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Man for the crisis
Successive governments have dragged senior bureaucrat Naresh Chandra out of retirement to address some thorny issue or the other. His strength, he tells TOI-Crest, is that he has no agendas and can tell it like it is.
Civil servants, they say, never retire. That is partly because civil servants like to hang on to the trappings of a government office long after they should have hung up their boots. Naresh Chandra is an exception, though. Celebrating his 78th birthday this week, this former cabinet/home/defence secretary remains uniquely in demand. There is not a single government over the past two decades that has not called him out of retirement (" Again!" he grins, wryly) to solve a knotty governance problem that could singe politicians.
Take the example of the latest. The squeaky clean defence minister A K Antony has taken the machete to foreign military suppliers suspected of malpractice. It is a laudable effort, except for a small problem. India, as the world's largest arms importer and with its formidable security challenges, is routinely blacklisting key suppliers, many of whom are leaders in their fields, either in manufacturing or technology. We could soon end up with no suppliers.
A worried government called on the only hand trusted to steer everyone through this prickly maze. The Naresh Chandra Task Force on national security appropriately dealt with this problem, and also helped rationalise defence procurement, war-preparedness, even MEA staffing. The important thing is the government needed Chandra to say what needed to be said.
Why do successive establishments continue to rely on him? "I don't think..." he begins self-deprecatingly. "It's my wide experience. Also, politicians think I speak my mind but know that I have no agenda. With this honesty, I can take risks, but in public interest. " Not too many civil servants can say that, not even honest ones, terrified of CVCs and CAGs, not to speak of political bosses who can compel them to sign files that, in significant cases, have landed them in jail. Says S K Lambah, distinguished diplomat who, too, after retirement cannot be prefixed with "former" : "Naresh has the knack of winning the confidence of everyone who works with him. "
Chandra is a rare species who has successfully walked that tightrope between the various worlds he straddles. He is on the board of a large number of companies - Vedanta, Cairn India, Eros Films and Bajaj among others. But while he gives them the benefit of his vast knowledge and experience, "I refuse to lobby for them, " he says firmly, using the Hindi word "pairahvi" which doesn't translate perfectly.
After he retired in 1992, and served as adviser to former prime minister Narasimha Rao, Chandra was dragged out from his cushy governor's post in Gujarat in 1996 to be sent off to Washington as India's ambassador. He took over from the long-suffering Siddhartha Shankar Ray, then in the middle of a rare pickle. A couple of NRIs had been picked up by the FBI for attempting to pay off American politicians and they had named an Indian official at the embassy. Chandra's first words to his distraught staff were, "Go home. Tomorrow is another day. " His "solution" to the problem, of course, remains classified.
Chandra counts getting the US Congress to pass a law allowing for a statue to be erected on federal land outside the Indian embassy as his biggest achievement as the US envoy. The effort was as fraught as watching the then president Bill Clinton help Nawaz Sharif walk back from the Kargil misadventure. It's the only non-American leader's statue in DC - Churchill stands inside the British embassy grounds, and Kahlil Gibran the poet is the only other foreigner.
Being posted to backward Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan as a young district magistrate, Chandra says, started him off on the love affair with administration and governance. "My seniors were generous and welcoming, and many mistakes were forgiven. That, and a bit of luck, built up morale, " he says.
What are his tips for bureaucrats-in-the-making ? He laughs. "The civil servant's dharma is not to project himself but his ministry, and you can't do that until the minister is seen to be successful. The minister will be successful if activities are successful. The civil servant is responsible for that. Its only then that the minister develops confidence. "
"Second, " he mused, "you cannot be part of a clique. The civil servant has to draw that line. It's very tempting to cross that line. " Patience, in his book, is a virtue in a bureaucrat. "You are a facilitator, there to manage public affairs. You can't do that by being a control freak or by being right all the time. "
As cabinet secretary, Chandra was deeply disapproving of re-hiring retired babus, but joined the ranks when he was roped in as adviser to Narasimha Rao. He would not take any salary, "so I was paid Re 1 every month for the next three years. Those cheques will be bequeathed to my heirs. "
Chandra stuck to mainstream administration - "we had loads of work, stuff that entire ministries do now, learnt a lot, and by accident a reputation began to be built. " His 1967 report on public sector undertakings is now standard reference material in US universities. "I was laying down policies and rules for future generations. It surprised me that universities still use it. "
Of course, he broke the rules but which successful bureaucrat didn't ? On a visit to Libya, Chandra found a joint venture project stuck. "I got the agreement translated into Arabic, proposed amendments, had those translated into Arabic too, and presented them all to their minister. It would have been too difficult to wait for a "yes" from Delhi, so I went ahead. " The Libyans signed it and the project was through. Back in Delhi, Chandra was hauled over the coals for violating procedure, never mind that the amended agreement went in India's favour. Another chuckle. "But I got a letter of commendation from the government. "
Now, he observes sadly, bureaucrats don't feel so secure. In 1991, the Chandrashekhar's government had fallen. Elections were months away. As cabinet secretary, Naresh Chandra fulfilled the dream of every bureaucrat: he ran the country. The economy was tanking, politics was in turmoil, and Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. "We kept the ship steady, " he remembers.
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