An intention to serve – The Hindu BusinessLine

A civil servant’s career generally follows a predictable trajectory. Tejendra Khanna had an extraordinary one. In his memoir, “An Intent To Serve,” he paints a fascinating picture of a stellar career, spanning over four decades. The narrative, interspersed with interesting vignettes, gives a chronological account of his life of service which began in Punjab and culminated with his tenure as Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. For the uninitiated reader, it offers insight into the unique career profile of someone who straddled the agrarian economy, the world of international trade negotiations and diplomacy. The book also gives a brief overview of Khanna’s philosophical worldview: a “Sufi view of life” and the need to “fulfil one’s duties to others due to the concept of dharma”.

A deep commitment to fairness, a sense of humility in public relations, and impartiality in decision-making are recurring themes throughout the book. Most civil servants end up dribbling the ball, bringing about incremental changes in their area of ​​work. Khanna comes across as a bold decision-maker, true to his convictions, backed by a strong scientific temperament. At the start of the green revolution in Punjab, he pioneered the tractor movement in the state, going against the wisdom of the central ministries and the instinct of his own minister. Punjab Tractors Limited was born which later played a crucial role in transforming rural Punjab. His management style has a distinct corporate flavor, evident through some of his key decisions during his tenures as Secretary of the Trade and Food Ministries. As Chief Secretary, he led the Punjab bureaucracy through a tumultuous phase, with terrorism at its peak.

His memoirs are a reflection on his own professional ethics and core values. At the same time, it is the mirror of the current malaise that besets the public service. Punjab’s political ecosystem, at the start of his career, had no ministers “firing the shot from the shoulders of the civil servant”. This contrasts sharply with current realities, where the political executive feels “unhappy with public servants whose advice contradicts their own views.”

He is distressed by the “symbiotic relationship” between politicians who receive unethical support and compliance from a section of public servants. A violation of the “code of ethics” allows officials to “use the instruments of power and authority for personal gain”. It recalls the saying of “engaged” bureaucracy, which rose to prominence under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. The question posed to the reader is…commitment to what?

This lowering of probity standards would resonate with many people. He advocates a radical solution. In addition to the usual performance appraisal, he suggests an “exit survey” of people who interact with officials on three crucial criteria: honesty, courtesy and the judicious exercise of authority. Clearly, these are attributes of which he holds essential traits in officers “intent to serve.” Khanna also disapproves of the tendency towards excessive centralization, which he says is rooted in the feudal history of the society. The “feudal lord” must then be obeyed in all circumstances, rightly or wrongly.

His stint as Lieutenant Governor of Delhi is an illustration of his beliefs. He launched the “LG Listening Post” as a means for citizens to voice their grievances and set up a mechanism to track their redress. In a novel experience, it deployed former defense officers in areas of municipal management. The underlying premise was that as a mission-driven force, they would be able to perform much better than civilian officers in creating clean, livable urban spaces. His tenure also sparked a good deal of controversy at the Commonwealth Games. He goes to great lengths to explain the role of the Delhi Development Authority, which he heads, in making pragmatic decisions for the timely execution of Games Village-related projects. He also questions the role of the media in the saga of the Games. “Instead of raising national morale,” he laments, the media “shoot us in the foot.” A few interesting anecdotes reveal his relationship with Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who appears to have remained largely cordial, despite insignificant differences.

For today’s generation of public servants, the book is a benchmark for leadership and courage. It is an exhortation for senior officers to “create an environment of collegiate-style free expression and exchange of views”. The democratic decision-making style was strongly advocated, although it could lead to delays. His reflections on the current public service environment present a rather bleak picture. Most of his observations on the challenges facing the service are on point. Yet, instead of making it seem like all is lost, perhaps it could have ended on a happier note with some sound advice for young people.

(The reviewer is a civil servant, currently serving with the Delhi government. Opinions are personal.)

About the book

Title: An intention to serve

Author: Tejendra Khanna

Editor: Harper Collins India

Price: ₹558 (218 pages)

Discover the book on Amazon

Published on

June 12, 2022

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