When I came back to India in July 1968, I was posted as a sub-collector at Gudur, and it was around this time that I got married. On official tours, I would pack two boiled eggs in the left pocket of my jacket and two pieces of toast in the right pocket. That way, I was not obliged to anybody in the village for my lunch! The image of impartiality and being pro-poor is important in rural India.
Then in Guntur, I was the district revenue officer for a few months in 1969, and my focus was on establishing the land rights for the poor. In the absence of a legal recourse, poor farmers often occupied community lands for which they had no pattas (right to cultivate). Instead of waiting for individual farmers to approach us, I organised an official apparatus to go to every village, urging farmers to petition their claims on the lands they had been cultivating. They were given temporary pattas that could be later made permanent. My initiative also got a boost when I requested President VV Giri, who was travelling through Guntur district by train, to hand out pattas to poor farmers at the station! A former trade union leader, Giri readily agreed. Incidentally, on October 2, 1969, when Gandhi’s centenary celebrations were being conducted under my overall guidance, the irony was that prohibition got abolished in Andhra Pradesh on the same day!
While I was respected as a very good officer, I was also perceived to be “difficult”. I was happy to take up the job as deputy secretary in planning as I got to be close to my family and also ended up working in the field of applied economics, something I had been waiting to do ever since my course in Netherlands. So, being difficult did have its rewards.
For a few months, from September 1973 to April 1974, I was posted as collector and district magistrate at Nalgonda. Around this time, I once had to accompany chief minister Vengal Rao to Yadagirigutta temple. Protocol required me to accompany the CM. But at the entrance of the temple, I told him that I would not enter it. The CM was surprised but did not raise any objection. While I was not devout, I had stopped believing in God and going to temples after my younger brother’s untimely demise in 1970. I waited at the guest house close to the temple when, suddenly, I began questioning my stance. How could I be so sure that God did not exist? In any case, if I did not know anything with certainty about God, how could I be an atheist? So, I decided that if I was unsure, then I would not be averse to God, or puja, or temples. Since then, I have visited the temple many times over in subsequent years.
Almost 15 years after I was admitted to the programme, I got my PhD in March 1975 from the Osmania University. After joining the IAS, I had fulfilled my ayya’s dream, and after I got my PhD, I felt I had fulfilled my own. In 1976, I was appointed as the collector of Hyderabad district. However, I was not keen to take on the job and even mentioned it to CM Vengal Rao about it. But he said, “I want you. You need not succumb to pressures. All you need to do is listen to ministers and do what is fair.” That sounded reasonable, but I got cheeky. “Sir, suppose you make a request? What should I do then?” He replied, “You need not do anything that you do not think is fair or correct, but you refer the matter to the government and we will decide!”
Once, during my tenure as collector, I was told to receive Sanjay Gandhi, the son of prime minister Indira Gandhi, at the airport. Since he had no official position, I told the CM that it would be inappropriate as a collector to receive someone who had no official standing. To avoid any embarrassment, I offered to proceed on leave. As I was leaving the room, the CM remarked: “I wish I could go on leave as well!”
I did not cease to be difficult, and in April 1977, I was moved, despite my reluctance, to the Centre as deputy secretary in the department of economic affairs (DEA), at the finance ministry. I was to be on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) desk, which was a prestigious posting that several had vied for. As a result, my colleagues in the department viewed me with wariness. Only Dr Manmohan Singh, secretary of economic affairs, who had pushed for me to be given this posting, greeted me with great warmth. Following the adage, “Even a fish could avoid trouble if it kept its mouth shut,” I kept my trap shut and chose to read, listen and learn. Three months later, I was comfortable in my role. On occasions, Dr Singh would ask me to examine files that did not concern my desk.
I was lucky to get the job of technical advisor to the executive director of the WB in 1978 as Dr Singh once again proposed my name. When I received the orders to join the WB, I thanked Dr Singh. He said, with his usual, quick smile, “You don’t have to thank anybody. You deserve it. In fact, it was delayed by a bit, that’s all.”
I was assigned to work under (Maidavolu) Narasimham, the Indian executive director in the World Bank. He initiated me into the basics of global finance. A former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, he had a razor-sharp mind and inexhaustible energy and network. Despite attending two to three cocktail parties followed by dinner, the next morning he would walk into the office, fresh as a daisy! After a year, Narasimham left the bank to join as the IMF as the Indian director.
Narasimham’s successor was HN Ray, a gentleman known for his integrity, but he wasn’t adept at handling US-style negotiations and functioning. This would often result in contrary views. Though he treated me as a son, I am ashamed to say that I, perhaps, was arrogant. Once, during a disagreement, Ray protested at my style of arguing. “Dr Reddy, I joined the civil services before you were born. Learn to show some respect.” I replied, “Sir, I will show my highest respect at your home, but in the office, if I feel you are wrong, I have to say it.” In spite of my attitude, Ray requested for my services to be extended from the original three years to five years.
