Upright officers usually write boring memoirs. In sharp contrast, politicians manage to churn out exciting autobiographies replete with rivetting details of issues and developments around their lives. There are good reasons politicians outscore honest bureaucrats in this department. Politicians show little concern for the proprieties and are often obsessed with their interpretation of events. An upright officer, on the other hand, continues to suffer the burden of following the rulebook even after she retires. She may divulge details of the controversies in which she was involved, but she does so with restraint and without being unduly judgemental.
This perhaps explains why C G Somiah’s memoirs may appear a little sanitised. Somiah, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from the Orissa cadre, earned a name as a bureaucrat of rare honesty and integrity. There is a famous story about him. After he retired and settled in Bangalore in 1996, Somiah received a message from the prime minister of the day urging him to head a committee on an important national issue. Chairmanship of a government committee, apart from adding a badge of honour to an IAS officer, also means perquisites that may well include a house in Lutyens’ Delhi. Rare is the officer who declines such an invitation. Somiah belonged to that rare breed and told the messenger there was no need to set up another committee since several other competent committees had made recommendations on the same subject to guide the government.
The book under review does not mention this story, perhaps because Somiah has generally been reticent about details that may reveal what he still considers an official secret. He has been fairly candid about detailing his long career as an IAS officer in Orissa and in the five central ministries in which he worked during his deputation to the Centre — defence, finance, company affairs, planning and home affairs. He, however, pulls his punches whenever he has to write about something that could reveal somebody else’s secret.
For a man with such an acute sense of correctness, it is, therefore, ironic that Somiah had to wait for his empanelment as a joint secretary in a central ministry for about two years because an adverse comment by an Orissa chief minister marred his performance evaluation report. As an officer in the forests department in Orissa, Somiah had taken a principled stand on not granting concessions to Kendu leaf contractors. In Orissa, Kendu leaves are a politically sensitive commodity. Yet, Somiah ignored the politically motivated suggestions by ruling party leaders and recommended what he thought was right. Consequently, he had to wait for two years before his name was cleared.
For similar reasons, he declined an offer to join the Indian Foreign Service (if he had, he would have been a batchmate of K Natwar Singh!) because his father had opposed the idea.
The same streak showed when he revealed a minor detail like a traffic violation in his application form for the IAS examination or when he paid the fine to a traffic constable on New Delhi’s Janpath late at night after jumping a red light. Somiah was home secretary at the time. The embarrassing prospect of a home secretary being booked for a traffic offence bothered him more than the desire to flash his identity card and get away. Of similar vintage is the manner in which he declined an offer from Dhirubhai Ambani to allot him some Reliance Industries shares.
Somiah had a ringside view of the Emergency excesses in 1975-77, when he was a middle-rung officer in the home ministry. His secretary, M L Khurana, would question his decision to eliminate the names of officers and political leaders who were wrongly booked under various offences. When Khurana objected to Somiah’s screening process, the young officer explained with rare foresight that it was important for the bureaucracy to apply its mind before taking a decision. This would be the only defence for most bureaucrats who deposed before the inquiry commission set up to probe the Emergency excesses and Somiah’s strategy bailed out many officers, including Khurana.
An interesting phase in his career was his stint as secretary in the Planning Commission when Manmohan Singh was its deputy chairman. In one of his meetings, Rajiv Gandhi differed with the Planning Commission members over their development approach and later told the media that the Commission was filled with a bunch of jokers. This was a serious indictment, forcing Singh to consider resigning, though he was later persuaded to stay back.
Somiah’s candour in describing his brushes with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is remarkable. It was obvious that Somiah was not an easy officer to deal with. Two instances show why. There was an unusual situation during Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to New Delhi, when his motorcade cut in front of a car with Delhi Police chief Ved Marwah and Natwar Singh in the narrow lane that would have taken the Soviet leader to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
It was a security lapse and Rajiv Gandhi had immediately ordered the suspension of Ved Marwah. But Somiah found out from Marwah how the lapse took place. Later, by simply delaying the action, Somiah found time to explain the lapse and Marwah was saved. Similarly, he differed with the prime minister’s view that the date of electing the new president, after a tense period when the incumbent Zail Singh had threatened to dismiss Rajiv Gandhi, should be postponed upon astrological advice from then Cabinet Secretary T N Seshan. Somiah argued that the date once notified could not be changed and the elections were held without any postponement.
There are many more such informative details about Somiah’s 15-year uninterrupted stint in varied Bhavans on Raisina Hill — a journey that ended with his tenure as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 1996. Somiah has a simple writing style. But there is no escape from the feeling that he has concealed much more than what he could have revealed.
THE HONEST ALWAYS STAND ALONE C G Somiah Niyogi Books 276 pages; Rs 395