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The Rediff Special


The Rediff Interview/T N Seshan

'Today the journalist is junk, unadulterated junk. The IAS officer is junk. Your police officer is junk...'

T N Seshan We are under the impression that today's bureaucrats are under tremendous pressure from politicians.

Today, yes. But it is no worse than what it was 30 or 40 years ago. It is just that the general atmosphere has weakened and become bad.

When did it start, the slow deterioration?

When did cancer start in my grandmother? God alone knows.

But you were part of the system. So, you might have known and noticed.

My grandmother had cancer. Nobody knows when it started. You can only look at milestones. For example, one milestone was when the government adopted the socialistic pattern of development. It is a milestone; that it ultimately turned out to be bad is a different matter. It was a milestone. Two, it happened when the government deliberately built up animus between the technical man and the generalist. The politician deliberately built up an animus between the technocrat and the bureaucrat in '61, '62, 63. When Panditji died, parliamentary government took a beating. Because he believed in parliamentary government as if it was a religion. Nobody thereafter believed that Parliament was as sacrosanct as he did.

In 1975, there was a death blow to the system in the form of the Emergency. It came back in 1977, but in the meantime the damage had been terribly done, and every civil servant would be identified as either loyal or disloyal. So you had to decide whether to wear the tag, "I am loyal, I am loyal, I am loyal" or not. A loyal civil servant whose loyalty is not to a purpose but to an individual is a great danger. A servant who is loyal to the purpose is a good civil servant. A civil servant who is loyal only to the individual had to say, ''Yes sir, it is midnight outside,'' when the sun was burning hot.

Did you have to encounter such situations in your career?

From day one. Three days after I took independent charge itself. I have written about it in my biography. There is no difference at all in the situation except that the number of people who will stand up have gone down from 99 per cent to 98 per cent to 80 per cent to 40 per cent to 20 per cent to 10 per cent.

Was it because politicians have become stronger or bureaucrats weaker?

Both. It was both. They could harass an honest civil servant by every possible means.

Did they harass you too?

Yes. One day somebody asked me to do something at 10 o' clock. I said, no. At 10.15, I was transferred from deputy secretary, rural development to deputy secretary, finance. At 10.45, they changed me to deputy secretary, small savings. When I was about to go home at 4.45 in the evening, I became the director of human welfare. When I reached home, the chief secretary called and asked me, "Seshan, do you know Krishnagiri?"

I said, "Yes, sir".

"You are going to Krishnagiri", he said.

T N Seshan I said, "Yes, sir." I was to be sent to Krishnagiri to bifurcate the district because they have split the Salem district into Salem and Krishnagiri districts.

"How will you go?", he asked me.

"I will find out, sir. There will be some train or car".

"I didn't mean that. You know Krishnagiri does not have a collector's house," he said.

"I suspected it, sir, because it is not yet a district," I said.

He went on and on and finally I thought it was necessary to introduce a small amount of rudeness. When he asked, "What will your wife do?", I said, "That is not the government's concern, sir".

Next morning I went to the office at 10.30. There was a message that the chief secretary wanted to see me badly. I went to his room.

He asked, "Seshan, how much do you know R Venkataraman?"

I said, "Sir, I know Mr Venkataraman is one of the most powerful ministers in the Cabinet." (There were only eight ministers in the Kamaraj Cabinet.)

"When did you last meet Mr Venkataraman?", he asked.

"Two months ago. When there was this big meeting called the state development committee meeting and I was the chief carrier of files for my secretary."

"Did you speak at the meeting?"

"No, sir. I stood up three-four times to hand over the files to the secretary."

"You did not meet Venkataraman last night?"

"No, sir."

"You did not meet him this morning?"

"No, sir"

"How does Venkataraman know about you?"

"Sir, that question should be addressed to Mr Venkataraman most appropriately and not to me."

"Venkataraman has asked for you by name to become the director of transport. How does he know about you?"

"Sir, I never asked him for any transport job."

I walked up to the door, came back and said, "Sir, you might send for me again in the next 15 minutes to ask me one other question. Let me put you out of misery on that question before you ask me. My own brother is Venkataraman's industrial secretary. Sir, the day I entered service, my brother and I had a contract that he would not come near my career. So, my brother has not spoken to nor have I asked my brother to speak to Mr Venkataraman. And my brother dare not speak to Venkataraman about my posting. Do you want me to go to Krishnagiri? I will go."

And during the next three years, I ran buses.

Your opinion about politicians also must have changed as you encountered many of them, as you spent more and more years with them.

Politics, as I told you, in the early and middle '40s and the early '50s consisted of people who had come to the field as a result of two mottoes. One was service and the other was sacrifice. It was not a full-time job for them. Jawaharlal Nehru would have been a brilliant lawyer but he sacrificed his career in order to come to politics. Today who sacrifices what to come to politics?

As a person who moved closely with them, tell us why political morality has deteriorated and why politicians have become more self-centered.

Because like the law of bank currency, bad currency drives out good currency. If there is a choice between good behaviour and bad behaviour, bad behaviour usually takes over and there is a collation spiral of bad character. If you are doing good, the chances of others looking at you and emulating you are small. If you are doing bad, the chances of other people emulating you are more. You just look at your child. In his class of 20 students, one student might be outstandingly good in behaviour. But 10 students use foul language and cheat. The likely chance is that he goes towards the 10 and not to the one. Because that is human nature. Human nature turns to chaos. So, in the end, what we lost was character.

What could be the reason? It is happening everywhere.

We lost character everywhere. Fundamental laws of physics: human nature turns to chaos. I will give you a simple example. Don't go to your son's bedroom for 15 days. It will look like a warfield. To make it clean, you need to put in energy. To make it unclean, you don't need any effort. Third law of thermodynamics.

Did you try to cleanse the system?

When you are inside, yes. When you are inside the boat, there is just so much of cleaning that you can do.

Did you have to compromise?

Not much.

Didn't it make the situation more difficult for you in your dealings with politicians?

T N Seshan I never reached a point at which my conscience said that there was no alternative but resign. There are lower levels of compromises that I have made. But the higher levels of compromises, where you do something manifestly, no. I have certainly not done anything illegal. I have never done anything which is immoral.

You described politicians as wretched. When did they become wretched for you?

The same time when the journalists became wretched. The same time when the doctors became wretched. The same time when the scientists became wretched. The same time when the lawyers became wretched. So they didn't become wretched specially. Today your journalist is junk, unadulterated junk.

Only journalists? Won't you include others?

The IAS officer is junk. Your police officer is junk. The doctor is junk. Your engineer is junk. Your lawyer is junk. Your journalist is junk.

T N Seshan's photographs by Sanjay Ghosh

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