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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 10 New Delhi February 24, 2018

Damp Squib but Revealing Facets of Indian Bureaucracy

Friday 23 February 2018


by V.B. Abrol

Life in the IAS : My Encounters with the Three Lals of Haryana by Ram Varma; Rupa, New Delhi; September 2017; pp xi-xxii+ 303; Rs 595.

After graduating in Arts from the prestigeous but short-lived Rajasthan College, Jaipur (August 1957-April 1962); Ram (Sahai) Varma went on to do his post-graduation in English Literature from Allahabad University, then known as the Oxford of the East. This was a sort of double insurance to get into the much coveted civil services. And get in he did though by the margin of the proverbial whisker or thanks to his problematic testicles as the writer himself narrates in some detail. Varma was initially allocated to the Punjab cadre. His postings in his first two years in the IAS were in districts that later on went to the State of Haryana carved out of Punjab in 1966. Varma’s cadre was then changed to the new State. Thus, for all practical purposes, his entire IAS service was in Haryana.

It was there that he rose to the highest post a civil servant can attain in a State, that of Chief Secretary. One’s intellectual taste therefore started salivating when one looked at the seductively attractive title of Varma’s book Life in the IAS: My Encounters with the Three Lals of Haryana. One hoped to learn something new about the exclusive IAS club and about the mixed legacy of the three Lals that was not yet in the public domain. However, one felt cheated when one had done with the book. A completely damp squib. There is hardly anything new in this rehash of several, but predominantly two, books: Chaman Lal Jhamb’s (a journalist) Chief Ministers of Haryana (2004) and Raghuvendra Tanwar (a former Kurukshetra University Professor) and Saroj Siwach’s (Bansi Lal’s daughter who retired as a Commissioner-level IAS officer after promotion from the State Civil Service) Bansi Lal: Life and Times (2012). Varma leaves no one in any doubt about it, acknow-ledging the debt in the form of footnotes. Aspiring writers should learn the lesson from this book: not to impose upon the reader if you have nothing new to offer.

There are several long chapters which have nothing at all to do with what the book professes to be about. For example, no less than 20 pages (pp. 145-166) out of the 303-page book have been consumed by the detailed description of his Bharat Darshan Yatra with his family after Devi Lal became the Chief Minister in the post- Emergency Haryana! Varma’s forays into Punjab politics at the height of the separatist movement there have neither anything to do with the declared theme of the book nor do they reveal anything new about the troubled times that one was not already aware of.

One important thing that should be kept in mind when one embarks on writing on such an ambitious topic as the title of the book suggests is that one should not lapse into selective amnesia. All students of State politics in Haryana are aware of Varma being a protege of Bansi Lal but the debt the author owes to his benefactor for shaping his career is no excuse why there is not even a mention of the infamous Riwasa case where the police stripped a woman naked in the presence of her grown-up son; she had the misfortune to incur the displeasure of Bansi Lal’s blue-eyed younger son and anointed political successor, Surender Singh. The incident had caused quite an outrage all over the State at the time and is said to have been the prime reason for Bansi Lal’s electoral loss to his bete noire Chandrawati in the 1977 parliamentary elections in the wake of the Indira Gandhi-imposed internal Emergency on the country.

Varma’s identification with Bansi Lal is so total that while he has lots of complimentary things to say about the universally disliked Surender Singh, there is hardly a mention of the elder but politically ignored son, Ranbir Singh Mahendra, who did not throw his weight around much. Despite a near-complete lack of objectivity in dealing with the personalities and events in the State’s politics and bureaucracy during his 36-year long innings in the IAS, Varma does draw attention, albeit uninten-tionally, to certain things peculiar to Haryana. Things have and are changing drastically but no civil servant worth his salt in Staes other than Haryana liked to be the drum-beater of the party in power in the good old days. The post of the Director of Public Relations was not only not sought after but shunned by politically impartial officers but Varma found himself to be an object of jealousy when he was given that post quite early in his career.

The media has become the object of contempt of all sane-thinking persons in this era of paid news but Varma let’s us know that it was always pliable. The anecdotes he narrates about his dealings with the press corps bring out that mediapersons were always willing tools if taken around in reasonable comfort and well looked- after—a euphemism for wining and dining. Particularly enlightening is his narration of how he convinced his political boss to sanction a few lakhs of the taxpayers’ money to purchase a deluxe van to transport journos to get favourable publicity for the CM’s pet project. His success in the objective further ingratiated him with his favourite CM and paved the way for his ultimate rise to the highest post in the State bureaucracy.

Varma does not seek to conceal how the political leadership showers goodies on the bureaucrats to keep them convenient. Let it be absolutely clear here that there is no intention to cast aspersions on anybody’s integrity. But the author himself let’s his reader know that he sold a prime residential plot allotted to him from the discretionary quota for the marriage of a daughter. He had to sell another plot for the education of another daughter. He had no problems getting a low-interest loan sanctioned to buy agricultural land in nearby Himachal. He was elected the chairperson of an exclusive housing society in Panchkula without being a contributing member and given the first choice to an apartment therein.

Varma himself let’s us know that his first tour abroad was to the 1988 Seoul Olympics to lead the Haryana contingent in his capacity as the President of the Haryana Olympic Asso-ciation to which post he was elected by virtue of holding the office of the Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary. One was all the time under the impression that only national contingents can take part in the Olympics and the Indian contingent thereto is led by a Chief de Mission elected/nominated by the Indian Olympic Association! He admits to having “never even been a piddling player in my college days” and still seems to be proud to “be leading the Haryana team to the Olympics”! He and M.S. Malik, then Deputy Inspector General (CID), travelled to Seoul by Thai Airways in business class. Varma seems to be quite relishing even the memory that he “was sipping champagne and fresh wine at over 30,000 feet height”! His only regret appears to be that his wife couldn’t go with him because of the kids although past Presidents had been taking their spouses along, expenses on the house of course. Lord, how the bureaucracy is fattened at our cost to ensure that they, if not active participants, are at least compliant in the fleecing of the common man!

Varma’s defence of his role in the demolition of the landmark Ghanta Ghar in Bhiwani at his meeting in Delhi with the post-Emergency Chief Minister of Haryana, Devi Lal, to request him not to suspend him as he was contemplating to do does not cover him with glory: “...Yeh Haryana Bhawan Bansi Lal ne banaya hai. Aap mujhe hukm deejiye isko girana hai, aur iski jagah par saat manzila bhawan banana hai. Main isko girwa doonga.” That must have been the line of thinking of those who ordered the pulling down of the Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan recently! Responsible officers are expected to show more of a backbone if this country is to be saved. For uttering just this one sentence alone, Varma would have gone to much greater heights had he been fortunate enough to be serving today.

All in all, the book is either an autobiography or Varma’s homage to his political patron and mentor, Bansi Lal, and should have been entitled as such.

The reviewer is a retired Head of the Department of English, Dyal Singh College, Karnal. He can be contacted at e-mail: v.b.abrol[at]gmail.com

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