A CM who performs

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A CM who performs Shailaja Chandra What makes Sheila Dikshit different from others? For starters, she doesn’t allow bureaucrats to spin circles around her. Labyrinthine explanations cut no ice, making it impossible for babus to suck her into the vortex of red tape that they whisk up in a jiffy After Ms Sheila Dikshit’s recent victory, countless people asked me what it was like to work with her. How does her style differ from others? What was so special about her? Is she efficient? How does she manage the bureaucracy? A few nuggets might help create pictures, albeit completely unrelated to the third-time coronation of somebody labelled as ‘Aunty No 1’. When I first took over as Delhi Chief Secretary in 2002, Ms Dikshit had already been Chief Minister for four years. By then she had seen two Chief Secretaries — both men. I was acutely aware of the universal belief that two women can never get along and whatever might happen, was eager to explode that myth. Unexpectedly, her first instruction was to ask me to run the Government “like a thrifty housewife”. After decades of working with political stalwarts and managing mega projects and programmes I felt punctured like a flat tyre. Over time I realised that for Ms Sheila thrift did not mean frugality. A Satish Gujral painting or exotic cuisines were easily indulged in the name of State elegance. But electricity conservation, recycled waste, running crusades against plastic bags, a partiality for ethnic weaves and an equal loathing for synthetic kitsch were her personal passions — something one has never witnessed in any Minister of Energy, Environment or Textiles, despite all the tall talk about preserving the planet. That made Ms Sheila a real person with feelings and taste-not just a marionette playing a part, mouthing predictable clichés. Ms Sheila’s second priority after I joined was to locate a professional housekeeper. She mentioned this to me thrice in my first two days and again I had misgivings about abandoning the regatta of Bharat Sarkar. But the IAS is accustomed to working with worse idiosyncrasies so I began the hunt. Luckily, I discovered a battleship, somewhat unsuitably attired in pink chiffon and pearls, but reputed to have given a facelift to UPSC’s dingy interiors. Without much ado I appointed her and sent her packing to take orders from the Chief Minister directly. Ms Dikshit did not think it infra dig to deal with housekeeping morning, afternoon and evening. Not until the brass planters in the Y-shaped Player’s building began to gleam, fresh flowers appeared in hallways, bundles of Government files disappeared from windowsills and brooms, swabs and phenyl bottles found unseen shelter, did the gasping housekeeper get time to breathe. The touch of class shone everywhere, with visiting dignitaries bowled over after each visit. Ms Dikshit’s ability to put humour and pleasantness above business is legendary.

Most Ministers are too preoccupied with their own importance to spare anything but a frozen smile. Most bureaucrats only bother about people worth bothering about, with little space for random hilarity. The Chief Minister’s morning telephone calls to me transmitted complaints but not until she had wished me a cheery good morning, and cracked a joke did she embark upon the litany of woes she had personally heard. By then she had already instructed the heads of the concerned organisations directly. But in madam’s management handbook supervision was the Chief Secretary’s business, not hers. The astonishing thing was that so many people — mostly very ordinary public — actually managed to get through to her. The pesky private secretaries adept at blocking telephone calls (ubiquitous at all levels of bureaucracy and a contagious disease with Ministers,) did not exist in Sheiladom. Her backstage management was superb, fortified by the watchful eyes of a powerful sister-daughter and in-law brigade and a hand-picked set of unpretentious back-room players. Meetings, functions, catastrophes may come and go but messages were always relayed. As she hurtled between the length and breadth of the city in her modest Ambassador, the call back would come, brief as the exchange might last. During interdepartmental conclaves she deposited the monkey squarely back on the shoulders of bureaucrats, particularly the perpetrators of blame games. Labyrinthine explanations cut no ice with her, making it impossible to suck her into the vortex of red tape that all bureaucrats whisk up in a jiffy. It made no difference to her opinion of an officer whether she saw his face once a week, once a month or never. Erudite economic theories did not hold her attention. Slow, inefficient and even lazy officers were given second and third chances but those who deliberately complicated things were replaced, even if the move looked like a reward.
They were never rehabilitated thereafter, (although the smiles and hugs continued as before.) The Secretariat lobby, the driveway of her small house (then) at Mathura Road, a staircase, a lift, alighting from the car, saying goodbye in the porch were all places where she listened to officers at all levels and gave the nod they awaited. No single officer, leave alone a coterie could prevent an officer from directly interacting with the Chief Minister. Hierarchy levels, IAS and non-IAS did not matter to her if work was getting done. These lessons went beyond the ken of her political foes, including some astute bosses that longed to clip her wings. Like her, hate her, in the end Ms Sheila Dikshit has had her day.

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.