Abid Hussain embodied an ideal that is fading fast
There are individuals whose achievements we can measure. But some individuals themselves become the measure of a life well lived. Abid Hussain,distinguished civil servant and diplomat,was one such individual. It would take pages to describe his extraordinary contributions to Indian public life. As a thinker,he was ahead of the curve in so many respects: a reformer,before reform became fashionable; a liberal,even when the word was a source of political embarrassment in our culture; a believer in opening India up to the world in a climate where our fears often got the better of our hopes. He served in a number of key ministries,committees,the Planning Commission and as ambassador to the United States at critical junctures,always leaving a legacy for the better. He was a consistent reformer,well ahead of his colleagues on a range of economic issues from trade liberalisation to industrial reform. His contribution to a range of social and educational institutions is enormous. But a measure of his achievement is that he was far more important to India than the sum of his administrative actions.
No one who knew Abid sahib could resist the force of his personality. His unmatched charm,generosity,curiosity,ability to incandescently light up a conversation,clear-eyed analysis of facts,acute insights into the moral psychology of power,and his belief in a better future for India,even in the darkest moments,were always like a fresh breeze energising the soul. His wit was legendary,often a laconic window on the working of government. A distinguished official once told the government of India,Reform or Perish. Abid Hussains quick admonition to the official was something to the effect,The grammatical form of the sentence Reform or Perish will lead the government to think they have a genuine choice between two alternatives. And they will choose perish.
But the void that he leaves behind is all the greater for the fact that he represented an ideal of India that is fast dwindling. That ideal was not an ideological project; it was embodied in the power of his example. He firmly believed that India can be held together only by samanvaya (synthesis). That would require a politics that would reach across party lines,and openness to the idea that no one has the monopoly over truth. He probably paid a huge price in his public career by choosing generosity of engagement over narrow and partisan loyalty. He was ready to serve,but never clamoured for power.
His secularism was not a dogmatic shibboleth to cut down opponents; it was practised in his being. In an age when the powerful trade on badges of identity to secure more power,he refused to opportunistically play the minority card. He had ideals of high culture without being elitist. He could combine a passion for poetry with a nose for more banal facts. There was no wall between people that humour could not breach. He had a rare sort of intellectual integrity. In a culture where too many people have too many certainties,he was always thinking,in the genuine sense of that impoverished word. This gave him an uncanny ability to understand how times change,and allowed him to be ahead of the curve,whether in economics,or international relations.
He would never surrender his intellectual judgement in the face of his other compelling instinct to be generous. But he would always cloak his criticism in such a constructive vein,that it was all the more effective for being gentle. His sheer enjoyment of human nature and human diversity was infectious: he never admonished people for being who they are,or wishing people different from him would conform to his views. Rather,he would focus on their strengths,enlist their energies in what they could do rather than what they could not. He had a fine sense of judgement: a realist who never gave up on the inspiring power of ideals,nor succumbed to the low depths of cynicism.
These may seem like personal virtues. But these personal virtues were also deep political statements of sorts. They diagnosed more clearly than reams of abstract analysis what it will take to get India to flourish. He was an irredeemable believer in Indias prospects,and was eternally youthful in his optimism about what India could achieve. Although his loss,particularly to his extraordinary family,is hard to fathom,there is something emblematic about the suddenness with which he passed away. It is hard to imagine him fussing or fretting over life,and when the time came,he decided to let go and not resist. But he has left a gaping hole,in a context where few understand that an ambitious nation needs to be generous,and a diverse one,expansive in its sympathies.
The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi