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Jitender Bhargava: Bureaucrats and the write stuff

More and more former bureaucrats are writing about their experiences at work and exposing explosive events, hitherto speculated on and unverifiable, after they retire. This is a welcome development because the books not only squarely place in the public domain the rot in our governance systems but also lay bare how national assets are being brazenly manipulated by the politicians and bureaucrats. Many of them write in the hope that someone, some day will try to rectify the situation and have the guilty punished.

However, those whose misdeeds and misdemeanours find copious mention in the books have a common refrain: why did the authors not raise these controversial issues and apparent wrongdoings while they were in service? Some even question the time lag between the events and public disclosure, besides attributing motives to the writer, such as being disgruntled, attempting to make money through royalty on book sales and so on.

These typical responses were in abundant evidence with several book launches this year: Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister and P C Parakh’s Crusader or Conspirator?. The response has been no different when Vinod Rai’s Not Just an Accountant was released.

With the reputations and personal pride of individuals or establishments at stake, responses like these are only to be expected. But the tone and tenor of criticism have become predictable and virulent and they sometimes border on absurdity.

Most critics attributing malicious motives are generally sympathisers of those at the receiving end of the contents of the book or are not fully conversant with the constrained environment in which the government officials function. The problem is that their specious arguments tend to get noticed – more so because books of this nature are being published with greater frequency.

Criticising an author for not writing a book while in service is devoid of merit and smacks of ignorance. Critics would do better to focus on the factual accuracy of the book rather than impute motives to the author. As someone who has been through a similar bout of questioning after I released my book The Descent of Air India last year, let me enlighten these critics about what really goes through the mind of a potential writer when he decides to put facts in the public domain. The Descent of Air India chronicled the tragic diminution of the national carrier as a result of numerous injudicious decisions by politicians and bureaucrats.

Writing a book of this nature requires months, if not years. An author has to reflect on various aspects of his experiences spanning two to three decades, then piece them together and conceptualise what to write and what to discard. This task, as should be obvious to most, isn’t a mechanical exercise. Selecting the issues one wishes to include, documenting them, deliberating on them, prioritising the contents and so on is time-consuming. Since these memoirs name names, provide instances of their actions and interpret various events, cross-checking for accuracy also takes time. Given that most bureaucrats-turned-writers are publishing their first book, it is inevitable that they will take longer to prepare a manuscript than prolific authors like, say, Chetan Bhagat or Shobhaa De.

It needs to be appreciated that more often than not such authors are not in a position to exclusively devote all their time to writing the book even after retirement. Many are invariably engaged in other professional activities simultaneously. Also, would it not be unethical for a government official to suspend the work for which he is being paid his salary to devote time to writing a book?

The argument that the author should have spilled the beans while in service defies logic for other reasons too. In the absence of a whistle-blower policy, an official venturing to expose misdemeanours while in office will only invite the government’s wrath by way of denied promotions, punishment postings or hounding by investigating agencies. There are some who advocate that an officer go on a sabbatical to write the book. Imagine the response of his colleagues and superiors when he returns. Will they trust him for future assignments or career progression?

Some even go to the extent of suggesting that the official penning a tell-all memoir should have quit the job if he felt so disgusted with the way the affairs were being managed. A public-spirited individual may not necessarily be financially in a position to throw up his job and risk his and his family’s future. It is a dangerous suggestion, to say the least, because most officials pick up the pen so that manipulative actions are exposed, wrongs being committed are corrected and the guilty are held accountable. Furthering commercial interests or earning accolades can, at best, be described as an incidental bonus.

As conclusive evidence of the wisdom of writing a book without fear or favour only after retirement, let me give an example of what happens when a senior officer puts unpalatable facts on record while in service. In June 2005, a former Chairman of Indian Airlines wrote a letter, strictly according to rules, to the then cabinet secretary about pressure being brought on him and other board members by the then civil aviation minister to toe a certain line on aircraft acquisition. While the government went through with the aircraft deal without heeding the warning, financially crippling the airline in the process, it also harmed the career of the officer, who even had to face apartheid from his own colleagues. A perusal of his postings and promotions after writing that letter with all good intentions (that is, from the airline and country’s perspectives) will show how he languished and suffered career-wise. It is an object lesson for those who question bureaucrats who write tell-all memoirs after they retire.

Instead of putting such officials-turned-authors on the back foot through misplaced criticism, let us welcome the trend of officials putting unsavoury happenings in the public domain after they retire.

The Descent of Air India is available on Kindle.


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