Monday, 8 August, 2022
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Everyone wants to be an IAS officer. But retired IFS officers write much better books

Retired IAS officers write mainly about their exploits when in service. IFS officers write more about issues and context of their work, while also straying into unrelated fields.

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Retired government officers are writing books like never before, mostly those from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). 

The trend has not spread to lower-caste officials belonging to the “central services”, though some former police officers have penned their memoirs. Leaving these out of consideration for the moment, and looking only at books written by those from the IFS and IAS, one detects a pattern.

IAS officers, those who occupied the primary positions of bureaucratic power in government, write mainly about their own exploits when in service. In contrast, IFS officers write less about themselves and more about the issues and context of their work (international relations and history), while straying also into unrelated fields. Some of their books are products of genuine scholarship. One can’t say that about the IAS-authored books.

This divergence merits some analysis. After all, officers from the two services have come from similar backgrounds. Many went to the same colleges, and studied the same subjects (usually history). Their performance in the qualifying exam and interview would have shown little difference. 

Yet, at the end of their careers, what occupies the minds of those in the two premier services are vastly different territories.


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Consider a few recent examples. From the IFS stable, there is Talmiz Ahmad’s engrossing book West Asia at War, Shyam Saran’s How China Sees India and the World (a companion to his earlier How India Views the World), Rajiv Dogra’s third or fourth book War Time (two earlier ones had to do with the Durand Line), Shivshankar Menon’s thoughtful Choices, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s revelatory book on the Bangladesh war, and TCA Raghavan’s remarkably varied offerings: One on three of India’s leading historians (History Men), another on India-Pakistan relations (The People Next Door), and a third on courtiers and poets in Mughal India (Attendant Lords).

Among those of less recent vintage worth mentioning include Narendra Singh Sarila’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, while Bhaswati Mukherjee’s more recent book, Bengal and the Partition, is also billed as an “untold story”. 

Kishan Rana, meanwhile, has been prolific, with no fewer than nine books written for fellow-diplomats on the practical aspects of diplomacy, while Jaimini Bhagwati (an economist as much as a diplomat) has chosen to assess all of India’s prime ministers to date in The Promise of India. For a relatively small service like the IFS, this is impressive output in range and quality.

Against this, I would list the most recent books from the IAS stable: Tejendra Khanna’s memoirs (An Intent to Serve), and former Cabinet secretary K M Chandrasekhar’s forthcoming book also focussed on his life and career. 

Other IAS-authored books are Vinod Rai’s Not Just an Accountant (which is more about his headline-hitting time as Comptroller and Auditor-General), and Jagdish Khattar’s Driven: Memoirs of a Civil Servant (which covers also his stint as managing director of Maruti Udyog).

At a personal level, P C Parakh, a former coal secretary caught in the coal scam for no fault of his, wrote about his courageous fight to set the record straight and clear his name (Crusader or Conspirator). Pradip Baijal, disinvestment secretary under Arun Shourie, also wrote about his post-retirement travails (A Bureaucrat Fights Back), while Rai followed up with a second book (Rethinking Good Governance), which focussed on issues and not his own doings. 

Meanwhile, a little-known IAS officer in Hyderabad, Vasant Bawa, delved into local history for Nizam: Between Mughals and British.

As can be seen, the bulk of the IAS bookshelf comprises memoirs. Such recollections of times past are important, especially as they have been written by some of India’s ablest civil servants and offer insights into the administrator’s mindset, sometimes unwittingly so. But for the most part they involve navel-gazing and are slightly turgid — unlike, say, B K Nehru’s well-written Nice Guys Finish Second. But then he was from the predecessor to the IAS, the Indian Civil Service. 

In recent years, the IFS has lost its star appeal among civil service aspirants, while the IAS rules supreme. But if one is to judge by the books published, it is the IFS that nurtures more engaged and more engaging minds.

By special arrangement with Business Standard


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