Writing a memoir is a temptation not many can resist, particularly politicians and civil servants with eventful careers. However, what readers look forward to in such accounts is whether they have any lessons to offer from their time in office. The memoirs of V. Balasubramanian, an officer of the 1965 batch of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) belonging to the Karnataka cadre, do not disappoint on this count.
Be it usage of a provision in the Police Act regarding externment or the issue of conflict between the Chief Secretary and the Chief Minister’s Office or the role of corruption in public life, the author touches upon such subjects with ease and insight.
Calling himself a ‘rebel officer’, the octogenarian, with a track record of having an uncommon way of handling things, held key positions in the Karnataka government. He was Secretary to Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde, Deputy Commissioner/ District Magistrate of three districts, and had two stints in the silk sector, an important area for Karnataka. Post-retirement, two assignments — Adviser to the Joint Legislature Committee (2005-07) and later, Chairman of the Task Force (2009-11), both dealing with the subject of land grabbing — gave him greater prominence.
On the job
His accounts of the stringent action pursued by him against one landlord of Devanahalli taluk who, along with his sons, had cut off the left thumbs of petitioners who were Scheduled Caste, and owners of cinema halls of Bengaluru show the difference a public-spirited civil servant can make in society. His approach as Secretary to the Chief Minister underscores that despite being in proximity to the most powerful person in the State, he honoured rules of the game. In fact, his detailed notes on the selection of his successor reveals his respect for established institutions such as the office of Chief Secretary — he explained to Hegde the rationale behind the Karnataka tradition of choosing a comparatively junior person as the CM’s Secretary.
Though laced with sarcasm, he also shows that he has a great sense of humour. While he liberally mentions names of members of the IAS fraternity for, what he considers, their accomplishments, he does not follow the same rule when it comes, in his assessment, to instances of corruption or unscrupulousness. This is inexplicable, as he has no hesitation in identifying politicians or contractors. For example, he describes the chief ministership of S. Bangarappa (1990-92) as one that launched “the golden age of corruption” but does not name the then Chief Secretary in the Classik Computer scam, despite recalling how Bangarappa and his Chief Secretary had indulged in, according to Mr. Balasubramanian, “the most blatant case of robbing the state exchequer.” [Though the CBI charge-sheeted the former Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary J. Alexander in the case, they were later acquitted].
Despite being highly opinionated, the author writes with objectivity, highlighting the positive traits of people he disagreed with. His narration of how former Chief Ministers M. Veerendra Patil and D. Devaraj Urs handled a number of issues concerning governance enhances only admiration for past leaders. He has referred to the issue of stable regimes in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka but political stability does not necessarily guarantee a better quality of governance.
The book, however, would have been far more readable had its size been briefer, accompanied by an index.
Fall from Grace: Memoirs of a Rebel IAS Officer; V. Balasubramanian, Authorspress, ₹595.