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BOOK REVIEW ‘ENCOUNTERS WITH POLITICIANS’

About Kalyan Singh’s ‘shock’ & Mayawati’s ‘brazen corruption’

BOOK REVIEW ‘ENCOUNTERS WITH POLITICIANS’, Lifeinchd

The book ‘Encounters With Politicians’, penned by former well reputed Uttar Pradesh cadre bureaucrat Anil Swarup on the basis of his “first hand” experiences with politicians during his 38 years civil services career, wherein he held key positions during some epoch-making events, both in his cadre state and at the Centre, talks about some previously unknown or lesser known aspects and perspectives of such events, involving prime ministers, union ministers, chief ministers, and the likes.

So, among other things, he writes about UPA vs NDA government, Manmohan Singh vs Narendra Modi as prime ministers, the demolition of Babri Masjid, and how the public perception about then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh’s complicity in the episode, in his view, was divorced from reality, the “brazen corruption” involving another UP Chief Minister Mayawati, and the great moderating and consensus-building skills of the “master strategist” late Union Minister Arun Jaitley.

Having encountered many politicians in his career in civil service, his book carries 93 short snippets featuring well-known politicians in the country, some of whom he has worked with closely.

The book, Anil Swarup’s third, was formally launched on January 21, 2024, a day before the Ram Janmbhoomi temple consecration ceremony at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

The former 1981 batch Indian Administrative Service officer has held key positions like coal secretary immediately after the so called UPA coal scam, additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat of India, district magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri during the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi agitation under the chief ministership of Kalyan Singh, and in the chief minister’s secretariat during Mayawati’s tenure.

The writer does not hide his admiration for the way Narendra Modi as Prime Minister went about taking quick and bold decisions in close consultation with bureaucrats, who were actively encouraged to share their views on various matters, in the first half of his first tenure, initiatives that weren’t taken in the past.

BOOK REVIEW ‘ENCOUNTERS WITH POLITICIANS’, Lifeinchd

‘Something happened after demonetization’

But that “amazing period”, from which the government benefitted immensely, did not last long. Something happened, a few months after demonetisation, when the scenario changed dramatically and free-flowing communication stopped. Messaging started happening that critical comments against the government even within the confines of meetings were no longer welcome.

In his book, Anil Swarup describes demonetisation as a very good idea in so far as its intended impact on curbing the role of black money in the economy was concerned, but its execution was very poor. Eventually the very purpose of the exercise was defeated as all the 1,000 rupee denomination notes returned to the RBI, apparently the entire black money got converted into white.

The writer also points out some other mindless decisions taken during the process of demonetisation which caused untold chaos and misery to the masses, like the decision to reduce the size of the 500 rupee denomination notes, which necessitated a long and tedious process of recalibrating the entire lot of ATMs.

Rs 2,000 note ‘craziest idea’

But the “craziest” of ideas was the subsequent introduction of 2,000 rupees notes, of denomination higher than the ones phased out. Then why were the 1,000 rupees denomination notes withdrawn in the first instance?

The writer also mentions the prime minister, not once, but repeatedly making factually incorrect assertions during his important addresses to the nation, like during an Independence Day speech he took credit for creating a Project Management Group (PMG) within the Cabinet Secretariat, when actually it had been done during the previous UPA government. Where was the need to make such factually incorrect claims when the government had many other genuine and significant achievements to orchestrate, he asks.

His contention is that though the prime minister is not expected to know each and every detail, it is the people around him who need to scrutinize that every mention in his speech is factually correct and point out the mistakes or factually incorrect mentions, though eventually it is up to the PM to decide if he still wants to go ahead with it.

UPA vs NDA

Comparing UPA government to the NDA government, he says that there was clearly “indecisiveness” during the UPA government. Decisions took a lot of time. In NDA government, the decisions were “pretty quick and fast”.

Another important difference was that in UPA there were too many power centres. The ministers were totally on their own. NDA was the other extreme, where everything got centred in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Manmohan vs Modi

On the stark contrast between the persona and style of functioning of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi as prime ministers, Anil Swarup is of the view that though Monmohan Singh, the great economist that he is, excelled in his capacity as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and later as Union finance minister, but he disappointed as prime minister.

The writer says he thought that Manomohan Singh was “not in control of things”, which were going “haywire”, and he appeared to be “clueless”, or did not know how to go about handling these ministers. As prime minister, he could not probably “impose his honesty on his other ministers”.

