League of Extraordinary Bureaucrats
Septuagenarian bureaucrats like Nripendra Misra and Bimal Jalan have been reinventing themselves to stay relevant even now
NK Singh, 78, is the chairman of the 15th Finance Commission while Vijay Kelkar, who is two years younger, holds the same post at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.
Nripendra Mishra, 73 is the principal secretary, PMO and Bimal Jalan, 77, has just been given the mandate to chair the politically sensitive RBI Reserves Committee.
NN Vohra, 82, is a retired 1959-batch IAS officer, who until recently served as the governor of Jammu and Kashmir.
What is common between NK Singh, Vijay Kelkar, Nripendra Misra, Bimal Jalan and NN Vohra? They are all septuagenarians, born before the Indian Republic. They are all career bureaucrats who have made a defining contribution to public policy development in India. They are neither tired nor retired, but soldier on, redefining endurance.
NK Singh, 78, is the chairman of the 15th Finance Commission while Vijay Kelkar, who is two years younger, holds the same post at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPF).
Nripendra Mishra, 73 is the principal secretary, PMO and Bimal Jalan, 77, has just been given the mandate to chair the politically sensitive RBI Reserves Committee. NN Vohra, 82, is a retired 1959-batch IAS officer, who until recently served as the governor of Jammu and Kashmir. Boasting of an illustrious service record, these bureaucrats represent a tribe that has made a stellar contribution even post retirement. The list is merely illustrative and not exhaustive.
Vohra, who earlier served as defence and home secretary, stood out as an administrator navigating the Centre’s Kashmir policy during UPA and NDA governments for almost a decade. He also served as the principal secretary to Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral.
Jalan, a former RBI governor, previously held several positions, including those of finance secretary and chairman of the PM Economic Advisory Council. He was also a nominated Member of Parliament from 2003 to 2009. He was chairman of the Expenditure Management Commission during 2014-16.
Kelkar, who started off as an economic academician, was also the chairman of the Finance Commission until January 2010. He was earlier adviser to the finance ministry and is known for his role in economic reforms in India. Prior to that, he served as the finance secretary.
Singh, like Kelkar and Jalan, has been a key face of economic reforms in the country. He has been among the country’s top bureaucrats and handled important portfolios such as India’s expenditure and revenue secretary, a member of the Planning Commission as well as secretary to the prime minister. Post retirement, he crossed the line to embrace politics and till recently was a member of the Rajya Sabha representing Bihar.
Similarly, Misra, who is posted as principal secretary, to the prime minister since 2014, retired as telecom secretary in 2005 to take up the role of TRAI chairman in 2006 for a period of three years.
In their longevity, these bureaucrats have obviously aged well. Not only have they kept themselves in circulation, but also held on to the IAS brand. What makes them tick? Do they hold any mantras for the young babu talent? How does one sustain and reinvent so easily to stay ever relevant? For Singh, who joined service in 1964, and served in various key economic ministries, longevity is all about reinventing oneself continually.
“I have been lucky to be able to exercise my domain knowledge being in service and politics. If I look back at my career, my academic interest in economics and the roles I was given over the decades have had a great fitment”.
From being part of the 1997-98 dream Budget to being the economic adviser to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, how did Singh navigate the political transition? “Successful management skills need an ability to implement successfully and have domain knowledge for policy formulation”.
The veterans are generally a shy lot. But they are open to traversing the rich journey and hold some important lessons for the youngsters. A veteran who continues to guide India on building critical institutional framework has some words of wisdom to offer.
“Endurance will only happen if there is no transgression. Bureaucracy has to be open to the process of consultation but things can go wrong if the policymaker gets into the habit of executing through micro-management”.
But how does one draw the red line between a bureaucrat and the politician administering him?
For Anil Swarup, former education secretary and author of the recently released Not Just a Civil Servant, it is all about mapping the role play. “Service is not meant for revolutionaries. If you wish to pursue a political agenda, it is best that you get out. Being in service, you have to be objective. Politics should not drive your agenda”. A veteran though has no confusion about the role play.
“There are clearly laid-out roles. While the political establishment has to lay out the policy, it is for the bureaucracy to execute using its administrative acumen. We must at all times respect the dividing line”. Bringing in an outside perspective, Jagdish Sheth, professor of marketing at the Goizueta Business School of Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, has a solution on offer to optimise the outcome.
“A good appraisal system will keep the meritorious and let go the mediocre. Finally, deploy them to mission-driven assignments but keep them engaged within the bureaucracy”.
Amid talk of talent attrition (2010 IAS topper Shah Faesal quit earlier this year), Singh opines that people are becoming less risk averse.
“An interdependent India which has become part of global economy gives many more choice patterns than those that existed in the old civil service establishment. I actually welcome induction of lateral talent in the civil service, because those who oppose it are not willing to take competitive pressure”.
Is there a need to draw a distinction between brand IAS and individuals driving the service? Clearly, some of the veterans who continue to hold office have made a brand name for themselves.
Sheth does not see any challenge here.
“In all professional services, it is very common to also develop a personal brand. This is true of economists, professors and scientists. Also, it is true among preachers and gurus. Therefore, the institution has to develop its own brand and then position and promote the brand.” Swarup though has a word of caution.
“Perception should not overwhelm. At times there is variance between the public and private view of any bureaucrat. There are a large number of civil servants who are doing a yeoman service without being visible. Visibility has become important. That is sad”.
Going forward, what does the brand salience look like for IAS? Sheth is ever optimistic. “There are three unique features of the IAS brand. First, it is merit based and requires extraordinary preparation to sit for the exam and score good marks.
Therefore, IAS officers are good rough diamonds and the bureaucracy polishes them to serve the government and its stakeholders”.
“Brand IAS was always under challenge. It continues to be the first choice among youth when it comes to picking up a public service job. If I were to be born again, I would like to be in IAS again”. Singh has a piece of advice for young bureaucrats to endure and stay relevant. “Don’t give up on your domain knowledge. Not just update it but actually upgrade it to stay contemporary. Deepen and diversify”.
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