Naresh Chandra’s passing has occasioned many tributes; none can do him justice. His virtues, capabilities and accomplishments were exceptional. For one person to combine all — and succeed, where such qualities are hardly appreciated — was unique. Herman Finer believed “the primary duty of a civil servant is to provide the influence of fact upon desire,” but in our system facts are unwelcome. Naresh considered objective assessments and advice sacrosanct, and had the skills to make them effective. That rarest asset — sound common sense — was fine-tuned with a shrewd sense of realism, feasibility and political compulsion, without ever impairing dedication to state and society as his overriding duty. Most unusual of all was his sense of humour, seeing it in situations and human absurdities, and employing it in his own interactions.
His service years were distinguished in home matters, but his post-retirement assignment, as Ambassador in Washington, added further laurels. We foreign servicers, not unnaturally, resent outsiders taking our jobs, but he won our liking as well as respect, displaying all those additional degrees of acumen, understanding and tact associated with diplomacy. His impressive capacity for strategic thinking enabled him to analyse our country’s needs in this turbulent world, free of the more naïve and yet condescending prejudices still, alas, hanging around. He left an excellent report, commissioned and ignored by the government, on updating the concepts and mechanics of handling India’s security challenges. Our debt to Naresh should make us at least revive attention to it.
I only met Naresh after I retired, but then grew close in work and in friendship. Having both served as ambassadors in Washington, chairmen of the National Security Advisory Board, and for over a decade in our team in a major extra-official international dialogue, we found much to share professionally. Predecessors and successors are not, among us, famous for thinking well of each other, but we got on famously. Most recently, we had a growing concern about our increasingly dysfunctional instruments of state. Mine is an extensively civil-service background — father, two uncles, brother, nephews, niece. Like Naresh, I take pride in government service, convinced it is vital to our state and society. But we both also believed in taking a good look at ourselves: The highest form of loyalty to one’s service is objective self-analysis, leading to self-correction.
For civil servants to imagine their cadres are perfect, they themselves even more so, is to invite decay. Our entire apparatus of government today is a shambles, with sloppiness, disregard of duty and of standards, decline in intellectual calibre no less than moral qualities, seriously damaging the state and society that public servants are supposed to serve, as Naresh so outstandingly did.
Like many others, Naresh found Delhi unhealthy — in many senses — moving to Goa for long stretches. He did keep revisiting, and we planned to meet in October to work out a project for somehow remedying both the political and in-service causes of civil-service decay. Particularly worrying was our existing arrangements for attending to our defence challenges, with the modernisation of our defence ministry an urgent priority. That it cannot, in today’s world, be treated as another generalist outpost is obvious to everyone except apparently those who are responsible for manning it: It must be given expertise, continuity and the highest political management — not treated as a part-time occupation. And similar reforms are due in all departments and services.
The problem lies both with our political masters and the permanent services. Each blames the other, but both work to debase the system. Political leaders everywhere like to get their way, unfettered by any institutional or procedural — or moral — constraints; but in well-run countries a modicum of self-control and self-discipline prevails. State governments are the worst — hundreds of civil servants transferred by whim, open favouritism and brow-beating. It is a wonder so many good people manage to remain good civil servants. But for how long? The rot spread long ago to the central government. It is rooted in the arrogant disregard of norms by politicians, and furthered by human weaknesses — including just plain incompetence — among bureaucrats.
Whether reservations have served any other purpose is dubious, but they certainly haven’t helped administrative efficiency. Nor does it help to mount witch-hunts whenever something goes wrong. There will always be wrong-doers in any system and any country, but it is by no means beyond human ingenuity to impose objective, impersonal methods and limit wrong-doing. It is notorious that the shadow of Bofors drives out all decisions — nobody wants to be blamed — and without any time limit.
Our country faces many more challenges than we seem conscious of. Two states, both nuclear-armed, have major claims on our territory, apart from other unwelcome designs. The international setting is becoming more dangerous, our vulnerabilities increase. Our prime minister has shown remarkable imagination and finesse in international affairs, but everything ultimately depends on the efficiency of the state’s machinery. Naresh Chandra was both a great believer in and exemplar of this. More than praise, he deserves emulation. Let’s hope that government starts making that possible.
The writer is former Ambassador to Pakistan, China and USA, and Secretary, External Affairs Ministry