BOOK EXCERPT: Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove 


Challenges of Governance traces the long and remarkable journey of B.K. Chaturvedi, from the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh where he grew up, to the heady days when he became Cabinet Secretary and, thereafter, Member of the erstwhile Planning Commission.

This memoir gives a ringside view of the political situation of the times—the contentious issues, watershed moments, inside stories—along with his own experiences and honest confessions. It analyses the challenges of the decision-making process in a coalition government, the pulls and pressures faced by the civil service and how complex issues were finally resolved.

Chaturvedi’s close relationship with former prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, brings out interesting and new facets of the functioning of the Cabinet and the Group of Ministers—a ‘Super Cabinet’. Significant events, including handling of complex situation like in Kashmir under PDP-Congress alliance find resonance. A mixture of personal reflection and political history, this book draws heavily on Chaturvedi’s extensive experience and painstaking data collection, and sets forth his ideas on improving public administration in India. Editor


Cabinet committees would meet (usually the Cabinet committee on political affairs) and take a decision on the further course of action. Considering the excellent communication facilities, need for such occasions arose rarely. During the foreign visits of the PM, we would send him a brief on major events and developments every day. Once or twice I would talk to him personally and brief him on the situation here. On one such occasion, I asked him how things were and how his visit was going, and Dr Singh gave a very interesting reply. He said, ‘Chaturvedi, our major problems are in the country. Outside we are doing fine.’ He was perhaps referring to India’s success in handling foreign relations but its inadequate pace of change in the domestic economy.

There was an awkward moment for me during the PM’s first visit to the US. While he had been with the government for nearly five decades, he was still a quiet person and did not believe in self-promotion. Very few people outside his family circle were, therefore, aware of his actual date of birth. I, unfortunately, had no idea about it. So when I rang up New York to brief the PM on the day’s important events, his private secretary B.V.R. Subrahmanyam (or Subbu, as he was called), before passing on the phone to the PM, mentioned that it happened to be his birthday. I had clearly missed a common courtesy. So I thanked Subbu and wished Dr Singh on his first birthday after becoming PM. He was gracious as ever in his reply.

Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove 

In the ’60s and the ’70s, law and order was primarily a state subject and handled by them. The only exception I recall where Central intervention was needed was the Naxalite movement. But things have changed over the past three decades. Public-order problems have gradually become crucial at the national level, with terrorist activity expanding in many parts of the world. With organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and the Taliban active in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the threat from terrorism has increased. Separately, Left-wing extremism has gradually engulfed more than eighty districts in different states, with Chhattisgarh being one of the worst affected. The Northeast has problems of severe insurgency. All this has led to greater involvement of the Central government in law and order.

This was one of the issues I looked at closely. During my tenure as Cabinet secretary, there were a number of incidents in which there was a heavy loss of lives. Assam had been plagued by insurgency for a long time. A number of schoolchildren died in a bomb blast during the Independence Day celebration in 2004.

Over the next three years, there were more than half a dozen terrorist-related incidents in the country, in which about 400 people died. Of these, three stand out in my mind—the Mumbai train blast of 11 July 2006, the Diwali bomb blast of October 2005 in New Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar and the Paharganj shopping area, and the blast in the Samjhauta Express heading for Pakistan in February 2007. There was terrorist activity in Varanasi, Malegaon and Hyderabad. Nearly seventy people died in these incidents.

There was extensive left-wing-extremism (LWE) activity, which led to a huge loss of human life. The level of insurgent violence was high too. This, however, gradually decreased due to effective engagement with the leadership in different states and a strong focus on development. The MHA provided support to the states  in the form of paramilitary forces and intelligence from IB and other sources. I had a fair idea of these developments and, in my meetings with the states, promoted the development of specially trained forces for handling hardcore Naxals.


J&K has been a major area of concern with all governments. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), supported by the Congress under a power-sharing arrangement, was in power in J&K since 2002, with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as the CM. The state had seen a lot of terrorist activity in the past two decades. The fatalities were more than 5,000, including about 3,000 terrorists. There were clear signs of a thaw in our relationship with Pakistan during the PDP regime. Terrorist activity, however, continued but on a lower scale.

In September 2004, the PM announced a financial package of `24,000 crore for the development of J&K. Mufti Sahib’s term as CM was to end in 2005, with the Congress nominee to take over for the next three years. It appeared that Ghulam Nabi Azad was keen that the arrangement, under which the Congress and the PDP were to share power for three years each, be implemented. The PM, I got an impression, had reservations, as the PDP government was doing fine. Finally, a political decision was taken. In 2005, Ghulam Nabi took over as CM. The period saw a gradual decline in terrorist violence in Kashmir. India and Pakistan agreed on several measures to strengthen contacts between people of the two countries, specifically between J&K and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). This led to the start of the Srinagar–Muzaffarabad bus service, the Samjhauta Express between Delhi and Lahore and a rail service connecting Rajasthan and Sindh. Trade relations at the border also strengthened. The period saw a sharp rise in Amarnath yatris. Nearly 3–4 lakh pilgrims would visit the shrine every year during this period.

Excerpted with permission from Rupa Publications New Delhi.

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