Monday, December 7, 2015

The Cabinet Secretary India lost. But KVR proved, yet again, that honesty was the best policy

'Walking encyclopaedia' is an epithet that has lost its sheen because of over-use. But it became an inevitable honorific in the case of K.V. Ramanathan because all those who came in contact with him were astonished by the encyclopaedic sweep of his knowledge. He could tell you in one sitting all you wanted to know about the steel industry, about male-female biases in the performing arts, about gas pipeline and the science of administration, about fertilisers and the nuances of musical raagas, lalit kala traditions and educational policies, and about M.S.Subbulakshmi. What's more, he kept no index to refer to. All facts, figures, background history and plus-minus assessments were stored in his memory. KVR was a phenomenon.

He was an IAS man. But don't hold that against him. He did what only a small minority of IAS officers cared to do -- sacrificed personal advantage for the sake of principles. But he went beyond the IAS, too. For nearly three years beginning 1988, he was the Chennai Resident Editor of The Indian Express. In 2003 he took over the editorship of the historically important Sruti music magazine following the death of its legendary editor N. Pattabhi Raman. He ensured that Sruti continued as the authoritative chronicler of, and guide to music and dance.

One battle he fought as an IAS officer threw light not only on his professional integrity but also on the way India was being re-calibrated for the benefit of the Gandhi family. This happened between 1978 and 1982 when he was Secretary in the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers. The public sector Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers was setting up new generation gas-based fertiliser plants near Mumbai. Through a rigorous selection process characterised by many layers of evaluation, the Janata Government of the day selected the American company C.F. Braun as the technology supplier for the project. The World Bank which was financing the project concurred with the Government's evaluation. As Secretary of the Ministry concerned, KVR was the driving force behind the processes of negotiations and decisions.

No one paid attention at the time to the company that had lost out to C.F. Braun. But everyone did as soon as the Janata Government fell and Indira Gandhi returned to power. For the losing company was Snamprogetti represented in India by a man who was to become India's most powerful businessman and political wire-puller for several eventful years -- the Italian go-getter Ottavio Quattrochi.

The Gandhis in power meant Quattrochi in power. Indira Gandhi went through a review process and had the C.F.Braun contract cancelled. Snamprogetti was appointed the technology supplier in its place. The World Bank withdrew from financing the project. Undaunted, the Government of India went ahead with plans to give Snamprogretti contract for six more fertiliser plants and that too, without competitive bidding.

Poor Ramanathan. What chance did an Indian have against an Italian in those days. And this was no ordinary Italian. During the Rajiv Gandhi years, he was the most influential broker between big business and the Indian Government. He was the middleman associated with the Bofors scandal. KVR was exposed to the power of this man. Pressure was brought on him by bigwigs known to be close to the Prime Minister to make the switch from C.F. Braun to Snamprogetti smooth and easy. But the Secretary of the Ministry would not budge from the position that the initial decision of the Government was taken on objective and technical principles and could not be changed for other considerations. He was of course over-ruled. When the Parliamentary Accounts Committee later grilled him about the Government's change of stance, he replied in a classic phrase. The shift from Braun to Snamprogetti was, he said, "for superior non-technical reasons".

The Indian tradition of punishing exemplars of integrity pursued KVR too. He was transferred to the Planning Commission. And in 1985 he was overlooked for the Cabinet Secretary's post which was his due both seniority-wise and on account of record in service.

Quattrochi progressed for a while, but then ran into trouble with criminal cases pursuing him. He was saved at every turn by India, on orders from above, making itself a butt of ridicule in foreign courts. K.V. Ramanathan, supremely at peace with himself, went on to serve his countrymen with pride and distinction. He died last month, but the moral his life taught us will live on -- that whatever needs to be achieved through unfair means will perish, that honesty, really, is the best policy.