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A Serendipitous Civil Service Career

December 22, 2022 17:14 IST
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Every twist and turn in KMC's civil service career is attributed to serendipity, an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

He plays down his capabilities, which took him to the top of the civil service as the Cabinet Secretary or his misfortune in losing a daughter in her prime and suggests that his career was indeed serendipitous, observes Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

All illustrations: Dominic Xavier/

The word, 'serendipity' appears in several places in K M Chandrasekhar'S memoirs As Good as my Word.

Every twist and turn in KMC's civil service career is attributed to serendipity, an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. He plays down his capabilities, which took him to the top of the civil service as the Cabinet Secretary or his misfortune in losing a daughter in her prime and suggests that his career was indeed serendipitous.

I could compare KMC only with my former boss in Washington, the late Naresh Chandra, an IAS officer, in terms of the diverse heavy portfolios he handled in his state, at the Centre and abroad and made a success of every assignment, including Cabinet Secretary, governor and ambassador to the United States.

They share many personal traits, such as absolute integrity, fearlessness, loyalty to colleagues and mastery of dealing with politicians, who trusted them for their sheer competence to advise them honestly to serve the interests of the nation.

In appearance, Naresh Chandra was more formidable, while KMC is the very picture of gentleness and humility.

Like Naresh Chandra, KMC also has interests that go beyond their vocation such as music, literature, sports, crossword puzzles and spirituality.

A story circulated in South Block when KMC was appointed ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva that the then minister of commerce and industry Murasoli Maran threatened to resign if KMC was not given the post.

The book confirms that Maran insisted on changing the posting of an IFS officer to Geneva, as the post belonged to the ministry of commerce and the decision was taken by Prime Minister Vajpayee without consulting him.

At that point, KMC had not met Vajpayee and hardly known Maran.

'All my life, I have been known for the work I have done than for my contacts,' writes KMC.

As a boy, KMC could think of 'nothing more majestic than being at the helm of a railway engine, gliding smoothly away from the platform, gathering speed, racing across the countryside, leaving mountains and rivers and houses and roads behind, streaming furiously into railway stations, teeming with people.'

He fulfilled that dream metaphorically when he was at the helm of the Indian bureaucracy, guiding the nation to modernity and prosperity as the Cabinet Secretary.

The story of his first fifteen years as an IAS officer in Kerala is replete with tales of many pathbreaking projects, mainly in trade and development, most of which have survived and grown over the years.

He attributes their success to his luck, ministers and young colleagues, but the making of a committed bureaucrat was clearly visible even at that time.

He learnt ways of means of functioning in the bureaucracy by finding resources in unconventional ways and making use of talented ministers to the benefit of the state.

His early experience in Kerala in trade and development matters obviously led to his impressive reputation as a wizard in commercial and financial matters in his assignments at the center and abroad.

KMC's account of his foray into diplomacy in Brussels and Geneva is most fascinating.

The embassy in Brussels and the mission to the WTO in Geneva are different from our other diplomatic missions as the work done there are of a specialized nature, which requires specialists in finance and trade.

The ambassadors in Brussels were not IFS officers for a long time and when the post of the head of mission went back to the IFS, the post of the deputy chief of mission went to the IAS, to deal with the economic and commercial matters.

KMC took to economic diplomacy like fish to water and dealt with the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament.

His task was to develop close relations with EU officials and to persuade them to be favorable to India.

He says this caused no problem for him because he had to learn the rough and tumble ways in Kerala and his experience stood him in good stead.

The chapters on WTO are detailed in their exposition of the Uruguay Round and the subsequent confrontation between India and the west on certain issues like public health and agriculture.

Murasoli Maran had fought valiantly for India, but it was Arun Jaitley and Arun Shourie who gave the lead for the Geneva negotiations subsequently.

KMC had concerns about his own lack of negotiations initially, but in retrospect, he considers his tenure in Geneva a high point in his public career.

He felt that the WTO negotiations were easier than the disorderly, acrimonious interaction with politicians, trade unions, students and others in Kerala.

In Geneva, every diplomat was listened to with respect, never interrupted and even after the most divisive discussions, the adversaries had a drink together at the delegates' lounge.

I was thinking of my own bitter experience of trying to reason with the Opposition in Kerala on educational reform after 37 years of diplomatic negotiations in which decorum, respect and non-violence were the norm.

The book has a number of 'digressions' on Indian federalism, foreign policy, GST, demonetisation and democracy and dictatorship, which add to the value of the book.

His approach is moderate, realistic, objective and critical when necessary.

He perceives a welcome change in foreign policy, 'with a more confident India, depending no more on this and that power center, striking its own path in the complex world of diplomacy.'

The sections on KMC's work as the Cabinet Secretary have already received media attention in their search for controversial references to events and individuals and little- known secrets of state.

Some publishers are known to have encouraged authors like him to slip in sleazy snippets to sell the book. But KMC obviously did not fall into that trap.

But still, some experiences he has described during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai about the Cabinet Secretary and the National Security Adviser not working in tandem have already grabbed headlines.

His criticism of the abolition of the Planning Commission, the irregularities of the 2G spectrum and the adverse comments of the CAG, the pricing of natural gaze, which benefitted Reliance have also been reported. But his narration of events during his time as the Cabinet Secretary is substantive, objective and without ill will.

It is also clear that he thoroughly enjoyed the excitement of power and influence at the higher echelons of the government and the access to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

His return to Kerala as the vice chairman of the state planning board was a soft landing, which prepared the ground for his present pursuit of knowledge, philosophy and spiritual side of life.

He has found himself in an era in the history of the world, in which, in the words of Paulo Coelho, 'The Spirit finally merges with the Material and the two are united and transformed.'

For an autobiographical work, there is very little about his personal life in the book. His wife is mentioned, but nothing about her professional excellence as a teacher and writer.

Even the chapter on the death of his daughter in a gruesome accident is devoid of any outpouring of grief.

He quotes the Dalai Lama as having said, 'There is a saying in Tibetan, 'Tragedy should be utilised as a source of strength'.'

'No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that is our real disaster.'

He grimly recalls the advice of the priest at his daughter's funeral that the effect of the rituals will be enhanced if the fee paid to him is higher!

The author's bullet point list of what he has learnt in life provides a deep insight into his life and work, even though he insists that each person has to live his own life and learn his own lessons.

However, the lessons he has listed are profound, valuable and helpful to future generations.

His sense of fulfilment is evident in his words. 'I am in a place where I can enjoy the flow of life, and along with it, accept the occasional storm, the ripple, the barrier, the twists and the turns that come in its way.'

As for the life beyond, he quotes an American poet: 'In a way, the universe ends with each of our deaths.'

As Good as My Word is a well-crafted service story, rare among former Cabinet Secretaries, which presents a picture of the work and life of a model bureaucrat and gifted writer as seen in its felicitous language and the elevating mood.

Ambassador Sreenivasan is a frequent contributor to and you can read his earlier columns here.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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