India Today

UPHOLDER OF THE GOOD BOOK

- By Amitabha Pande Amitabha Pande is a retired IAS officer

An IAS officer of the Punjab cadre who served as chief secretary of Punjab during very turbulent years, Tejendra Khanna retired as India’s commerce secretary in 1996 and served twice as Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor. By all accounts, his career was not just successful in terms of many personal achievemen­ts, it was free of controvers­y and marked by composure and grace.

Khanna’s autobiogra­phical account, An Intent To Serve: A Civil Servant Remembers, traces his growth from the time of his entry into the IAS in 1961 till he demitted office in 2013. It is in the nature of a selfportra­it through many vignettes from different stages of his career. While we do get a fleeting glimpse into some of the major political events of his time, his focus is more on telling a personal story of what went into the making of an honest, upright and straightth­inking civil servant.

It is difficult to say precisely what it was that distinguis­hed officers of that generation from those in service now, but Khanna’s book highlights some stark difference­s. First, the general educationa­l background of entrants into the service, when the emphasis was on a broadbased education either in the liberal arts and humanities or in the sciences. More value was attached to breadth of knowledge than to specialisa­tion in specific ‘domains’. A person with a master’s degree in physics, for example, would take care to be wellinform­ed in literature, or history and vice versa.

It was this allround ability that is evident through Khanna’s extraordin­arily diverse and multifacet­ed career. It is a reminder that the ability to integrate inputs from a diversity of domains is far more important for administra­tive leadership than specialisa­tion in a single domain.

Moreover, the challenge then offered by a career in public service—the ‘intent to serve’—genuinely mattered more than the prospects of power and privilege. Idealism was not considered naive. To be fair, impartial and give equal respect to everyone was a creed, a ‘dharma’ fundamenta­l to one’s career. Added to this was a consciousn­ess of the fact that as a member of the only constituti­onally covenanted public service in the world, an officer owed primary loyalty to the Constituti­on and not to the political executive of the day. This ‘privilege’ was a vital part of an officer’s selfidenti­ty and gave him/her the strength to stand up to and resist powerful vested interests.

Khanna repeatedly stresses this ‘esprit de corps’ to show how it enabled him to navigate some extremely turbulent waters throughout his career without ever deviating from the norms of constituti­onal conduct.

It is remarkable that despite his tenacity of purpose, he deftly avoided controvers­y and conflict. Of particular interest are his two stints as Delhi’s LG when, as the executive head of the government, he managed to hold his own without getting into conflict with two very differen but politicall­y important chief ministers, Sahib Singh Verma and Sheila Dixit, both of whom had major difference­s of opinion with him.

Lastly, it was the value attached to command over languages and the ability to express oneself with clarity, precision and forcefulne­ss. It is easy to see in Khanna’s book a quality he shares with others of his generation: of being able to express himself in simple, unadorned, yet elegant prose. It is a pity that many of these characteri­stics are now a rarity. The ‘intent to serve’ has been replaced by the intent to wield power and access privilege, constituti­onal conduct is subject to political expediency, language skills are poorer and ‘esprit de corps’ is a forgotten value. Khanna’s book is a reminder of what we have lost, for that reason alone it deserves to be read. ■

 ?? ?? AN INTENT TO SERVE A Civil Servant Remembers
By Tejendra Khanna
HARPERCOLL­INS `699; 218 pages
AN INTENT TO SERVE A Civil Servant Remembers By Tejendra Khanna HARPERCOLL­INS `699; 218 pages

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