Wanted: Plain tales from the government

About two decades ago I wrote an article complaining that Indian civil servants hardly ever wrote autobiographies. I put it down to their innate well-mannered shyness. But one of them said: “We have so much to be modest about, you see, that’s why.”  
Then along came large foreign publishers with big budgets and large advances. After that, it was only a matter of time before shyness melted away like the Congress party, slowly but surely.

Now hardly a month goes by without some prominent former member of the second rung of government — the first rung is the ministers — sallying forth in a quiet baritone. (For those who may have missed learning about operatic voice classifications, a baritone lies between the bass, which is a deep growl, and tenor, which is a normal male voice.) A baritone allows you to be compelling, yet discreet.

I have read as many of these autobiographies as I can and have discovered a pattern. It’s mainly a few septuagenarian or near-septuagenarian lads from the IAS and a few economists who think their stories are worth telling. The rest are content to merely mumble, if and when they can find a listener.

But that’s only half the point of this article. The other half is that other employees of the central government, state governments, and the public sector don’t tell their stories.

It’s of course possible though that many retired civil servants write in Indian languages. If so, that’s good. Publishers should consider translations.

A million stories: There must be at least 1000,000 of them. Even if no more than 500 of them wrote their autobiographies we would have a rich archive. Historians will have their secondary sources.

Just imagine what stories an honest income tax officer can tell. Or one from customs and excise, now goods and services tax.
In fact, they do tell these stories, not just the day-to-day stuff but about policy making generally. But verbally only.

The same thing is true of silos such as education and medical services. Imagine what even one honest officer from the University Grants Commission or one of the directorates of medical services could tell. Not just about the corruption, which can be a bore, but the processes by which we have messed up.

Likewise, there are the institutions like the Reserve Bank of India, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, and the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority, to name just three. There are also the Election Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General. All their members have something to educate us about.

And let’s not forget the public sector, the banks especially. Ah, the banks. What a rich seam!

Then are the defence services. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to read about their experiences, whether in the field or in headquarters?

And why leave out the foreign service? I know a few of them and, believe me, they too can keep you riveted with their accounts. We are talking 35-37 years of service, after all, in as many as 90-100 countries. It’s got be pretty substantial.
Many of these civil servants write blogs, as also blow raspberries at the government on WhatsApp. Trouble is, these things tend to be full of bile. While many tell us how bad the government has become after they retired, few tell us what really happened when they were there.

Just imagine how fantastic it would be to learn about the managerial aspects of demonetisation and GST from some retired RBI guy and retired tax official. There are two men I can straightaway think of who know what precisely went wrong. (And if they read this, they will know I am talking about them.)

Say’s Law, anyone? In economics, before Keynes came along, there used to be something called Say’s Law. Crudely put, it said supply creates its own demand. That is, all you have to do is to produce and your output will get sold.
I really think that publishers should operate on this principle, especially now that they can print as few as 100 copies, book orders from booksellers, and keep supplying the market on virtually a monthly basis.

I suspect all they would have to do is to put the equivalent of a “call for papers” and there will be a substantial response from civil servants, diplomats, policemen, defence services personnel, and public sector managers stepping up to the crease.
Who doesn’t want to tell his or her grandchildren that he or she was part of the Great Indian Endeavour?

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