Books Reviews

Reviewed by :
RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE The Telegraph, January 29, 20

Bureaucrats, Sir Humphrey Appleby said in Yes Minister, are empty vessels into which ministers pour their wisdom. That memorable statement was, of course, said mockingly. But taking a cue from that, it can be said that there are two types of bureaucrats: those who think for themselves and those who don't. N.K. Singh most emphatically falls into the former category.

It used to be said not so long ago that what N.K. Singh - or N.K. or, even more fondly, Nandu - doesn't know about the finance ministry is not worth knowing. The wise will say that it still holds true. N.K. is one of the best networked and one of the most efficient bureaucrats of independent India. He is also immensely cerebral.

His career has now gone beyond the corridors of North Block. He became a member of the Planning Commission and then went on to be the deputy chairman of the Bihar State Planning Commission. His most recent incarnation is as a member of the Rajya Sabha.

N.K. brings to these 70 essays his wide experience and the knowledge born out of that experience. There are essays here on the revival of Nalanda University to the management of the global risk to problems relating to water. Those who know the author will miss his views on culture as N.K. is a keen listener of music - both western classical and Hindustani classical; he is a student of photography; and a self-confessed lover of the good life. He will have to explain, one day, why he doesn't think that these cultural issues do not fall into his analytical framework of the politics of change. The point is important since analysis of culture cannot be done by reason alone.

N.K. Singh's prose is invariably lucid even when he is writing on specialized economic issues. One complex issue that he delves into is the title of the book and its implications. It wouldn't be unfair to expect that a man of N.K.'s education and training would have an undying belief in the power of reason to drive the politics of change. But Singh is nothing if not a strong realist. He knows that for reason to be the sole driver, information and knowledge has to be complete. This, in India especially, is never possible. Rationality is thus scuppered. The other very relevant point he makes in this regard is that conditions in India rationally analysed would lead to permanent pessimism. Optimism rises, Singh believes, when one steps out of pure rationality. He is hopeful that "something more than reason, than pure rationality, will drive the next few decades.''

But Homer nods. The same essay is repeated in two sections. This shows the appalling standards of editing that prevail in the publishing house that bears the world's most famous logo in the book business. N.K. Singh probably made the mistake of leaving the details in the hands of the publisher. Pity that a good and thought-provoking book should be thus scarred.