A Union Health Minister wanted to build a model hospital in his constituency. His Secretary, who had no post-retirement sinecure in sight, was sulking. He sent a long hand-written note to say why the model hospital idea was “outside Central Government policy and could not be supported”.
Weary of constant stone-walling, the Minister found another ploy to garner support. He began summoning the four Joint Secretaries under him, hopeful that they might be more amenable. On such occasions, he lost no time in reminding us that the Secretary would soon retire while he would continue.
One evening, it was my turn to be singled out. He had just told me that I had the makings of a Cabinet Secretary. My only failure was that I did not know how to ‘exercise authority’.
‘I will show you how to apply the power you have,’ he said. A few minutes later, the secretary will come to see me. You please don’t get up. I will ask you to keep sitting. I want you to watch what happens. And take a lesson from that.’
At exactly 6 pm, there was a sharp knock and the Health Secretary (let me call him Sharma) walked in, with long purposeful strides with a ramrod straight spine. Quite the pukka sahib!
‘Yes, Mr Sharma, you wanted to see me? All is well I hope?’ queried the Minister, his gold rimmed glasses and diamond kurta buttons glinting under the glare of two score neon lights.
‘All is quite well, Sir,’ replied the Secretary, as he cleared his throat –something he always did when he wanted to emphasise a point. He looked down at the jottings in his notebook.
‘Sir you will be very happy to know that the Planning Commission has agreed to your request and our budget has been raised by 10 per cent. It was your letter that did the trick. Remember you had added a sentence? Well, that made all the difference. That, Sir, was a superb stroke on your part!’
‘The other good news is that the resident doctors’ strike has been called off, with very deft and timely handling on my part. It was a touch and go.’
‘The third good news is that the special room in AIIMS is ready for the Prime Minister’s use and it has been equipped with all the features that his personal physicians had been demanding. I had to get really tough with the Finance Ministry. I had to use your name, Sir, and that worked like magic! You may like to inform the Prime Minister. He will be happy to hear the news!’
Throughout this soliloquy I had been looking at my feet waiting to be thrown out any minute. Clearly, the Secretary was leading up to something important and I was an interloper. At that very moment, he cleared his throat for the fourth time, but this time rather loudly. ‘Shailaja I think you can go now. I have to talk to the Minister,’ he said throwing an irritable glance in my direction.
I leapt up, grabbing my bulky files when the Minister said rather firmly, ‘Please stay back Shailaja. After the Secretary goes, there are some matters I want you to explain to me’.
The Secretary had no option but to persist with the Minister’s litany of glad tidings. But good news too must end. Secretary Sharma cleared his throat one more time and finally reached the actual purpose of his visit: ‘Sir, the World Bank has organised a very important meeting at Bellagio in Italy. It is starting this Saturday. The Bank has invited only three policy-makers to discuss the subject of health reforms. You will be happy to note that I am one of those three. It is a singular honour, you will agree, Sir.’
‘Excellent!’ said the Minister his eyes gleaming behind his gold rimmed glasses. ‘So when are you leaving?’ he asked in all innocence.
‘I leave on Friday but I need your kind approval to go, Sir,’ said the Secretary. ‘The file is in your office for the last three weeks.’
The Minister looked flustered and put on a hurt expression. ‘You are saying the file is in my office? How can that be? That is just not possible! See my table. It has no paper. I am very particular about timely disposal of files.’
The Secretary cleared his throat again and said, ‘I am quite certain the file is in your office, Sir. Perhaps, you could ask your officer on special duty.’
The Minister picked up the telephone and spoke sharply to his OSD. ‘I say Mehta- is there a file lying with us about the Secretary’s foreign travel? Really? Three weeks did you say? But that is very bad. Bring the file to me immediately.’
The OSD brought the file, untying its grimy tape before placing it before the Minister. The Minister plucked a gold Cross pen from his pocket, propelled it between his fingers, and smoothed his moustache with the other hand. He held the nib tantalisingly over the bottom of the green note sheet and said rather innocently, ‘By the way, Sharma ji, what happened to the model hospital we were planning for my constituency? Can we decide a date for the foundation stone laying ceremony?’
The Secretary shot back with alacrity, ‘Oh! Yes! I forgot to mention that! I knew I had missed something! We can have the function towards the end of next month.’ The Secretary was due to retire soon thereafter. The Minister started to sign, but again stopped and picked up the telephone. ‘Mehta bring me my diary,’ he said, as he waited for his OSD to trundle in again. He asked for all his engagements for the next month and waited patiently for the OSD to read one event after another – Governing Body meetings, marriage receptions, mundan ceremonies, constituency meetings – the lot. He made a few modifications and waited for the OSD to scribble the changes and repeat them. Only when the month’s itinerary was finished, did he ask with an air of mock humility, ‘Will the 25th of next month be convenient to hold the ceremony, Sharma ji?’
The Secretary would have normally hummed and hawed and asked for time to check his own calendar; but not when the prospect of Bellagio was around the corner. ‘Yes sir,’ he said with fake enthusiasm. ‘It will be fine. Absolutely fine.’
The Minister took his own time to sign on the note sheet before handing the file back to the Secretary. He added wistfully, ‘Yes, I too think it will be fine.’
The Secretary got up and left the room, carrying the precious Bellagio approval under his arm.
As the door closed behind him, the Minister said, to me, ‘See Shailaja, that was a lesson on exercising authority. Never be in a hurry disposing of files. Hold on to them until the petitioner contacts you. Each time you dispose of a file, find out who the beneficiary is. Ring up each such person before the file leaves your room. Build a constituency around yourself. You will need all the support when you become Cabinet Secretary.’
Alas! History willed otherwise! Besides I was a rotten pupil!g