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The Power Corridors of Babus

They know everything though they may not do anything

There are indeed these corridors in every ministry, long dark and smelly, flanked by urinals and canteens, through which babus conduct business

There will soon be a new government in Delhi, or may be the same old one with a few new faces, with Tweedledum replacing Tweedledee, or perhaps the other way round, leaving the babus, who actually run the government anyway in charge, while the politicians continue with their noises.

Things were a little different 30-odd years ago in 1977, when I too became a babu, a reluctant one, for some time, at the behest of some powerful men who felt that some ministries were too important to be left to mere netas. After the post-Emergency government came to power, I was asked to join a ministry to keep an eye on the goings-on, though the minister himself didn’t like it. But the word had gone around that I was joining and when I arrived at the ministry in my dilapidated Padmini, the entire brass was at the door to welcome me, though how they came to know about my appointment, I do not know.

I was given a big room, a hall, almost, with acres of space, and well-upholstered sofa sets, and, of course, the usual set of secretaries, known as PA’s. The trouble was, I had nothing to do, for they had taken care to see that no files came my way. You can only work in the babudom, if files come to you. No files, no work. The babus control the movement of files as railway signalmen control trains, and my train had come to a complete halt, even before it had left the station.

This was a minor hitch. If the files didn’t come to me, I would go to the files, and one way of doing so was to hold meetings on this and that and ask babus to prepare the agenda papers. And, of course, bring their files.

Bureaucrats love meetings, which is why, whenever you call them, they are always in a meeting, even though you often suspect they are at their wife’s cousin’s wedding, or are out on an errand purchasing vegetables. We had so many meetings, we ran out of subjects.

Prices are rising? Hold a meeting. No customers for bikes? Hold a meeting. By the end of the day, you collect more papers than you can store, though prices remain where they were and bikes keep rusting in  godowns.

Incidentally, I was amazed at the information babus had on their figertips. They knew everything that was going on. You couldn’t fool them. They knew how many pumps so-and-so was making and who his foreign partners were. Government of India, contrary, to popular impression, is very well informed, though what it does with all that information is another matter.

Then there were the corridors, the so-called corridors of power everybody writes about. There are indeed these corridors in every ministry, long and dark and smelly, flanked by urinals and canteens, through which babus conduct business. A walk through the corridors at noon is a must for budding bureaucrats, like those long lazy walks through the Bois de Bologne outside Paris, where the sophisticated Parisians do their business.

You met everybody out there. Once I even ran into the great S.L. Kirloskar during one of those walks, and, surprised at the encounter, I invited him to my posh office and we had tea together. I was always having tea with someone or the other, for the brew, the excellent biscuits and cashew nuts were free, as I never received a bill for hundreds, may be thousands of teas and coffees I had in the company of assorted businessmen and industrialists, and, of course, foreign diplomats, who came with their gilted invitations, which I rarely accepted.

But time was running out for the government, and one day it came crashing down. I collected my papers and my magazines — where else can you find time to read foreign magazines except in government offices? —and slipped out of the building, going down the corridors of power for one last time. And that was the end of that!