G Ramachandran (GR), who was a former Finance Secretary, Government of India and a former Executive Director, Asian Development Bank, has reminisced on his times. His memoir, Walking with Giants is a gripping account of thirty six years of his dedicated and monumental work as an IAS officer. For most part, his service related to finance and development. Handling the finances of the then Madras State and subsequently the Union government, GR understood the needs of the states and the effective devolution of federal funds. He had been closely associated with the finance commissions and has made rich contribution to reconciling these demands.
One is struck by the humility of this civil servant. GR who topped in every class in schools, colleges and in the IAS: a triple first class in BA, first class in MA Economics in 1948 and holder of the top rank in IAS 1949 batch. Look how he opens his memoir: “almost an odd man among about thirty odd IAS probationers of the year 1949, I had grown up in a village where there was no electricity and was raised in a family in which no one spoke English.”
Close association with a galaxy of politicians
GR describes himself as extremely lucky: “Throughout my career, I had the privilege of enjoying a favourable and warm relationship with both my official and political bosses. My career has therefore been an atypical one. I got on very well with great leaders with different social and cultural backgrounds and different political ideologies- Rajaji, Kamaraj, Bakthavatsalam, Annadurai, Indira Gandhi, Charan Singh and Morarji Desai, all of them treated me well, listened patiently to what I had to say and in most cases, accepted the course of action suggested by me… Many civil servants like C G Reddy, R A Gopalaswami, T A Varghese and P N Haksar have been very kind to me and gave me opportunities to realise my potential as a civil servant... I walked with giants…”
In his foreword, Dr Y V Reddy, Chairman of 14th Finance Commission describes the memoir as a touching, enlightening and candid account of events and behind the scenes happenings in public policy:” GR refers to the change in environment: “Most leaders of today are not in the same class as those under whom I was lucky enough to serve… My story will look like a strange fiction to civil servants of today.”
Men and matters
Cambridge - educated senior lawyer C Ramakrishna, who was a student at the time GR was a lecturer in Economics at Loyola College, still remembers the two brilliant lectures of GR: “Professor Bassenach invited GR to deliver two lectures on Keynes as part of a scheme of inter collegiate lectures. 65 years later I still remember the lucidity and depth of the lectures that were listened to with rapt attention in a hall overflowing with students and other lecturers.”
GR refers to another interesting co-incidence: on the day of the second lecture, newspapers flashed that he stood first in the IAS examination.
The book provides an account of how dedicated civil servants made full use of the rigorous training going into the minutest detail. The amazing memory of GR is revealed in the detailed description of qualities of men and matter at different levels - from a village Karnam to the Chief Minister and Prime Minister. There were people with great capabilities and great qualities of head and heart and also those with biases, prejudices and petty mindedness. GR refers to these without malice and even with a sense of humour.
Upto 1969 GR served the Madras government. Remember, those were the halcyon days of brilliant administrators belonging to the Indian Civil Service. GR refers with respect and a lot of feeling to several stalwarts like Lobo Prabhu and T A Varghese. His narration on his term as private secretary of Rajaji and later serving Kamaraj, Bakthavatsalam and CN Annadurai provide several instances of the sterling qualities of these giants. The transition of power from one giant to another was smooth and GR’s detached devotion to work did not disturb his position. Successive leaders appreciated his integrity, commitment and brilliance.
I can’t but contrast this with unhealthy practice of transferring senior officers including, the chief secretary, with every change in government. It was particularly poignant to notice senior civil servants who functioned efficiently as chief secretary transferred as a commissioner/ secretary of archives or some such insignificant post.
Youngest finance secretary…
GR’s postings with agriculture and co-operation departments in the state helped fine tune his skills in tackling a vast range of development issues at the grass roots. His tenure functioning as Collector of Coimbatore further expanded his horizons.
