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Farewell, Madhav Godbole : What His Life Teaches Us

Madhav Godbole's life is testimony that honest and efficient civil servants should keep a measured profile and maintain a dignified stance even in adversity

Farewell, Madhav Godbole : What His Life Teaches Us
Madhav Godbole Getty

Home secretaries come and go. Most of them do their job quietly and diligently and are quickly forgotten. However, in the last 50 years, two of the readily remembered names are: Nirmal Kumar Mukarji, ICS, who had to be summarily removed on the eve of the declaration of Emergency in 1975, and Madhav Godbole, IAS, who took premature retirement in March 1993, much before his superannuation, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, when he found his continuance would militate against his self-respect.

Godbole's (1937-2022) demise is being widely mourned. There are umpteen officers in the civil services who were as bright, honest and capable. There are numerous administrators, publicly unknown but known to write the truth or reasoned contrarian opinions on files, being aware of the risks involved. Such officers, often labelled as negative, are generally ignored for crucial assignments and rarely selected for high positions after retirement. In this context, what does Godbole's life teach us?

First, for honest and efficient civil servants it is important to keep a measured profile and maintain a dignified stance even amid adversity. Godbole was known in the Maharashtra cadre as a no-nonsense workhorse and a forthright civilian. But he had, time and again, been entrusted with key assignments at the state and Centre, even though he had to be moved out occasionally from such positions on account of his principled stand on contentious issues. In the memoir Unfinished Innings (Orient Longman, 1996), he has narrated, with a tinge of sadness and dismay but without much regret, the circumstances that prompted him to seek early retirement. The search for a scapegoat after the Babri fiasco, combined with the arrogance of a politically ambitious new Union Minister of State, an apparently helpless Home Minister and an indecisive Prime Minister, made his life difficult. Many bureaucrats would have compromised or accepted a humiliating transfer. Godbole called it a day.

Another time, Godbole had antagonised a most powerful business house and faced consequences. But civil servants are trained as professionals and know pretty well the occupational risks, and the perils of taking a firm stand against dominant political preference, some of which might be in the interest of major business groups. The point is that civil servants should put forth their views clearly and gently, be ready to be overruled and, in some cases, prepared to be shifted out. If the officer is solid and not an emotional freak, is balanced and not a publicity-seeking rabble-rouser, has a grasp over the job and is not busy displaying his superiority, his worth is likely to be be appreciated. That may be a reason why Godbole was considered for crucial posts like the Chairman of Maharashtra State Electricity Board and Principal Finance Secretary in the state, or as a Union Secretary in three important ministries.

The other lesson one learns from Godbole's life is to engage with matters that affect society at large. In the good old tradition of scholar-administrators, Godbole spent much of his retired life productively in an advocacy role, writing about his experience. It is a major feat that he authored more than 20 books, in English and Marathi, covering different aspects of governance and policy issues. Besides his memoir, he has critiqued the roles of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi too [The God Who Failed: An Assessment of Jawaharlal Nehru's Leadership (Rupa, 2014) and Indira Gandhi: An Era of Constitutional Dictatorship (Manas, 2018)], as of the Judiciary and Parliament. The Babri Masjid Ram Mandir Dilemma: An Acid Test For India's Constitution (Konark, 2019) is a valuable historical assessment. His latest book, published in 2021 examines India - A Federal Union of States: Fault Lines, Challenges and Opportunities (Konark). The range demonstrates the breadth of his vision and depth of his concerns and interests. No other civil servant in post-independent India has perhaps taken so much initiative to record and analyse what he saw, what troubled his conscience and what prevented him from losing all hope and turning a total pessimist.

Much of what Godbole did and later wrote about has implications for India's governance and its higher civil services of which he was a shining example.

(Amitabha Bhattacharya is a retired IAS officer who has worked in the private sector and with the UNDP, and writes for national newspapers on matters of public interest. Views expressed are personal)

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