The Perfect Bureaucrat

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Noted economist Abid Hussain was all for liberalisation long before others climbed onto that bandwagon, reminisces Nitin Desai

ABID HUSSAIN 1926 – 2012

ABID HUSSAIN, the much loved and widely admired administrator and diplomat, passed away in London on 21 June. Abidbhai, as many of us called him, was everything a civil servant ought to be and embodied many qualities that are sadly missing in today’s bureaucrats.

His bureaucratic experience was wide-ranging. He started in community development and this phase left him with a lifelong concern about poverty and rural development. But when he came back to India after a UN stint, he became a pole star guiding the way in economic administration. His major contribution was the orientation of trade policy where he argued for growth-led exports as the strategy for India rather than export-led growth. This focus on national development can be also seen in his seminal work in the committees on small industry development and scientific research that he chaired. All of this came together when he became a member of the Planning Commission, which is when I worked most closely with him.

Abidbhai was born in Hyderabad on 26 December 1926 and belonged to a group that I call ‘Midnight’s Adults’ — people like him, Lovraj Kumar and George Verghese (happily still with us), who were young adults around 20 years of age at Independence and who retained their idealism and the hopes that Independence inspired throughout their very active and dedicated lives. They were the ones who were the instruments of Nehru’s vision of a secular, rationalist and democratic India.

There was a second burst of idealism after the 1971 Bangladesh War and a bunch of us — myself, Yoginder Alagh, Vijay Kelkar and Montek Singh Ahluwalia — came in laterally into the government. Abidbhai and Lovraj were the ones who made us feel welcome. There were others who came in later, Jairam Ramesh, Rakesh Mohan and Shankar Acharya to name a few, who also benefited from Abidbhai’s openness and enthusiastic welcome for new blood.

Abidbhai’s personal qualities were exceptional. Always warm, he would greet you with a “mere pyare dost/beta/beti” and would happily plant a kiss on your cheek. He made a point of dressing informally, even jauntily, and that itself put one at ease when meeting him.

Abidbhai had two qualities that made him a joy to work with. Unlike many of his IAS colleagues, who think no end of themselves, he was not just open but enthusiastic about the views and experiences of outsiders, lateral entrants like us, advisers, consultants and even journalists.

That led to a second great quality — an ability and willingness to listen rather than to lecture. He was a careful listener who would provoke with a question or two and then take detailed notes as his interlocutor spouted wisdom. And the notes were worth seeing. They were not linear. He would write the ideas and thoughts that struck him as valuable in little bubbles scattered through the page linked by lines and arrows to show the structure of the argument. Often, the structure was made even more explicit with the use of multi-coloured pens.

Abidbhai’s transparency and patent integrity meant that he was never afraid to take decisions. Throughout a long career in the most sensitive part of economic administration, there was never even a whisper of scandal around his name. Not for him the safety of saying ‘no’ simply because a ‘yes’ could lead to questions. Abidbhai was always conscious that his job was to promote development and this meant supporting public and private sector proposals when they served that purpose. He was a liberaliser long before others climbed onto that bandwagon.

Today’s bureaucrats must learn from his example. Their effectiveness will depend on their reputation for probity, which they must establish convincingly. They must be much more open to ideas from outside, be good listeners and, above all, not be afraid to take decisions. Many tributes have been paid to Abidbhai over the past few days. Perhaps, the best way of celebrating his life and work would be to recognise and reward in some form these qualities of transparency, openness and decisiveness in today’s bureaucracy.

Nitin Desai is a former Planning Commission mandarin

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