BOOK REVIEW – The Honest Always Stand Alone – C G Somiah
Distinguished IAS Officer of 1953 batch, CG Somiah, who retired as CAG of India in 1996, has penned his autobiography in the form of the book ‘The Honest Always Stand Alone’. The title reveals a lot and matches my personal take in life too. That is why from Insights’ link on ‘Must-read books of Indian bureaucrats’, I picked this one (apart from a few others). Mainly portraying his career’s illustrious and most fulfilling achievements, this book has brilliant personal anecdotes and how being honest and upright, he has stood up to every challenge faced by him.
First, in what all aspects it gives CSE aspirants knowledge:
1) Ethics and Integrity– The book is full of examples of integrity upheld by the author himself, as well as by some of his colleagues, seniors and even politicians. Giving right advice to political bosses, seniors and juniors he has often saved the day for India as a whole.
2) History– Being born in 1931 and writing the book in 2007, the author has witnessed mostly India after Independence, with a magnifying lens. Infact, it is easier to remember the national events after reading this book, as it is embellished with the author’s on-the-ground handling of situations such as Emergency, Rajiv Gandhi’s rule, Punjab Terrorism (details on Operation Black Thunder), North East problems, Gorkhaland demand, Babri Masjid issue, Indo-Sri Lanka accord and so on. Also, as he was an Odisha cadre officer, he gives several insights into Odisha’s political, geographical and cultural history too and describes visionaries and stalwarts, especially the flamboyant Biju Pattnaik. Felt proud to have him work for the development of my state!
3) Administration– Internal functioning of ministries and several procedures is written about extensively in the book especially pertaining to Collectorship, Home, Defence, Finance, Planning Commission, External Affairs and IA&AS. Simultaneously, crucial traits needed to function effectively as an administrator are given throughout, i.e. the reader can easily interpret these from his experiences such as:
a) Recognizing good and efficient officers and picking them for the right posts/getting them recognized/rewarding them (which I believe is the innate characteristic of every good leader)
b) Giving great and timely advice to those who seeked it (e.g. interestingly Kalam and Manmohan Singh among a host of other people. He advised the latter to not resign as Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission when he was contemplating to do so like a loser when Rajiv Gandhi called the Seventh Plan Drafters as a ‘bunch of jokers’!) and also when grave situations arose, to those who didn’t (e.g. T.N.Seshan, Rajiv Gandhi, Buta Singh and several others)
c) To do his level best for saving the grace of other honest officerswho were unjustly accused or denied promotion
d) Leading by example: when floods affected Odisha, as Collector he went on a boat with another politician to distribute relief and they themselves lived on the same for fifteen days. When none agreed to visit Golden Temple right after the flushing of terrorists, he visited there with his family and earned goodwill of all; India first– an admirable quality. These are only two incidents among many given in the book.
e) Using well-meaning threats several times to get work done in India’s interests such as getting himself heard before then Finance Minister V.P.Singh, against Pakistan (My memorable anecdote from the book: He asked Pakistan to reveal about its help to Khalistani terrorists, else Indian soldiers would cross the border and enter their terror training camps to catch them ‘with their pants down’. This bold statement was followed by a threat to return to India and proclaim that ‘talks failed’ as Pakistan refused to issue a joint statement to his and India’s liking! Joint statement was subsequently issued exactly the way he wanted! And best part is- he started the dialogue saying- he was not a trained diplomat and his talk may sound straight. Just loved his style!) and so on.
f) Being active in sports. Infact, he reveals how due to his love for playing tennis (cultivated from a young age from his mother) and bridge (which he learnt in Odisha), he made several contacts and endeared himself to people. He climbed all the stairs of Eiffel Tower even in ’95 when he was 64- quite a feat!
g) Great emotional intelligence. He lost his cool for the right things at the right time, and this helped mend matters and achieve desired results. He even banged the table in his interview to assert himself when opposed by a panel member- and got the third highest marks in his batch in it!
h) Being pragmatic when needed. As Head of Orissa Forest Corporation, a PSU yet a commercial entity, he had to find a way to get work done without paying bribes which was not possible. Hence he set up a specific fund for the purpose. Getting work done and raking in profits was the goal for any commercial entity, and he followed it.
4) Geography– As he travelled to over seventy countries for UN Audit work and even as a tourist with his wife Indira, he gives brief descriptions of important places in many of these countries, especially in the penultimate three chapters. Reading these filled me with joy and freshness!
5) Politics- He reveals the political squabbles of yore between Buta Singh and Arun Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi and Zail Singh and several others. He describes how one-upmanship in personal rivalries of politicians became more important than India’s national interests. So true- it continues to bottomless abysmal depths even today. He touches on Bofors, the case that remains a blot on Rajiv Gandhi and mysteriously remains unsolved to this day. He admits he knows its secrets shared with him by S.K.Bhatnagar, Ex-Secretary, Defence but ‘they necessarily have to remain a secret’- he writes.
I expected many events to be portrayed where he might probably have been cornered (standing alone, as in the title), but I figured out two such main incidents only- one when ex-Director, CBI causes a leak in Press as revenge (when the author was CVC) and his two year delay in promotion due to kendu leaf issue in Odisha. In others he uses his presence of mind/temper/threats to temper the situation.
I got a feeling that he was itching to write more on Natwar Singh (his diplomat batchmate who reached the External Affairs ministry) but has somehow stopped himself. Also, though he has affectionate words for his mother from the beginning, but when she dies, he ends the chapter abruptly which somehow did not go with the flow. Moreover, I feel either he does not use Google much [“I think I was the fifth person to be appointed to this post” (CVC). On another occasion he writes ‘whose name I forget’] or he is giving true credence to the fact mentioned in the preface that he is dependent fully on memory. He also frankly writes on the quid pro quo in governance. At places it does feel like a self-glorification mission, yet I personally and whole-heartedly grant this great administrator- this wonderful son of India- this happy self-fulfilling luxury!
I like the way he writes about people (especially corrupt ones) giving no judgments. He describes the corruption and gives the name, leaving it to the reader to link the person with present political life e.g. Sheila Kaul (First name rings a bell?! Yes U r absolutely right!) Some of my other favorite things from the book:
1) How he starts and ends smoking
2) Believes in ‘good deed for the day’. E.g. advising Manmohan Singh(!) as written above, saving a Sikh riot victim in 1982 etc.
3) How he met Amitabh Bachchan, Mother Teresa etc.
4) A cute incident on polishing his Hindi to read the appointment letter before President was sworn in!
5) Humorous one on calling a ‘meeting of rats’ so as to ascertain why only higher denomination stamps were destroyed by them! 😛
6) Shows the role of his wife as a thinking and independent woman who gave him logical and sound advice whenever he asked for it.
7) On Pg.225 he writes- “…dual role of Central Vigilance Commissioner- that of Shiva and Vishnu- a punisher of evil and at the same time a protector of the good”.
8) And several more which I won’t write as review is getting longer & enough ‘spoilers’ cum ‘triggers’ for all you CSE aspirants already!
All in all, I loved the book. Read it for deep insights into some exciting times overseen by an honest, forthright officer- CG Somaiah