P.C. Alexander: Through the Corridors of Power, Harper Collins, 2004, pp.480
The last couple of years have witnessed an unusual rash of unburdening by Indian civil servants which is of particular interest because of the posts held by them: Cabinet Secretaries to the union government—the highest post in the bureaucracy—of whom two have gone on, after retirement, to be principal secretary to the prime minister. The revelations they provide are put in perspective by the confessional account of a former joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, Maloy Dhar’s Open Secret. What sets P.C. Alexander’s Through the corridors of power apart from Deshmukh’s A cabinet secretary looks back and Subramanian’s Journeys through Babudom and Netaland is his considerable experience as an international bureaucrat and his little field experience. With considerably less than a decade in the field, he opted for the central pool and never came back to serve in a state. It speaks volumes about the highest echelons of decision making in Indian government that Smt. Gandhi made a deliberate choice to appoint him as the prime minister’s principal secretary to function significantly in the political arena, both within the country and without. Alexander shares with us a treasure: facsimiles of the little notes and delightful doodles Smt. Gandhi used to pass on to him during meetings for his scribbled responses and details of her penchant for punctuality, her expertise in packing for international jaunts, her behaviour like “an empress”, her swift clearing of files and her deep concern for her three grandchildren because of which the refusal to allow Varun to meet her even once in a while left a deep emotional scar. Unlike Deshmukh who struggled to mask his attachment to Rajiv Gandhi behind the façade of a proper civil servant, Alexander is quite open regarding his unqualified devotion to the Gandhi pariwar, whether in power or out of it. Much of his earlier book, My years with Indira Gandhi has been included in this work. Of particular value is his detailed account of the events following the assassination of Smt. Gandhi and the crucial role he played in persuading Rajiv Gandhi to wait till the President arrived for being sworn in as prime minister, overruling the intense pressure of the Arun Nehru cabal for getting this done by the Vice President. Alexander gives us a deeply moving picture of this traumatic scene in the AIIMS cabin with Smt. Gandhi’s corpse where Rajiv Gandhi was being begged by his wife not to accept the post. There was no one else present, except Alexander.
True to the nature of an autobiography, Alexander does not hide his lacerated ego behind a mask. Like many high profile civil servants of the TKC (till khatiya comes) breed, he cannot rest content with retirement, but eagerly accepts one post after another: high commissioner in London (that assuages the humbling his pride suffered after the spy scandal that made him resign as principal secretary to the prime minister), governor of Tamil Nadu and then of Maharashtra, tentative candidate for President of India settling for becoming one of many Rajya Sabha MPs. Alexander is curiously akin to another bureaucrat whom he, Deshmukh and Dhar roundly criticise for his megalomania and open kow-towing to Rajiv Gandhi. Nothing sets him apart from T.N. Seshan in craving to become President of India and seeking political support for it, only to be grossly let down, exposing the political naiveté of both.
The book flaunts encomiums from Venkataraman on his professional competence, from Vajpayee who calls him not just a rajyapal but also a rajguru (which must have fanned the dream of occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan), from Palkhivala who calls his talk on Gandhiji “the greatest talk ever delivered”. There are nearly a dozen photographs of the author with VVIPs. After these to be faced with the bitterness permeating the first 50 pages (Alexander begins at the end, with how he was led up the garden path and then let down by the NDA regarding Rashtrapati Bhavan because of the Congress machinations and the ambitions of K.R. Narayanan for a second term) leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It is, of course, valuable because it tears away the entire façade of decency to expose the slavering ambition of bureaucrats-turned-politicians even when they rise to become the President of India, fuelled by the “never say die” syndrome.
