Former top civil servant Subramanian’s collection of essays is rich in anecdote — and, more importantly, insight

“In India, writes T.S.R. Subramanian, “if you wear a dark suit and tie, you become respectable. You may be the biggest crook, but somehow society takes you to be a gentleman. If you wear khadi, with a Nehru jacket, and suddenly you are transformed and become a demi-god”. “Being a politician in India”, he concludes, “has great pre-emptive advantages”.

Mr. Subramanian understands that system better than most. Having served the Government of India for 37 years, including two as Cabinet Secretary, his new volume of essays consist of the observations of an “outspoken outsider”, who has not held any official position since he retired fifteen years ago.

Though the essays in Mr. Subramanian’s book are diverse, spanning everything from administration to infrastructural growth and cricket, one key theme binds them. Poised on the edge of a generational transformation, he argues, India is fettered by a government that is no longer able to govern.

“Governments”, he writes, “frequently produce schemes which they know will not work, to appear to be acting”. “Frequently, amendments to laws are resorted to as a proxy for addressing the real issue of reforming the implementation apparatus”.

In Mr. Subramanian’s telling, government has almost become a kind of performance ritual. In 2001, he recalls, Indian troops were placed on full alert following the attack on Parliament. Four months later, in the blazing summer, they were still on full alert. “From Delhi’s perspective, prompt ‘strong’ action had been taken — ordering ‘full alert’ — and nothing further needed to be done, not even quietly withdrawing the order for alert at an appropriate time.”

The reason nothing changes, his essays suggest, is that the status quo suits the élite. In a discussion on corruption, he contrasts India’s utter failure to punish wrong doing with that of China, where railway minister Liu Zhiyu was awarded a death penalty for amassing $10 million, after an investigation and trial process that lasted three months. In India, though, “the ruling classes are the main beneficiary, so it may be utopian to ask them to create a Damocles’ sword to hang over their own heads”.

“If there is a will”, Mr. Subramanian writes, “corruption is one of the easiest areas to address and tackle in a short period of time. Hong Kong, which was known as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, was able to transform itself in short order”.

The essays are rich in anecdotes—among the funniest of them Mr. Subramanian’s own post-retirement battle with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s staff, who demanded a Rs. 10,000 bribe for giving him an international dialling service. He notes that he could have used his connections with government to get the problem addressed, but gave in, certain that he would then have had “continuing operational problems with the phone connection, with regular ‘break-downs’”.

Not everyone will agree with some of Mr. Subramanian’s propositions on the roots of the crisis India faces: his suggestion that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was deracinated is contentious.

Mr. Subramanian describes how he, as Uttar Pradesh’s Cabinet Secretary, heard Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav rail against the Panchayati Raj Act, saying that whoever drafted it “had no clue about rural India, of Indian villages and that the draft law had no chance of success”.

Mr. Subramanian knew that the author was “my good friend Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former Indian Foreign Service officer whose knowledge of Indian rural conditions was as much as I know about living conditions in Antarctica”. Mr. Aiyar’s main qualification for the task, he goes on, “was the important fact that he was a schoolmate of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi—whose own understanding of rural India was nearly non-existent”.

In India, Mr. Subramanian wryly concludes, “the claim to expertise rests on who you are close to, rather than what you know”.

He isn’t entirely right: of the author of this book, that cannot be said.

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