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Stiff-Necked Bureaucrat
by Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share
I met him almost two decades back when I was posted as a deputy secretary in the federal government where he had about a month back picked up the grade of the joint secretary. Though he was many years senior to me in civil service but by virtue of my assignment I exercised a lot of control and influence over many things. I still recall how he wanted a particular case to be pushed up but somehow perhaps due to the lack of requisite knowledge and professionalism, he was unable to pursue and was shy to face the then secretary on the subject.

The case remained pending for almost a year and was subsequently processed through my desk. It was at this point that we came in contact and in only one or two meetings he started showing a lot of friendliness and fondness towards me. Since we were in the same building, he would at times visit my office and invite me for tea in his room and insist to visit his home. Needless to say the said pending case was professionally handled at my desk and was cleared in a record time after taking approval of all concerned. I distinctly remember how grateful he was for this favour and the warmth and bonhomie which he extended whenever we met during those days.

I recall a particular incident from that period when the Secretary called senior officers in a review meeting where I was assisting the secretary to steer through the agenda items. The usual format was that each officer will briefly highlight issues involved, action taken, progress achieved and leave after he or she was finished. When his turn came, instead of following this pattern, he simply started reading out an item from his folder.

It was quite obvious he had not made enough preparation for the meeting nor had any grasp on the subject. The manner he was going about, it would have taken an hour perhaps to finish his monologue considering the number of cases/items involved. Secretary patiently watched him for a few minutes and profusely (sarcastically) thanked him signaling the review was over. Usually I am a patient man and generally known to maintain my dignity and calm over things in serious situations but even I could not control my smile, and I still remember how difficult it was to suppress my laughter on the occasion.


As he completed his tenure in about a year after my joining, he reverted to his state cadre while I continued in the ministry to complete my balance tenure. Thereafter, we had communication only twice that too on my initiative. I am not too sure if he on his part ever remembered or had any genuine feelings for me. Gradually, he and his memories became a thing of past and I almost forgot about him. As such, any relationship cannot be healthy and durable if it is only one way.

Almost fifteen years had passed ever since we met last, and it was a sheer chance that we met again in Delhi in a south bound flight some time back. Again this was me who recognized him and took initiative to exchange courtesies. By now I had picked up the rank of additional secretary and he, of course, was a secretary in an important ministry in the federal government. This time, the past warmth and bonhomie was missing but we did chat for a while before taking our allotted seats. Besides, as usual he invited me to his office which I responded in affirmative that I would sure visit him some day. On completion of our journey, we again had customary exchange of greetings before parting our ways for our respective destinations.

Back from the official tour, I remembered my commitment and tried to contact him for a rendezvous. At senior level in Indian bureaucracy, meetings and appointments are usually handled by respective private secretary or such assistants. I was informed that he had a very busy schedule and week ahead, hence we can perhaps meet only next week. In the following week, our meeting materialized in his office. I noticed that in the beginning the warmth and friendliness was missing and the meeting was more of a formal routine. However, gradually he opened up highlighting his past achievements and asking my experiences as well. He didn’t forget to mention how important his current assignment was and how it was so difficult to get time to meet people and do things. We also came to know during this meeting that our respective residences too are in the same locality only at a few hundred yards distance but neither he made any gestures for meeting at family level nor I made any such suggestion.

I do not recall any unpleasant thing or conversation during the meeting but on return I had some sort of uncomfortable feeling that it is of no worth further trying or continuing any relationship with this gentleman. I myself has serve in bureaucracy for over three decades now and had held several important assignments in the government but I fail to understand why the basic nature and temperament of a person should change by getting senior with the passage of time. But then it is irony of our system that many bureaucrats change with time and every successive promotion. Many of them tend to become arrogant, inaccessible, impolite, opaque and discretionary as they grow senior in service. And this is despite the fact that they very well know that one day on retirement they will loose all such privileges and decorations.


The other day one of my younger colleagues, who was incidentally a director in the same ministry, on reversion shared a few interesting anecdotes about this gentleman. From his version I came to know that as secretary, he was a kind of terror among his junior colleagues. For instance, he would deal with only very senior officers in his office. He would not like to meet an officer below the rank of a joint secretary and if at all he ever calls a junior level officer, the latter would instantly know that the secretary is unhappy today and it is now his turn to get a firing.

Then he had a strange habit that he would never himself open the door of his office, conference room or car, for that matter. In any case, it is always expected in bureaucracy that the chauffeur will open the door of the official car for the officer but on other occasions, he would like a peon or some other petty official to invariably accompany, wherever he visited, to carry papers/files, if any, and open doors for him.

Finally, he retired last year after attaining the age of superannuation. Many senior bureaucrats by virtue of their professional competence or public relations and networking are able to accomplish post-retirement positions in various commissions, autonomous, statutory bodies and even political appointments. Because our friend was immensely unpopular during his various stints in senior positions due to his peculiar temperament and antics, he was not offered any such post-retirement bonanza despite his best effort and maneuvering.

The latest buzz is that he is sulking with the apathy of the present government and aspiring to join a political party because he has so much energy and drive still in store. He is so keen to serve for a few more years to give his best  to the country. In the spare time available, he is also planning an autobiography. I only think, in our democracy we have enough space and accommodation for all kinds of talents and antics and everything sells.

The irony of our education system is that it only grooms us to compete and secure a position in the competitive environment to earn our livelihood and, of course, position and authority for some. It hardly provides us wisdom or ethics to become a good citizen or good human being. Good people either inherit it in their inborn instincts from their parents and elders or pick it up in social upbringing from the surroundings as growing child and teenager.
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