Babus get new bosses

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With a new Government taking over today, bureaucrats will have to learn to cope with new Ministers, each with his or her own angularities. Some are sweet and polite, others haughty and rude. Dealing with them poses what is perhaps the most challenging task in a bureaucrat’s life

For bureaucrats, the formation of the new Cabinet is the mother of all challenges. Having witnessed this phenomenon several times over, some unique ministerial styles spring to mind. Today’s Cabinet formation will provide ample room for making observations on the new dramatis personae as they assume office.

I recall the day Mr Vasant Sathe took over as Energy Minister in the mid-1980s. Resplendent in a hand-spun white kurta-pajama that enhanced his handsome Chitpawan Brahmin looks, he welcomed each one of us individually. He chuckled incessantly, blue eyes twinkling, his numerous laughter lines growing deeper with each new joke. He listened spellbound to our tales of woe, (he was a great actor) — how unwashed coal made electricity generation plummet; how were it not for the apathy of Indian Railways that habitually delayed transportation of coal, generation of electricity would skyrocket. He assured us that there would be no more “wishing away and washing away” dirty coal, dispelling our gripes with a broad wink. Later he gleefully and regularly overruled a rather arrogant Secretary on who should (and should not) be sent on foreign trips — the one control button (besides confidential roll writing) that all Secretaries find irresistible.

The appointment of Mr B Shankaranand was quite a different story. A call was received from his residence that the honourable Minister would be arriving in the Ministry at 10 am. We were warned that the Minister would expect to be received in the foyer. Stoutly in the Humphrey Appleby mould, the Secretary refused to budge from his own office. Instead the Additional Secretary and an entourage of Joint Secretaries waited for the car to arrive. The Minister was escorted up in the lift in stony silence. The sparkle from his diamond buttons matched the glint from his gold-rimmed spectacles. His first question was, “Where is the Secretary and when is he due to retire?” Since the event was many moons away and the Secretary had his own hotline to the PMO, Mr Shankaranand did what astute Ministers do in the given circumstances. He turned the work allocation of officers upside-down and inside-out. The quickest way of bringing the bureaucracy to heel.

Ushering in the suave Mr Salim Shervani was a transformation. He exuded sophistication and urbanity coupled with Lakhnawi courteousness. Soon he had all the women in the Ministry swooning over his chiselled features and impeccable manners. He was a civil servant’s delight because of the smoothness with which decisions were taken and go-aheads given. Despite his immaculate personal taste, Mr Shervani did not spend a rupee on renovating his office — a fetish with almost every new Minister and Secretary. Quite unlike another Minister who ripped apart the conference room and converted it into the Minister’s office, in the name of Vaastu Shastra. Or another from Bollywood who relocated his office exactly three floors above, propelled by similar advice on guaranteeing a long and fruitful tenure.

The arrival of the ebullient Abdul Rehman Antulay was like a hurricane. His tempestuous style of functioning as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra was legendary. An exceptionally rule-bound Secretary lost no time in publicly informing the Minister that no new ideas, schemes or projects could be undertaken without the approval of the Expenditure Finance Committee, nor could modifications be made without similar approval. He bound the zesty Antulay within a cocoon of rules and procedures that left no scope whatsoever for ingenious ideas and purposeful deviations. In the ensuing struggle for supremacy, inevitably it was the Secretary who sought a badli. Mr Antulay displayed a penchant for writing long, hand-written notes at an obtuse angle of 45 degrees continuing his notes on to the front and back covers of the Ministry’s files instead of using hum-drum note sheets. Many a khaki file back cover had a peremptory direction: “What I have put together, let no man place asunder,” finished with an Isosceles triangle with a dot inside denoting his signature.

And then there was the experience of working with a series of Ministers who knew no Hindi and little English. It is the duty of civil servants to ‘prepare’ Ministers to perform in Parliament. But how does one explain the containment, diagnosis, treatment, prevention and cure of malaria, encephalitis, hepatitis or dengue without using any English or Hindi? Far from succeeding in teaching such Ministers, invariably it was the bureaucrats who discovered how expendable they were and how their tutelage mattered but little. Parliament could function very well without their facts or figures.

Working for cardiologist Health Minister Dr CP Thakur was in a different league altogether. He ran a highly sought-after OPD from his office in Nirman Bhavan. His eyes shone as he palpated the livers and spleens of his supplicants who had discovered a direct route to broker an audience with the Minister, cleverly bypassing well-known obstacles planted by his personal staff.

Rather than snapping up hundreds of photographs of Ministers ensconced in their new offices, more captivating by far would be insights into their peerless styles of functioning. Today is the day to do that.

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