The Per­fect Bu­reau­crat

Noted econ­o­mist Abid Hus­sain was all for lib­er­al­i­sa­tion long be­fore oth­ers climbed onto that band­wagon, rem­i­nisces NITIN DE­SAI

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ABID HUS­SAIN, the much loved and widely ad­mired ad­min­is­tra­tor and diplo­mat, passed away in Lon­don on 21 June. Abidb­hai, as many of us called him, was ev­ery­thing a civil ser­vant ought to be and em­bod­ied many qual­i­ties that are sadly miss­ing in to­day’s bu­reau­crats.

His bu­reau­cratic ex­pe­ri­ence was wide-rang­ing. He started in com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment and this phase left him with a life­long con­cern about poverty and ru­ral de­vel­op­ment. But when he came back to In­dia af­ter a UN stint, he be­came a pole star guid­ing the way in eco­nomic ad­min­is­tra­tion. His ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion was the ori­en­ta­tion of trade pol­icy where he ar­gued for growth-led ex­ports as the strat­egy for In­dia rather than ex­port-led growth. This fo­cus on na­tional de­vel­op­ment can be also seen in his sem­i­nal work in the com­mit­tees on small in­dus­try de­vel­op­ment and sci­en­tific re­search that he chaired. All of this came to­gether when he be­came a mem­ber of the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, which is when I worked most closely with him.

Abidb­hai was born in Hy­der­abad on 26 De­cem­ber 1926 and be­longed to a group that I call ‘Mid­night’s Adults’ — peo­ple like him, Lovraj Ku­mar and Ge­orge Vergh­ese (hap­pily still with us), who were young adults around 20 years of age at In­de­pen­dence and who re­tained their ide­al­ism and the hopes that In­de­pen­dence in­spired through­out their very ac­tive and ded­i­cated lives. They were the ones who were the in­stru­ments of Nehru’s vi­sion of a sec­u­lar, ra­tio­nal­ist and demo­cratic In­dia.

There was a sec­ond burst of ide­al­ism af­ter the 1971 Bangladesh War and a bunch of us — my­self, Yogin­der Alagh, Vi­jay Kelkar and Mon­tek Singh Ah­luwalia — came in lat­er­ally into the gov­ern­ment. Abidb­hai and Lovraj were the ones who made us feel wel­come. There were oth­ers who came in later, Jairam Ramesh, Rakesh Mo­han and Shankar Acharya to name a few, who also ben­e­fited from Abidb­hai’s open­ness and en­thu­si­as­tic wel­come for new blood.

Abidb­hai’s per­sonal qual­i­ties were ex­cep­tional. Al­ways warm, he would greet you with a “mere pyare dost/beta/beti” and would hap­pily plant a kiss on your cheek. He made a point of dress­ing in­for­mally, even jaun­tily, and that it­self put one at ease when meet­ing him.

Abidb­hai had two qual­i­ties that made him a joy to work with. Un­like many of his IAS col­leagues, who think no end of them­selves, he was not just open but en­thu­si­as­tic about the views and ex­pe­ri­ences of out­siders, lat­eral en­trants like us, ad­vis­ers, con­sul­tants and even jour­nal­ists.

That led to a sec­ond great qual­ity — an abil­ity and will­ing­ness to lis­ten rather than to lec­ture. He was a care­ful lis­tener who would pro­voke with a ques­tion or two and then take de­tailed notes as his in­ter­locu­tor spouted wis­dom. And the notes were worth see­ing. They were not lin­ear. He would write the ideas and thoughts that struck him as valu­able in lit­tle bub­bles scat­tered through the page linked by lines and ar­rows to show the struc­ture of the ar­gu­ment. Of­ten, the struc­ture was made even more ex­plicit with the use of multi-coloured pens.

Abidb­hai’s trans­parency and patent in­tegrity meant that he was never afraid to take de­ci­sions. Through­out a long ca­reer in the most sen­si­tive part of eco­nomic ad­min­is­tra­tion, there was never even a whis­per of scan­dal around his name. Not for him the safety of say­ing ‘no’ sim­ply be­cause a ‘yes’ could lead to ques­tions. Abidb­hai was al­ways con­scious that his job was to pro­mote de­vel­op­ment and this meant sup­port­ing pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor pro­pos­als when they served that pur­pose. He was a lib­er­aliser long be­fore oth­ers climbed onto that band­wagon.

To­day’s bu­reau­crats must learn from his ex­am­ple. Their ef­fec­tive­ness will de­pend on their rep­u­ta­tion for pro­bity, which they must estab­lish con­vinc­ingly. They must be much more open to ideas from out­side, be good lis­ten­ers and, above all, not be afraid to take de­ci­sions. Many trib­utes have been paid to Abidb­hai over the past few days. Per­haps, the best way of cel­e­brat­ing his life and work would be to recog­nise and re­ward in some form th­ese qual­i­ties of trans­parency, open­ness and de­ci­sive­ness in to­day’s bureau­cracy.

De­sai is a for­mer Plan­ning Com­mis­sion mem­ber

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