To civil servants the book is of interest because of the evidence that out of turn promotion is possible even in the IAS. Alexander superseded many to become development commissioner of small-scale industries as many as three years before he was eligible. How the appointments committee of the cabinet bent the rules just because Lal Bahadur Shastri insisted is a telling commentary on the power of the political executive even in the so-called heydays of our fledgling democracy. This is a post he held again ten years later after reverting prematurely from a UN posting, sacrificing a UN pension because he was not finding job satisfaction in it. He again got promoted as secretary to the union government ahead of several seniors at the behest of Smt. Gandhi who overruled the cabinet secretary’s objections. During the Janata regime, Alexander stood up to Morarji Desai valiantly as commerce secretary and, when relieved of the post, took up an assignment with the UNITC. In a similar fashion, V.P. Singh peremptorily removed him as governor of Tamil Nadu despite their earlier good relations. Years later when Singh was his guest in Bombay, Alexander mentioned this to him and had the satisfaction of hearing the former prime minister confess that it had been a mistake. Alexander was quite thoroughly involved as go-between in negotiations between various political parties and factions within the Congress when Narsimha Rao’s candidature for prime ministership came up. He smoothly made the transition from an aloof bureaucrat to a politician, almost king-maker, playing an important role in helping Smt. Gandhi through her tense relations with Sanjiva Reddy, Zail Singh, MGR, N.T. Rama Rao and others, even recommending how the AICC should be reconstituted. Despite his recommendation in favour of Swaran Singh as presidential candidate, for reasons which he could not plumb, she chose Zail Singh with unfortunate results.
The coverage of the emergency is disappointingly sketchy. The post-emergency witch-hunt launched by the Janata government covered civil servants too. Alexander mentions the arrest of B.B.Vohra, petroleum secretary, but has not a word to say about the insults to which another secretary was subjected by a local police station. The abdication of the home secretary and even the cabinet secretary, Nirmal Mukherji, who did not intervene in any way, severely demoralised the bureaucracy. This was the time when everyone needed to come together to take a stand.
The book provides a detailed account of the Punjab imbroglio and raises questions about the inadequacy of military intelligence regarding the extent to which the terrorists inside the golden temple were armed which led to severe damage to the building as the army had to change their plans completely and bring him heavy armour. The inner wheeling dealing between the terrorists and the prime minister’s house that Alexander does not reveal (he cannot explain why Smt. Gandhi kept president Zail Singh in the dark) has been narrated in detail in Dhar’s Open Secret. The IPKF involvement in Sri Lanka is not covered satisfactorily, possibly because he did not have access to the inner goings-on of the prime minister’s office at that time.
One is surprised not to find any pen-portraits of Alexander’s batch-mates in the IAS. He has nothing to say about one of the most illustrious of them, Sushital Banerjee, who died in office as defence secretary when the Jaguar aircraft deal scandal erupted. Nor does he mention Rajeshwar Prasad who influenced so many batches of IAS trainees in the National Academy of Administration and got it renamed after Lal Bahadur Shastri. The book, with its focus on international and national politics, completely ignores another event that badly shook the bureaucracy: the resignation of the director of the national academy of administration over government’s soft-pedalling of exemplary action against a trainee who had attempted to molest a lady colleague. Alexander, as the prime minister’s secretary, did not support the principled stand of the director of the national academy nor had a word to say about its aftermath which severely damaged the integrity of the civil service. Ironically, after the spy scandal in the PMO erupted, Alexander’s own resignation was accepted, as that of Appu had been! Proudly he reproduces the editorial in the Hindustan Times commending his “excellent work” and recommending that government reject his resignation.
Actually, Alexander is so lost in himself, that nothing which does not directly affect him is of consequence. When the cabinet secretary writes asking for his concurrence to join the national security advisory board, he is offended because he feels the prime minister himself should have done so as the cabinet secretary had been a joint secretary under him. Alexander even quotes the written response he elicited after “gently chastising him”—its exaggerated tone makes one suspect it is tongue in cheek—: “you are undoubtedly one of the greatest civil servants of India.”
The book becomes, in the ultimate analysis, an account of his and his wife’s grand achievements in India and abroad, and his griping about having been taken for a ride by politicians who dangled before him the juicy carrot of Rashtrapati Bhavan.