Why does a civil servant think it worthwhile for the reader to recount his experiences? This is a phenomenon that is, perhaps, peculiar to the fledgling democracy that is India. At the background lies the tradition of memoirs penned by British civilians and their successors in colonial times, whose basic motivation was to present a picture of the achievements and travails of rulers in the strange environs of a huge subcontinent. The first such effort was KL Panjabi's compilation of short accounts by members of the Indian Civil Service in The Civil Servant in India.
Subsequently, following the watershed of the Emergency, quite a few memoirs have been written by officers who have been at the helm of affairs in state governments and at the centre. Of them, Deshmukh is the most prolific, this being his third book. His justification is that the public has a right to know how critical decisions were actually made and how government really functions, quite apart from the provisions of the Constitution and the law of the land.
This book is not a history of India, or even of Maharashtra, through forty years between 1951 and 1991, but only of what lay within the author's personal knowledge. His hope is that it will motivate younger generations to join the civil service.
The problem with the book is that Deshmukh loses track of what he sets out to write: a personal memoir. When we read of his father having been a 'marked man' who was retired from service because of his Gandhian affiliations, one looks forward to learning more about his family. Strangely, he has nothing to say about his mother besides informing us that she got married at the age of 14. Nor do we get to know his two brothers and sisters. But most intriguing is the complete absence of any details about his marriages and children. It is only from the captions of the photographs that we get to know of the tragic loss of both wives and of his daughter.
He seems to have been quite a loner because we find he has nothing to say about his batch-mates in the service, one of whom created history by resigning in Indira Gandhi's times on a point of principle. What we hold in our hands is the picture of a classic Weberian bureaucrat: all intellect; no emotion. In short, a cold fish.
Even as an autobiography it falls between two stools. Quite incongruously, over sixty pages are tagged on at the end under the heading 'Some important issues' that discourse on Indo-Pak relations, Sri Lankan affairs, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and the failure of the Indian middle class. These are all typical commentaries for editorial pages of newspapers. To lend a semblance of form, an epilogue is provided cataloguing the various honorary posts he has held in the private sector after retiring.
What are the saving graces? First is the astonishing account of transformation wrought in the Bombay Municipal Corporation. It is truly an amazing achievement that ought to be required reading for anyone interested in reforming the dismal municipal administration of our country. Second is the frank admission of numerous instances where, despite being the head of the civil services, Deshmukh failed to bring about critical reforms in the functioning of government because of lack of response from colleagues who preferred to serve the cause of vested interests.
Third is when the Weberian fa'ade slips a number of times. To ensure that he does not get on the wrong side, Deshmukh has messages sent to Rajiv Gandhi about his non-involvement in steps taken against Rajiv. There are very interesting insights into the functioning of successive Prime Ministers (Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandrashekhar) and the brashness of General K Sundarji.
One wonders why, after retirement, he agreed to become Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister under Rajiv Gandhi although his recommendation for making Ms Roma Majumdar his successor was not accepted. He should have realized the lay of the land from the Prime Minister telling him that he needed a Cabinet Secretary 'personally loyal to me' and therefore appointed TN Seshan. In that light, his satisfaction with having revived the proper role of a cabinet secretary remains quite questionable. Whatever he had put in place was swept away by Seshan's 'committed' style of functioning, about which he could do nothing despite being the Prime Minister's principal secretary. And still he continued in that post.
Even as far as the bureaucracy is concerned it is hardly believable that he should have no reactions to certain events that shook the very foundations of the administrative system, such as: the victimisation of IR Mahadevan, Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow and expert on the Indus Valley Script, leading to his resignation in disgust from the IAS; the resignation of PS Appu as Director of the National Academy of Administration in protest against government's soft-pedaling punitive action against a guilty trainee; the failure of the central government to protect honest civil servants against harassment by state governments; the swift degeneration of governance in Bihar.
And that is why, in the final analysis, the book fails as an autobiography. It neither achieves the memorability of Noronha's scintillating A Tale Told by an Idiot nor has the coruscating brilliance of Mangat Rai's Commitment My Style, nor even the verve of Vittal's Red Tape Guerrilla.