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  Opinion   Columnists  16 Jun 2023  Shobhaa De | Hail our brilliant babus... thanks for running India

Shobhaa De | Hail our brilliant babus... thanks for running India

Irreverent, provocative, opinionated... Shobhaa De has been challenging status quo for four decades... and is at her best when she punctures inflated egoes. Readers can send feedback to
Published : Jun 17, 2023, 12:08 am IST
Updated : Jun 17, 2023, 12:08 am IST

Personally speaking, I like babus and respect the breed.

 Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. (Image:
  Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. (Image:

Thank God for the babus. Babudom in India has been the one constant that citizens have grown accustomed to over decades. Like we are accustomed to flooding during the monsoons, potholes, train accidents and other disasters. Personally speaking, I like babus and respect the breed. They are bright, ambitious, cunning, cruel, self-seeking, pompous and… priceless! They know their power over our lives, and if you ever need them to help out, you can be sure they will… If the approach is right. The babu network is awe-inspiring. No matter which batch and cadre the person belongs to, once a babu, always a babu. All it takes is a couple of phone calls to friends in high places (seniors at the LBSNAA -- the apex training institute for the civil services), or a terse order to juniors still doing the slog years in some god-forsaken taluka. A “contact” will always be located and put to work. Hierarchy dictates everything. It’s a closed group. A clique. A bureaucratic “mafia” -- the babus are the only ones in the country who are experts at getting the wheels within wheels to move. Rules and regulations, laws and policies… Babudom is a one-stop shop -- you definitely need at least one good babu on your team. My pick is Upamanyu Chatterjee… but he has retired. He is brilliant, cute, irreverent and charming. English August remains my all-time permanent favourite. What a book! Scathing and truthful, wicked and unputdownable. Wonder of wonders, Upamanyu Chatterjee wasn’t sacked back then or charged with some unpardonable crime. Oh ho… what am I saying? It was a different zamana. The political overlords of the time actually read literary books and possessed a sense of humour. Sarcasm, wit, sexual frustration, masturbation (thank you, English August) was seen in the right context and… ignored! Of course, Upamanyu was given unimaginative postings (joint secretary at the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board), but his fabulous book, filled with insights and irony, continues to wow readers. And should be made compulsory reading at the prestigious LBSNAA in Mussoorie, where tomorrow’s bureaucrats receive the best training for the job and shine wherever they go. Yes… they are staggeringly intelligent. I can vouch for it, having met a few recently while holidaying in Mussoorie.

Nine years ago, for some bizarre reason, someone had made the monumental error of inviting me to address the IAS probationers. We were a motley group of writers and I was as amused as I was thrilled. My real interest was to visit Landour close by, and enjoy chai at Char Dukaan. Of course, I was also interested in interacting with the bright-eyed young probationers, but was wondering what to say to these folks who were a thousand times better read, better informed and better everything than poor ole me! Well, thrown into the deep end by former ambassador and now respected author Amit Dasgupta, I did my clumsy bit and spoke from the heart, talked about my own bureaucratic family and how I had let my father down by flatly refusing to appear for the madly competitive UPSC entrance exam, which I would have flunked anyway. Whatever I blabbered to the attentive probationers must have been okay, for -- wait for this -- nine years later, as my husband and I warmed ourselves next to a roaring sigri, and sipped a hot toddy on the lawns of the historic Savoy Hotel (established in 1902), four or five young things from the next table sauntered up and greeted me cheerily. Imagine! They were from the same LBSNAA batch I had talked to nearly a decade ago -- call that a coincidence? Hell, ya!

I stared at them disbelievingly -- one guy in a group of four women. He resembled a cricketer and was affectionately addressed as “Eye Candy” by the ladies -- his batchmates. All of them were back in their old haunt for a leadership course, before being shunted out to higher responsibilities, possibly at the Centre. Mr Eye Candy was relaxed and confident enough to take the ribbing with a grin and a shrug. The ladies were ummmm… let me be disgustingly sexist and just say it… seriously hot! Yup. Skinny jeans, leather bomber jackets, red lipstick, boots -- like, wow! One was a district magistrate, and the others were in equally impressive posts. But what all of them had in common was confidence-plus, based on their experience and knowledge base. I heard amusing stories about dealing with local goondas, egotistical chief ministers, assorted gangsters and godmen. They were vocal and outspoken about their political views, and flatly stated: “We take an oath to the nation… not a political party. We don’t have a gender. We are IAS officers.”

I came back to Mumbai, all gung-ho and starry-eyed about the future of India being in capable, competent hands… these guys were seriously awesome. Not only did they know their stuff, they took their responsibilities seriously. Then -- boom -- I read a news report about a naughty, power-mad food inspector in Chhattisgarh, and my faith in the system got hilaaoed yet again. Imagine the sheer audacity of Rajesh Vishwas (the food inspector), who drained 4.1 million liters of water out of the reservoir of a dam to recover his pricey, brand-new mobile phone! The level of arrogance displayed by Shri Vishwas is disturbing enough, but to let him off with a measly fine (Rs 53,092) after such a flagrant misuse of power is to diminish his crime. And a criminal offence it is! The blessed phone lay submerged for four days, and this dimwit believed it would still work! An inquiry has been ordered… blah blah blah. But nothing will come out of it in all likelihood. 4.1 million liters of water were wasted by one man -- that’s an abomination! How did it happen in the first place? Why was he not stopped by whosoever he ordered? That’s the power of babudom! It underscores acts of impunity, big and small. And little or no action is ever taken against government officials guilty of such acts.

Despite this appalling incident in Kanker, after meeting the bright sparks of LBSNAA for a “fireside chat” in Mussoorie, I retain my respect for their abilities to administer as unwieldy and as complex a nation as India. It’s a job. And someone’s gotta do the dirty work, right?

Tags: shobaa de, mussoorie, lbsnaa