T S R Subramanian, TSR to me and his close friends, has left behind an indelible footprint in our civil service ethos. He combined rectitude with pragmatism, adherence with adroitness and conformity with ingenuity. He lived and worked under multiple regimes with varied ideological dispositions. He never allowed his sense of fair play and commitment to the values of the permanent civil service to be tarnished by the lure of office. In this sense, he was part of the steel frame to which many of us look back with nostalgia and a quest for what, over time, the service has lost.
I first worked with TSR when he was joint secretary in the Ministry of Commerce from 1975-77 and I was working as special assistant to the then commerce minister, D P Chattopadhyay. As director in-charge of the famous WANA Division — West Asia and Africa — he had managed to establish a special relationship with key political leaders in the oil-producing countries, including Saddam Hussain. He pulled off many a difficult negotiating gambit when foreign exchange was truly scarce and not even a whiff of liberalisation had visited India’s trade policy establishment.
Commercial diplomats, both in the GATT (the predecessor to WTO) and UNCTAD, areas which I was directly dealing with, feared his negotiating skills. He adhered to our country briefs but with the adroitness and ingenuity of counter-offers to clinch the deal. It was a recognition of his negotiating capabilities that he served in the ITC/GATT Centre in Geneva for four years. This was a creative time for the Centre, as many stalwarts like P C Alexander also lent it their expertise.
TSR moved on to important positions and we lost contact till he was the chief secretary in Uttar Pradesh during a difficult period, the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He had an uncomfortable relationship with the then Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. I was at that time the joint secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs dealing with the police establishment and deployment of paramilitary forces. He exhibited his concern, not for ideological preferences, but conformity with the immediate procedures necessary to maintaining social cohesion and adherence to the firm principles of law and order.
He moved on to become Secretary, Textiles, an area to which he had contributed greatly during his tenure in the trade policy division of the commerce ministry. He enhanced the value and relevance of this newly-created office. For quite some time after Independence, textiles was part of the commerce ministry and the textiles commissioner in Mumbai was the officer who dealt with India’s textile sector and acted as its regulator. Securing access for India’s textile products while the multifibre textile arrangement based on preferential access was being phased out, was challenging. Later, he became the cabinet secretary (August 1, 1996-March 31, 1998), the highest office which any civil servant can aspire to. During this period, I was the revenue secretary and remember with gratitude the enormous support he gave me to usher in the “dream budget” of 1997, which inaugurated a new era of direct tax reforms. Without the support of TSR, it would have been difficult to manoeuvre the administrative maze of these far-reaching direct tax rates and simplifying the multiplicity of excise and customs duties. He himself took no credit for the role he played in bringing about an important structural change which has stood the test of time.
His post-retirement life remained crowded, given the multiple public causes he pursued, particularly civil services reform. His contribution to the committee to bring about education reforms was bang on target, emphasising outcomes rather than merely guaranteeing access. My last interaction with him was on March 15, 2015, when the Delhi government was celebrating the annual Civil Services Day. We were both speakers in a somewhat odd panel, consisting of Ram Jethmalani, TSR and myself, with Arvind Kejriwal also present. A curious combination by any reckoning, but true to his character,
TSR spoke about protecting the civil services establishment, which had served India well even in turbulent times.
TSR could be ingenuous without breaking the rules of the game or disturbing the equilibrium between appropriate civil service behaviour with respect to the political executive. It is not easy to balance contradiction, he excelled in this fine art. About him, it can be said that it is not the years in your life that count but it is the life in those years.