On his thoughts about why that probably was the case, the writer says to his mind Manmohan Singh was never a politician. He was a fine person, a very accomplished economist, and expert and a very kind person, but not a politician. And, politicians require other attributes.

The writer feels that Manmohan Singh lacked the leadership skills to communicative with the team and get things done, something which Modi “does so well”. He’s a leader par excellence. Modi gets things done, he motivates people, talks to them. The messaging has to be loud and clear, what the leader wants from his team, what is not done. Trust Modi, he will get done what he wants done. He’s very purposeful, very decisive, very communicative when he wants to be, the former bureaucrat opines.

Kalyan Singh’s Babri role

The writer is apparently quite impressed with the persona of former BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Kalyan Singh, who he feels is the most misunderstood person especially in the context of the Babri Masjid demolition by ‘kar sevaks’ in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 when he was leading the state.

Claiming to be the only one with the chief minister at his residence when news of the episode broke, Anil Swarup, who was then Director Information & Public Relations in the state government, says that Kalyan Singh was “shocked and devastated” by the news and he immediately rang up top BJP leaders at the time Lal Krishan Advani and Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to express his anger and strong displeasure at the development since he had been advising them against gathering a large crowd of ‘kar sevaks’ near the disputed site.

The writer says Kalyan Singh was making sincere efforts to find a negotiated settlement to the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi dispute on the lines similar to what the Supreme Court eventually decreed years later, to offer the Muslims a large chunk of land to build a grant mosque in return for withdrawing their claim over the disputed site. With his dream of finding a negotiated settlement shattered, a distraught Kalyan Singh was never the same again.

Arun Jaitley ‘man apart’

The former bureaucrat does not hide his admiration for late Union minister Arun Jaitley, whom he has described as a ‘man apart’. He was the real troubleshooter for the government, a consensus builder and “master strategist”, who endeared himself across the political spectrum.

The writer cites one particular instance to butteress Jaitley’s negotiating skills, when he extricated the government from a near hopeless situation, not being able to get a bill passed in the Rajya Sabha for auctioning the coal blocks cancelled by the Supreme Court in the wake of the so-called ‘coal scam’. Not having the required numbers in the Upper House and with an intransigent Opposition bend on stalling proceedings in Parliament, a strategy was chalked out to reach out to opposition parliamentarians and those who mattered to convince them about the value proposition behind the bill.

The writer was then the coal secretary of India and Jaitley was Union finance minister. He called the writer over to a meeting he was having with Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik at his residence, in which then Minister of State (independent charge) for Power & Coal Piyush Goyal and an official from the CM’s personal staff was also present. The writer was requested to explain the proposed legislation and the financial benefits likely to accrue to the state to the chief minister.

Following the explanation, and being convinced about an estimated Rs 27,000 crore revenue that would accrue to the state government from the auction of the coal blocks in the state, the chief minister’s party, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) backed the government in getting the bill passed by Parliament.

Julio Ribeiro on book

Commenting on the book, former super cop Julio Riberio, who has contributed its foreword, has written in a recent column that reading “my friend Anil’s” book “I had the happy feeling that his philosophy of government service was uncannily the same as mine.”

Ribeiro says Anil has encountered many politicians in his 38-year career in the civil service. His book classifies a hundred of them, some of whom he has worked with closely. He was always polite and attentive to their wishes, but clearly laid down a red line beyond which he was not willing to venture. Very early in his career, they learnt to respect his commitment to himself and to the people he served.

Sanjeev Chopra’s review

Being among the first ones to review the book in another published article, Sanjeev Chopra, historian, policy analyst, columnist and former Director of LBS National Academy of Administration, has written that an eminently readable and well-structured potpourri of 93 short snippets featuring some of the well-known politicians in the country, ‘Encounters with Politicians’ by Anil Swarup offers insight into the way the stalwarts exercise(d) their craft.

So, when we look at ‘Encounters with Politicians’, the first impression may be that this is going to be an ‘us’ (bureaucrats) versus ‘them’ (politicians) discourse. But as Swarup mentions in the Preface, his initial apprehensions about politicians being responsible for every conceivable ill of the country soon gave way to a healthy respect for the ground-level inputs they brought to the table, as well as an understanding that many public grievances were indeed legitimate and could be addressed within the extant framework of rules, Chopra shares.

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