Book Review : Ravi Sethi and Ashok Lavasa

An Uncivil Servant

Ravi Sethi and Ashok Lavasa


Ravi Sethi is a very clever man. Hardworking, sharp, and an opportunist. He is remembered till today as the most effective District Magistrate of Bahraich, (UP) one of the districts he served in, along with Naini Tal. The latter posting helped showcase his political acumen to Congress neta N. D.Tewari, whom  he later served as Private Secretary. This got him an insider view into the labyrinthine workings of the  license –permit Raj. Then came  the first flush of economic liberalization in the 90’s.  After 20 years of service this IAS officer quit and turned into builder (Stellar Apartments), software developer, banker–CEO of the Stellar Group of Industries with its flagship the Stellar Gymkhana in Greater Noida. His is the typical post- partition Punjabi success story.

How this happened to Ravi is a story he has chosen not to fully tell. Unlike Babur in Baburnama, he turns coy. If he hadn’t “ An Uncivil Servant” would have struck a googly. Instead  he and his associate  Ashok choose  to emulate a grandiose BK Nehru tone, of `Nice Guys finish Second’, which Ravi didn’t.

It is quite clear from the thrust of his narrative why he didn’t. Born to refugee West Punjabi parents in 1947, Allahabad University and the Ganges are his landscape, the editor of the Leader press his neighbour, and unlike the more elite BK Nehru, another vintage Allahabad man, his father’s hallmark shoe- shop Fitwell in Civil Lines his inheritance. It bred in him both toughness and ambition to get into the  IAS and be seconded  to the coveted UP cadre, the so called breeding ground for future Cabinet Secretaries. Here he was to witness at close quarters the pre& post Emergency years. 

The ICS `steel frame’ served the  Raj admirably.  Was the IAS in the  70’s and 80’s  going to do the same for  the GOI? Or was it to carve a new path for itself?  New masters, and a new ethos. The service  became like a nautch girl subject to the whims of each passing political customer. And here lay the  moral paradox that Ravi’s musings could’ve dwelt upon more deeply. Like  the Hippocratic oath taken by a doctor who turns abortionist in a state that promotes Family Planning, the crux of Ravi’s  narrative should’ve rested upon defining the dilemma and disillusionment of young and eager to serve officers in a `carpet- bagger’ administration. He ends with a tantalizing, “ In that fading hour and fading light I could see the Sabarmati River with heaps of polythene in its womb and its bed completely dry.”

The symbolism is obvious. But no serious debate has emerged why a generation of IAS officers stepped out of the shadows of the Anglophile ICS  to  leverage unparalleled power for themselves by excelling in the fine art of `notations’ on the left margin of pale green  foolscap….the ubiquitous `file’! Nor does he devolve, lay bare, dig for those instances that would let the common man understand why Aruna Roy (herself an ex IAS officer) felt compelled to fight for the Right to Information Act. Though he does hint at it time and again. THERE ARE HIS INTERACTIONS WITH THE FOOD MINISTRY, THE THIS AND THAT

It is the same dilemma that worked itself into corporate ethics with the so-called `Tata’ culture at odds with the buoyant Dhiru bhai Ambani’s  re-invention of a very Bismarckan `real economic’. The point was— it worked. Business was just a mirror image of the nature of governance then, when the very nature of `public servant’ was undergoing a metamorphosis.

Now the Prime Minister  seeks to  define that same `civil service code’  by  the allocation of a further  45 crores to be spent on the Kennedy School of Government, (Harvard) Syracuse Uni, et al, looking further west to governance models and management gurus for the idea of who we are and how we should be governed. Everyone seems to forget  the Mahatma found answers in an indigenous  creed.

Still Ravi’s is  an enjoyable book.  It was not imperative upon him to dwell on any of the above. But if he chooses to I look forward to his sequel 10 years from now. This time I hope he spells the indices that brought about the nature of this change. And shoots straight from the hip please.

Manju Kak