From the halls of power

An eminently readable and well-structured potpourri of 93 short snippets featuring some of the well-known politicians in the country, ‘Encounters with Politicians’ by Anil Swarup offers insight into the way the stalwarts exercise(d) their craft

From the halls of power

The key word ‘encounter’ has rarely been used in a positive context. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as ‘a meeting with someone, especially one that is unexpected or unpleasant,’ and the Oxford dictionary adds violence to these attributes. The Merriam Webster is even more direct: the meaning of ‘encounter’ is to meet as an adversary or enemy. Encounter was also the name of an influential and respected cultural magazine edited by the well-known poet Stephen Spender, which was known for its stance against state control and totalitarianism.

So, when we look at Encounters with Politicians, the first impression may be that this is going to be an ‘us’ (bureaucrats) versus ‘them’ (politicians) discourse. But as Swarup mentions in the Preface, his initial apprehensions about politicians being responsible for every conceivable ill of the country soon gave way to a healthy respect for the ground-level inputs they brought to the table, as well as an understanding that many public grievances were indeed legitimate and could be addressed within the extant framework of rules. On a theoretical plane, in most societies which are in the throes of transition from informal exchanges (rural and agricultural) to formal transactions (state and market-driven), the cultural and structural conflicts between the politicians and bureaucrats are inevitable: the former want to resolve the issues of their electors, while the latter believe in the Weberian ideal of a rule-based society.

Now let’s get to the book – an eminently readable potpourri of ninety-three short snippets of some of the better-known politicians in the country – with UP getting a slightly higher share, because that is also Swarup’s cadre. The structure of the book is also very well thought out. Each of the eleven sections gives a clear and precise idea of the taxonomy of the political leader we are talking about: presidents, prime ministers, chief ministers, union ministers, and the lateral entry politicians who had spent a significant part of their earlier life as civil servants, journalists, and industrialists, labour leaders and the ‘district type’ grassroots politicians. And of course, there is Sonia Gandhi, who does not fit into any of the categories mentioned above. In section eleven ‘Politicians I could not meet, but would have loved to’ has Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and APJ Abdul Kalam. To this list, I would have added two more names: Lal Bahadur Shastri and Dr B R Ambedkar.

Of these ninety-three dramatis personae, I too have been privileged to meet quite a few of them – Rajeev Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi, Pranab Mookerjee, ND Tiwari, Harish Rawat, Sheila Dixit, Sharad Pawar, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Prakash Singh Badal, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, Dharmendra Pradhan, Om Pathak, Jairam Ramesh and Amar Singh. In fact, the pen picture, the descriptive thumbnail for each of them, and his general observations, many of them are on the dot. Except that in the case of Amar Singh, his dislike was immediate; mine grew over the years, because as a young PRO to an industrial group he ‘cultivated’ many of us at the Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, and two decades later, he tried browbeating me when I was an election observer at Azamgarh and had to take action against the SP candidate for trying to intimidate his voters.

But let’s shift gears. I will talk about the LBSNAA-related interactions — the institution where I spent a major part of my working life. I have used the word interaction, for the academy is a non-adversarial space. In 1998, when I was a Deputy Director, I had the pleasure of escorting Dr Manmohan Singh(then a highly respected ex Finance Minister) from Dehradun to Mussoorie when he came to give a talk to our mid-career officers. I received him at the railway station, and it was a very relaxed conversation, in the good old ambassador car as it ambled gracefully up the winding road to Mussoorie, about civil services in general, and my experiences in West Bengal and Punjab. He was a very keen listener, and encouraged me to pen my observations about governance. These find an expression in my book ‘At the Crossroads: Development Discourses in India’, published a few years later. In 2000, Vasundhara Raje was the Minister of state for Personnel when she visited the Academy, and regaled us with stories about how she received a generous allowance from her family to take the IAS exam from London. During my tenure as the Director, Dharmendra Pradhan visited the Academy in the context of a discussion on global energy security, and it is a pleasure to note that he had a deep knowledge of, and commitment to the restoration of the architectural marvels in Konark. But the most momentous interactions have been with PM Modi over two Aarambh programmes – the common foundation course for all civil services recruited through the UPSC. He is so meticulous in his homework, inspirational in his conduct, and clearly asks you about the resources required to achieve a particular task at hand. I have also participated in the PRAGATI review meetings with Secretaries and Chief Secretaries. The preparation for these meetings resolves many of the outstanding issues!

I would also like to talk about two political leaders whose public image does not do justice to their great administrative acumen and mentorship to officers working with them. Both Narayan Dutt Tiwari and Sharad Pawar gave me a lot of support in my professional work. NDT knew the art of ‘winning friends and influencing people’ with his charm, wit, grace, and an occasional guile. He was a visionary – from NOIDA in UP to SIDCUL estates in Uttarakhand, he knew that the best way to attract industry and entrepreneurship was to create world-class infrastructure, and assured ease of doing business. No wonder then that he was also called No Delay Tiwari. I was fortunate to work with him from 2002 to 2007 — these were the years that made Uttarakhand the ‘numero uno’ investment destination of the country. I was privileged to helm the National Horticulture Mission as well as the National Mission on Micro-irrigation when Pawar Saheb was the Union Agriculture

Minister and also got the opportunity to travel with him as his

Sherpa for the G20 and ASEAN agriculture summits. During these five years, it became clear that the best way to transform the agrarian economy was through High-Value Agriculture and strengthening value chains.

As I have already exceeded the stipulated word limit for a review, let me close by saying that this book is real value for money. It offers insight into the way politicians exercise their craft and it is clear that they follow different strategies: some rely on primordial loyalties, others on patronage, still others on muscle power. However, outstanding professionals from all fields have also made their mark in almost every political party.

The writer, a former Director of LBS National Academy of Administration, is currently a historian, policy analyst and columnist, and serves as the Festival Director of Valley of Words — a festival of arts and literature.

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