I heard of T A Varghese, who served as Finance Secretary for 15 long years, renowned for his spotting talent and grooming it further. Varghese commanded respect and admiration of his political masters including Kamaraj and C Subramaniam. I have heard of the ease with which Varghese used to get for the state special allocations for several state schemes; more importantly, his ingenuity in making more than full use of these, much to the envy of other states. GR refers to a good number of young IAS officers groomed by Varghese including GR, S Venkitaramanan, S Guhan, K P Geethakrishnan, K Venketesan… all of whom rose rapidly in their career. He identified the potential of GR and said with premonition that the latter would succeed him as Finance Secretary. This happened in 1964-65 when Varghese was elevated to the post of Chief Secretary. GR was the youngest to become the Finance Secretary.
Social controls of banks a social fraud…
Without difficulty GR adjusted to the transition of government in two decades, including that of Congress to DMK in 1967. His incorporation of the major election promises of the DMK in its first budget (in Tamil) and advice on a cautious approach to the cheap rice scheme endeared him to Annadurai. He refers in particular to the success of the lottery scheme introduced by the state that helped mobilise around Rs 10 crore.
After his brilliant record of service in Tamil Nadu, GR was transferred to the PM’s Secretariat, Delhi. This opportunity was again fully utilised by him in earning the appreciation of national giants in politics and administration. Those were the years when Indira Gandhi was struggling to find her feet as PM, confronted by a powerful syndicate of old congressmen. She embarked on an aggressive policy of socialist orientation that started with the nationalisation of banks, followed by nationalisation of coal mines, general insurance, sick textile units… GR won the confidence of Indira Gandhi by providing the content for her famous Stray Thoughts, bank nationalisation and for the 20 Point Economic Programme. GR’s experiences with the private sector banks after social control was bitter. He points to the control of large resources of banks by private promoters who did not assist the state with their surplus funds for development programmes. He described social control as a social fraud: “the banks are only pretending to serve the people while the policy has achieved nothing and is likely to achieve nothing…” he explains. His experience as state finance secretary running from bank to bank canvassing support for state loans didn’t yield the needed response. Thanks to bank nationalisation, there has been a spectacular expansion of banks which also provide enormous resources for development.
GR’s familiarity with the DMK’s criticism of Vadaku Valargiradhu Therku Theigiradhu (North is growing and the South waning) at the height of campaign for the 1967 elections helped him influence Indira Gandhi to announce three steel plants for the south at Salem, Visakhapatnam and Vijayanagar ( see the feature Samarapungavan and Sankarabharanam…Pp 30-31 in this issue).
GR had to adjust to the change of guards in Delhi as well, from the Congress to the Janata rule. He was understandably unhappy over the approach of Moraji Desai as prime minister: “it was very clear that Morarji Desai assumed the prime ministership in a vindictive mood and not in the spirit of a true Gandhian to heal the wounds of the emergency days...” He cites several instances of Desai’s threat to suspend and prosecute several officers of the previous regime. However, GR won the esteem and confidence of Finance Minister H M Patel, a former secretary in Ministry of Finance. The uncanny knack of GR to understand the philosophy of the new regime; with his brilliance in drafting and professionalism, GR impressed Patel and he enjoyed his fullest confidence for the rest of the Janata government’s tenure.
It is with equal felicity he won the esteem of Charan Singh who became the finance minister and prime minister. He describes Charan Singh as “a man of high integrity, amenable to sound arguments by civil servants and willing to take politically difficult decisions in public interest.”
After the fall of the Janata government, Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. GR was on a familiar and more comfortable turf and continued to serve as finance secretary with distinction.
GR was overlooked for cabinet secretaryship. But Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was keen to recognise his outstanding work and reward him with a posting in Washington: “I didn’t want to go to Washington because I did not know driving and it will be expensive engaging a driver whereas drivers will be easily available in Manila. Therefore, I opted for the post of Executive Director for Asian Development Bank.” This wonder boy from Vallam maintained his humility right through. He has been equally frank over his lack of familiarity with Hindi but had the felicity to overcome this.
How casually and adroitly GR has walked with giants! The nation is grateful to the members of his family who prevailed upon GR to reminisce on his views from the ringside seat the innovations and the intrigues in the exciting evolution of the Indian polity and administration. Very few had such grasp of the needs and nuances of finance and development in the state and Centre level and for making an invaluable contribution to their harmonious development.
A sad thought: when the society goes gung ho over its film and sports heroes and rains national awards, why no such recognition to such outstanding administrators? – SV