While I officially did not participate in negotiations on behalf of the government of India, as I was, technically, an employee of the World Bank, I would often guide the Indian delegation. The WB was also comfortable with my help and I would be informally invited to parties strictly meant for Indian delegates and the WB negotiators. During one such negotiation, the bank was insisting on a particular condition that the Indian team was not authorised to concede. The team asked me to intervene as they felt the loan was essential and wanted me to advise the government to agree to the condition. Even though the loan was essential for us, I understood the government’s point. I told the Indian team that my advice was that they break the negotiations and head back to India the next morning. As expected, the bank authorities contacted me to explain their position. I informed them that the negotiations were off and that the Indian team had booked their return tickets for the next day. Hearing that, the WB team, after hurried consultations, informed us that they had changed their mind and they would not insist on the condition.
Once, a senior World Bank official asked me the secret of my negotiating success, I replied: “I am a Hindu. If we commit a sin, we can do ‘prayaschit’ or prescribed atonement, so we believe everything is negotiable. If we cannot complete a task in this lifetime, we can do it in our next life, so we can wait for a long, long time!” Flexibility and patience can be good negotiation tools.
Interestingly, when Dr Godbole, joint secretary, was on a trip to a conference at Washington, I was in conversation with him and constantly kept referring to him as sir, much to the amusement of my counterpart in World Bank. She asked me, “Why do you keep using ‘sir’? I call the vice president Ernie Stern, Ernie. So why should you call anyone ‘sir’?” I replied: “It’s simple because I can also say, ‘No, sir’, while you may, to keep the job, have to say ‘Yes, Ernie’. That’s the only difference!”
In August 1983, Andhra Pradesh CM, NT Rama Rao, invited me back to the state. As per rules, I was to go back to India around the same time. There were some who had quit the government and stayed behind. I, too, had opportunities but felt that, in the US, I would ‘exist’ in luxury while in India I could ‘live’ in comfort.
I was secretary of planning, and mostly reported directly to NTR as he had kept the planning portfolio. Though NTR was hardworking, had a vision and the good of the state in his heart, he always sought external validation of his image. During one such interaction, seated in his office in his signature saffron kurta and dhoti, NTR asked me, “Am I not a great man?” “Why, sir?” I asked. He replied, “I was a very successful actor and a hero in many films. I was making crores of rupees. I sacrificed everything and joined public life, only to serve the people. Have I not sacrificed a lot?” I replied, “Sir, several people had sacrificed everything for the country during the independence struggle.” He continued: “But I started a party on my own. In a year, I built a party and captured power. Is there a precedent in history?” There was no denying that, NTR had started the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) on the Telugu pride plank, as he felt that the Centre was disrespectful to the state, and had created a strong alternative to the autocratic regime of Indira Gandhi. “The Centre has been trying to destroy me. It has been using the income tax department to harass me. They are influencing the courts, even the courts, to give me trouble! Yet, I am surviving. I am the chief minister and the people love me. Am I not a great man?” At this stage, I relented, “Sir, now I am convinced that you are a great man!”
Once, at the meeting of the National Development Council (NDC) on July 12, 1984, all the state CMs and the PM were to be present. As the planning secretary, I was to draft the speech to be delivered by the CM. Rao Sahib, the cabinet secretary, called and asked me whether this was the authentic copy of the speech to be delivered later in the day. I was surprised; such an inquiry was highly unusual. I had seen NTR rehearsing the speech early that morning and confirmed that this was, indeed, the speech. As the meeting began, when it was NTR’s turn to speak, he pulled out a folded paper, whereas the speech that I had so carefully drafted, focusing on planning and economic considerations, lay unopened. Instead, NTR, reading from the paper, launched into a political tirade against the Centre, protesting the dismissal of the Farooq Abdullah government in J&K and attacked the government for its high-handedness and manipulation. Chairperson Indira Gandhi interrupted him by saying that the NDC was not a political forum. But under pressure from three other chief ministers — Jyoti Basu (West Bengal), Ramakrishna Hegde (Karnataka) and Nripen Chakraborty (Tripura) — he was allowed to complete the statement.
At the end of the speech, NTR announced that he was walking out, prompting the other three CMs to follow suit. As he walked out, he signalled that we stay seated. After a while, an announcement was made that officials of states whose CMs had walked out were to withdraw from the meeting. As it turned out, the decision to walk out was taken the night before, but was kept a secret. NTR was apprehensive that, if word went out, the dramatic effect of making the first speech and disrupting the meeting at the start would have been lost. With this, I wondered whether NTR distrusted me as a person, a professional civil servant or an intellectual. Maybe, he felt that being in the IAS, I would be more loyal to the Centre.
Incidentally, many of NTR’s policies were often opposed by some MPs and MLAs. Once, at a meeting of a dozen legislators in NTR’s room, they expressed their concerns by stating that they, too, were democratically elected representatives and wanted to have more say in the functioning of the government. NTR waxed in eloquent terms the importance of democratic values and assured them of addressing their concerns. As soon as they walked to the door, NTR looked towards me and said in a voice loud enough for the departing legislators to hear, “Reddy garu, do you see those fellows? They won by parading my photograph on the streets. If you put one rupee on their heads and auction them in the bazaar, they will be sold for half a rupee. And they say they represent the people! Those are the fellows who are trying to teach me how to run the government.” The hapless politicians could do nothing but continue on their way out!
But my days with NTR came to an end with his defeat. This was also the time when I opted to move back to the Centre.