A tale of two ministers

The process of coping with the temperament of ministers can be quite trying for a bureaucrat, writes Vivek K Agnihotri, former secretary general, Rajya Sabha

Vivek K AgnihotriOccasionally in one's career an employee gets to work with two different bosses in succession, who are as dramatically different as chalk and cheese or, as they say, 'poles apart'. I have had my quota of such bosses, while in the same job.  For the most part, my tenures on various positions were comparatively stable, in the course of which I changed bosses two to three times, in a manner of speaking. 

A happy go lucky boss was, in quick time, replaced by a reticent and 'committed' officer, who, in turn, was succeeded by a street-smart and extremely voluble sample, who didn't allow others to get a word in edgeways.  It requires tremendous capacity to adjust to the changing circumstances, because an act or observation which may go down well with one may get the other's goat. 

It may also, sometimes, require fine-tuning of one's biological clock.  I had one chief minister, who started serious work late in the evening and, occasionally, one got home by 2 am; his successor's office dished out appointments beginning at 4 am.  But it was in the ministry of health that I had the most extraordinary experience of 'boss diversity'.

My posting in the ministry of health and family welfare in the mid-1970s was fortuitous; but peppered with some exciting experiences.  In the course of my stay of about three years there, I had the opportunity to watch the performance of two ministers, mostly from the sidelines. 

The first minister was suave and scholarly. The second one was down to earth; actually he had been pulled across the floor of the Parliament on a couple of occasions as an MP during the previous regime.  One was born great and the other had achieved greatness.

I was extremely grateful to the first minister, even before I met him, for having signed the file which gave me a posting in his ministry. In retrospect, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise; more about it some other time.  I had occasion to listen to his scholastic discourses on a couple of occasions. 

However, the most memorable event in which I played a minor role was the passing of The Cigarettes (Regulations of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 1975.  It made mandatory statutory health warnings on all tobacco products, including those of the chewable variety like gutkha and pan masala.  The warning text, written in English and in all capitals in small print, said ''STATUTORY WARNING: CIGARETTE SMOKING IS INJURIOUS TO HEALTH'' and for chewable tobacco, it read, ''TOBACCO IS INJURIOUS TO HEALTH,'' written in both English and Hindi. 

At that time the issue was the size of the lettering, today it is the size of the graphic pictorial warnings.  In the course of the speech introducing the Bill, the minister admitted that one especial reason for his passionate advocacy of the ills of smoking was the fact that he had been a passive smoker since his marriage.

There was a sea change in the work culture of the ministry with the change in guard, which brought with it a new minister.  The personal staff of the minister did not comprise seasoned bureaucrats; it consisted of persons who had his trust albeit without any administrative experience. 

Instead of preparing succinct and cryptic answers to Parliament questions as of yore, we were directed to provide complete details on the topic from the beginning of time.  During Parliament sessions, it was my responsibility to ensure that all the replies relating to my charge had been received by the Parliament section of the ministry, duly approved by the minister. 

One day it so happened that a particular file did not come back from the minister.  It was very late in the evening and the minister had already gone home; his staff too was not around.  With great trepidation we went to the minister's residence and requested the staff there to check whether by any chance the file was there.  After a lot of search, the file was located in the washroom and we breathed a sigh of relief.

One day we were involved in a serious discussion on some topic in the minister's chambers.  As the clock struck one, an attendant entered the room with a large aluminum tiffin carrier and announced to the minister that his lunch had arrived.  He got up from his chair and went to the table on which the tiffin was kept.  He opened the carrier, smelled each one of the containers and expressed satisfaction with the contents.  He then returned to his chair and the discussion was resumed.

Being new to government, neither he nor his personal staff was familiar with the intricate filing system of the central government.  In brief, each file has two parts, kept, most of the time, within the same folder.  The right side is called 'Correspondence', which contains the letters and other documents on the subject.  The left side contains what is called the 'Notes', in which are recorded the notings on the subject by the multifarious hierarchy of bureaucrats, from time to time. 

One day a very senior lady officer was sitting in front of the minister and explaining the details of the case dealt with in a file.  Upon being asked to show a particular letter, first the officer requested the minister to turn to a specific page in the file. 

When the minister was unable to locate the paper, the officer went round the table and, standing next to him, helpfully tried to turn the pages of the file to get to the relevant correspondence.  The minister was not please and asked the lady to go back to her chair, while muttering something about the sleeveless blouse that she was wearing.

India was on the verge of being declared a small pox free country.  A big function was organised on the occasion by the WHO to make a presentation about how the certification was achieved.  The minister was the chief guest.  He had gone to his constituency and was to return on the day of the event.  He came a little late and was looking a bit under the weather after a long and tiresome journey. 

The lights were switched off in the hall and a pictorial presentation started.  After about 10 or 15 minutes a snoring sound was heard, but it stopped after some time.  When the presentation was over, the lights came on and we saw the minister resting his head on the table, fast asleep.  His private secretary goaded him and he woke up.  He made his acceptance speech, first in Hindi and then in English, in deference to the foreign audience present on the occasion.

Talking of foreigners, an apocrypha comes to mind.  After lunch, the minister as well as his personal staff was used to having a siesta.  For the minister, a very low wooden cot was kept on the floor of his chamber with a modicum of linen.  One day, an appointment was given to a couple hailing from a Swiss NGO to meet the minister immediately after lunch.  The couple arrived in time but there was no one to attend to them in the minister's office. 

Since the door to minister's office was not locked, they pushed it and, upon finding no resistance, went in.  They saw the minister sleeping in his bed on the floor.  They were wondering what to do next when the minister opened his eyes and squinted at the phenomenon hovering above him. 

Being a bit groggy, he remained fixed in that posture for a few seconds.  The lady smiled and, after making a brief gesture of lifting her skirt ever-so-slightly above her knee, said, ''No, Mr. Minister; it is not what you think.  I am wearing undies.''