayee government. Given the corporate pressures on that job, one would have expected some discussion of the subject. But Mr Chaturvedi has chosen to avoid controversial issues. The name of India’s biggest oil refiner does not grace the pages of the book even once.

Before coming to the petroleum ministry, Mr Chaturvedi was secretary in the ministry of human resources development. It doesn’t seem to have been a very eventful tenure except that he helped get the right to education get on the national agenda. Vajpayee didn’t think India could afford it, writes Mr Chaturvedi.

And before that he was the chairman of STC. He says it was a very stressful job because of the corruption in trading activities. But he mentions only one instance of ministerial interference.

As is true of any officer of the IAS he was tasked with many duties over his career. He did as well as anyone could given the circumstances. He describes some of all this in a bland government-report sort of way.

This is definitely not a kiss-and-tell-all book. That only raises its credibility because Mr Chaturvedi busies himself with issues rather than personalities and grievances – except when it comes to the CAG.

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He has devoted two whole chapters to the 2G scam and the coal scam. His considered view is that the CAG, Vinod Rai (who he doesn’t mention even once by name) exceeded his brief, remit and authority.

Referring to the CAG and the courts he writes that “it is an unhealthy democratic convention (for them) to start laying down government policies.” As a general principle this is right but what if governments fail to do their duty? It would have been better if he had conceded the extent to which Dr Manmohan Singh had ceded authority to others, including Sonia Gandhi.

His discussion of the CAG reports on the two scams that laid UPA II waste are detailed but plaintive. Personally, I think he is wrong, not least because I have known Vinod since 1967 and he is not the type who would assume he is god.

The 2G report only laid out the range of presumptive loss which ran from Rs 30,000 crore to Rs 1,76,000 crore. It was not the CAG’s fault that the media chose the more dramatic number. But I suppose Mr Chaturvedi is entitled to his view.

Major Weakness

As you read these pages, one thing strikes you forcefully: Mr Chaturvedi never wonders how he or any other IAS officer is regarded as being competent enough to perform well in such diverse jobs. Like the rest of his service, he clearly assumes that an IAS officer can do anything.

I say this because much of the rest of the book is devoted to thoughtful little sections on just about everything that engaged India’s attention.

From Sonia Gandhi’s NAC to the office of the NSA to coalitions to the CAG to planning to the bureaucracy to Dabhol/Enron to the Baglihar dam to the Mumbai airport – he discusses everything except what in economics is known as the infinite substitutability principle that operates with impunity in the case of the IAS.

He says he did try to reform the bureaucracy or at least the process of appointments of bureaucrats. He also says that he was dismayed by the corruption and servility in the bureaucracy. But he doesn’t discuss root-and-branch reform at all, including accountability.

He assumes like all his brethren that once you have joined the government, especially the IAS, you are to perform any task that is assigned to you. A more heartfelt discussion of this service which is heroic as well as cowardly would have greatly enhanced the value of these memoirs. This I-am-all-right-Jack approach is the biggest weakness of this book.