Entwined Lives — Politicos and Bureaucrats

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[L-R] Jairam Ramesh, Vikram Singh Mehta 

MUMBAI: On 3 July 2018, Asia Society India Centre hosted Mr Jairam Ramesh, Member of Parliament, and Mr Vikram Singh Mehta, Executive Chairman of Brookings India, for a discussion about Jairam’s new book Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi. The panel also discussed the role of bureaucrats and civil servants in propelling reforms in India, through the perspective of Haksar’s biography.

The conversation began with Jairam’s address, who mentioned that in India, biography writing does not have a big role. Jairam added that we either make historical figures out to be Gods and Goddesses or demons and monsters. This story, to Jairam, was “waiting to be told” as Haksar had left behind an incredible archive of papers, notes, files, personal messages and more.

Vikram spoke of his nostalgia when reading the book. His father’s career had overlapped a great deal with Haksar’s, and he found that the book took him back to his childhood, a time when he would remember his father bringing home colleagues and civil servants, like Haksar.

Vikram, noting that Haksar had an incredible amount of influence in the government for a civil servant, asked Jairam whether Haksar had weakened India’s governance by going too far. Jairam responded that while Haksar had crossed the line, he was right in doing so as it was the Prime Minister’s orders. According to Jairam, a Prime Minister’s orders should be obeyed.

When asked about the lessons he learnt from the research, Jairam spoke about two. First, he said that anyone at the pinnacle of power must have someone alongside, with the courage to disagree with them. Secondly, as a public servant, one must have some sort of ideology and be committed to it. What the ideology is, does not matter, but one can’t be an effective public servant without one.

Jairam also spoke of Haksar’s relationship with the Soviet Union. In fact, India and the USSR were so close at the time, that in the days leading up to the 1971 war, every note and message that Yahya Khan sent to the Soviets was immediately faxed to Haksar, which ensured that India was knowledgeable of Pakistan’s plans. This was crucial, especially because both the USA and China were against India, and the USSR was India’s biggest ally at the time.

When asked by an audience member if lateral entry is important to help improve India’s bureaucracy, Jairam responded by saying that lateral entry could help to completely revitalise India’s bureaucracy, so long as there is a system in place to encourage talent. He noted that many brilliant scholars, like Manmohan Singh, Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Subramanian, Nandan Nilekani and even himself entered through lateral entry. Without a set system, lateral entry could be misused by the government to bring their cronies into the system. Jairam also remarked that there is no mentorship in this system anymore, and each young talent needs a mentor to help guide them through.

Jairam signed off the programme by saying that while he does not agree with some of his actions, he admired Haksar for his courage and his commitment. He said that rather than dismissing Haksar, we must study him instead.

As reported by Sumair Jhangiani, Programme Intern, Asia Society India Centre