Encounter Specialists

It is the general assumption that bureaucrats lead dull and boring lives, flitting from one file to another like a bottle-fly, one posting to another chanting hosannas to the presiding political deity, and finally retiring with a fat pension and an enlarged prostate. This is not true, barring of course the pension and the prostate. We lead pretty exciting lives, what with scams, statements like ” nobody dies of cold”, honey traps, back-stabbing colleagues and devising ingenious ways to secure post-retirement sinecures. What is regarded as a shortcoming in govt. functioning- frequent transfers- is actually the source of the greatest excitement, as with every move we come into contact with a whole host of new characters and encounter new situations. I have little doubt that the redoubtable Mr. Khemka of the Haryana cadre, who has had more transfers than Yuvraj Singh has made runs in the last IPL, has led a life as exciting as that of Billy the Kid (who, of course, was summarily shot by Pat Garrett without the benefit of the Disciplinary Rules which Mr. Khemka is entitled to). In short, we too are encounter specialists, and I’d like to share some of my own exciting encounters with the sceptical reader.


In the year of our Lord VP Singh 1990 I was posted as Special Assistant to Mr. IK Gujral who was the External Affairs Minister. He instructed me, meticulous as he was, to obtain an exhaustive briefing from every Divisional Joint Secretary so that when their files started arriving in the Minister’s office they would make more sense than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Working my way through Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Americas I finally arrived in the room of South Asia, a slightly portly Bengali gentleman. “What,” I asked him astutely, ” is our strategy in our neighbourhood ?”

“Our long term plan,” South Asia announced, ” is to make the Indian Ocean a zone of piss.”

Now, since this was a couple of decades before Messers Ajit Pawar and Gadkari made piss the fulcrum of all rural development programmes, I was non-plussed. ” You can’t be serious, ” I protested, ” surely Sri Lanka and the Maldives wouldn’t allow this !”

“They approve of our plan- after all they too are pissful nations.”

“What about China?” I countered, drawing on my limited knowledge of geography.

He was ready. “Ah! With China we have a different problem- its about a shit. They won’t give us a shit!”

I wanted to remind him that China had indeed given us a lot of shit in 1961, but I let that pass. “Why would we want China to give us a shit ?” I ventured.

South Asia finally closed the loop. Triumphantly, he proclaimed: “There can be no piss in Asia until China gives us a shit in the United Nations.”
I quietly left. This was one conversation I did not share with Mr. Gujral.

* * * * * * * * *

The Armed Forces and the IAS share an enigmatic and equivocal relationship. The former grudge the IAS its hold on power, public visibility and higher pay scales. The IAS, on the other hand, is envious of the Army’s cheap liquor and the fact that they can play golf in the afternoons and call it outdoor training. But lets admit it- we do lack the old world courtesies that is ingrained into most army officers, their spit and polish, and their gallant approach towards ladies. Army officers, for example, don’t have ” affairs” with colleagues’ wives, they ” steal their affections”, even if the said affection is given to them on a platter. Such Kipling-esque notions of gallantry makes them look down ( quite rightly, in my view) upon the IAS in terms of social accomplishments.
Now, Shimla is one town where the Army and the IAS cannot help rubbing shoulders with each other, whether it be on the Mall, or in the ADC( Amateur Dramatic Club, which is a misnomer since its pivot is not the theatre but the bar), or in BCS (Bishop Cotton School) where both IAS and Army wives teach. And so it was that my wife, who taught in BCS for many years, became very friendly with Gauri, the wife of Colonel Abhay Rastogi who also taught there. By extension, soon the Colonel and I also became good friends-we played golf together, went out for picnics and even forgot about the contentious one-rank-one-pension divide. We became like one extended family, or so I thought.

Abhay and Gauri had a beautiful tan Labrador bitch named Saira and they were looking to mate her. I was the equally proud owner of a magnificent Golden Retriever named Brutus who had also come of age to sow his wild oats, The conclusion was obvious and Neerja and I decided to broach the subject to them, though its usually the girl’s side that is supposed to initiate the negotiations. But, I reasoned, we were family, so why stand on ceremony ?

“Gauri,” I remarked one evening when we were sitting around having a drink at the Headmaster’s lodge,” why don’t we mate Saira with Brutus ? They’d have beautiful puppies.”
There was a tinkling sound as Gauri dropped her glass of Bacardi, followed by a thick silence which you could have cut with a knife. Gauri got up, looked at me as a Major- General would at a Havildar, and declared in a parade-ground tone: ” But that’s impossible ! Saira is an army dog, how could we possibly mate her with a civilian dog ?”
Having been firmly put in my place I slunk off to join my civilian canine. We’re still great,perhaps even better, friends. But as a matter of prudent policy we’ve decided to let sleeping dogs lie.
* * * * *

After more than thirty five years in government I am convinced that politicians can outsmart bureaucrats any time. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and politicians know all these ways. I discovered this first the hard way. In the late 80’s I was posted as the Managing Director of HRTC, the roadways corporation. My Minister (he is not with us any more, unfortunately) was a polished legislator with more than forty years’ experience of the bull ring, the undisputed number two in the Cabinet. He really was a gem of a man and tolerated none of the hypocrisies which are second nature to Indian politicians. He could (and did) drink bus drivers under the table( or dashboard, if you will), loved music and poetry, was a mesmerising raconteur, and had more than a roving eye (and hands) for pretty women. We got along famously till, about one year into my term, I dismissed ten drivers for drunken driving. Most of them were from the Minister’s constituency and therefore I was verbally ordered to reinstate them. Having some Mangal Pandey blood in my veins (so I’m told) I refused. The Minister then asked the drivers to file appeals against my dismissal orders with him (he was the Chairman of the HRTC board), and in that capacity accepted the appeals and ordered their reinstatement. I told him that his orders were invalid since appeals lay to the full Board and not to the Chairman. He invited me to his office, offered me tea and biscuits, and politely asked me to bring the matter to the Board. I advised him against this, stating that in the Board note I would explain in detail the reasons for each dismissal (all the dismissed drivers were serial offenders) and give my firm recommendation that retaining the drivers in service would be endangering the lives of passengers in future. All Board decisions are in writing, and what possible reason could he give for over-ruling me, especially if the press got hold of the matter, as they would within hours?

He looked at me, and asked me in a quiet tone: ” Avay, why don’t you just accept my original order on their appeals and reinstate them?

“Can’t do that sir,” I replied,” the Rules don’t permit you to admit an appeal against my orders.”
” Which Rules?”

“The bye-laws of the Corporation, sir.”

“Ok, in that case I’ll just change the bye-laws.”

“Only the Finance Department and the Cabinet can do that.”

The Minister took a long and thoughtful sip of tea.” So I can’t change the bye-laws?” he asked softly.

“No, sir,” I replied, thinking I finally had him check-mated.

“But I can change the Managing Director, can’t I ?” he asked, almost absent mindedly, and walked over to his desk and picked up the phone.

I was shifted to the Animal Husbandry Department the next day, just hours before the drivers were reinstated by my successor, a police officer who was looking for wider experience in his CV. The Minister and I continued to remain good friends till he passed away some years later. But he had taught me an important lesson-never under estimate a politician.
* * * * *
There are some more encounters which I may share with the readers some day.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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