Unlike most politicians Manoharbhai walked the talk about simplicity that had become his trademark. Unlike most politicians he rewarded those who stood up to authority, even his, in public interest.
As Manohar Parrikar’s advisor on “Governance and IT” in his first term as Chief Minister of Goa, I had occasion to work with him closely. I share my personal memories of that period to narrate what, to me, distinguished him from other politicians.
For someone who is an idealist, politicians make difficult company. How did I end up being advisor to him?
It was sometime in 2001. At a gathering hosted by Gomantak, the leading newspaper in Goa, I was explaining to someone the 100-year scenarios of urbanisation of Goa. These scenarios were the result of the Goa 2101 model that I had built. I had no clue someone was eavesdropping on the conversation, perhaps because of my passionate expression, perhaps because it was just more than a bit crazy to talk about 100 years when no one talked of even 100 days. Least of all did I know that someone was the then Chief Minister of Goa, Manohar Parrikar.
Later I learnt that Manoharbhai had discovered that I was the same person who had conducted a study and refused to modify the findings of the study to support an infrastructure project for multi-level parking at Junta house in Panjim being proposed by IL&FS and GSIDC.
A week later I got a call from the Chief Minister’s Office saying that the Chief Minister would like to talk to me. A few seconds later Manoharbhai was on the line. Without beating around the bush he said the Goa government had an Infotech Corporation and he wanted to appoint a vice chairman to put it on track. He wanted me to accept the position. I asked what it would mean. He said we would discuss when we met, he just wanted my assent. The next day it was notified that I would be the vice chairman of the Corporation.
I have met many Chief Ministers and Cabinet Ministers, across different political parties, since. Few have displayed their value of independent thought, taken initiative to include counter perspectives, acted beyond expediency and acted to public interests that he displayed in his initiative to invite me.
After about two months, Manoharbhai realised that my inputs had provided him the ability to save more than 25% of the government expenditure on e-governance and also a plan to create employment for over 10,000 IT engineers. He recognised this value to the taxpayers had come without any compensation to my time and effort as the Company’s Act didn’t provide for compensating non executive directors except by way of a small sitting fee, which was generally never paid. He recognised the value of the contributions was beyond the Corporation to advising the government on governance and IT. He initiated the procedure to appoint me as an “Adviser on Governance and IT” amidst much opposition from the bureaucracy. It took a whole year before he succeeded. I still remember him being apologetic as he sought advice, even though I had not been compensated by the government for this extraordinarily long time.
I have written repeatedly about public issues both directly through letters to different ministers as well as through the media. Sadly, none of them has displayed the ability to value public interest as much as Manoharbhai did.
Ministers usually have the practice of having their private secretaries handle most of their files. Manoharbhai, in contrast, had the practice of reading every relevant paper in every file that passed his desk. He had to ensure none of the taxpayers’ money was being wasted or stolen. He would cross check files to ensure the public was not being cheated of their money. So invariably his schedule would overshoot and he would work long hours.
Usually, he used to call me for discussions at 7 pm. I had to wait till he finished his files for all the departments. Sometimes he would take an hour in between to diligently coach his son, who was then in Class XII. So invariably it would be well past 9 pm when he would finally have time for our appointment. Even as he was multitasking he not only observed but acknowledged that I had spent most of the time reading, not just sitting around. While most politicians consider themselves experts on everything they deal with, I still remember Manoharbhai’s humility when he would ask me to explain what e-governance was and how it could help the state.
Often our conversations would run close to midnight. Usually he would have let his driver go home long before that. I lived in Alto de Porvorim, halfway between Mapusa, where he lived in his family house, and Altino the official residence where he operated from in Panjim. He would often request if I could drop him home. Sometimes if we had unfinished conversations he would request me to come to his family home at 7 am. His sister-in-law would open the door and go to get milk from the milk stall while Manoharbhai would get up from the divan in the living room and ask me to wait.
Sometimes I travelled with Manoharbhai to Delhi or Mumbai for meetings. Once he arrived at the Mumbai airport in an auto rickshaw. The security could not believe he was the Chief Minister of Goa. Once we travelled back from Mumbai by the early morning flight. Manoharbhai carried his own bag and refused to let anyone else carry it for him. When we landed in Goa in the early hours he asked if we could inspect the construction underway for the International Film Festival before going home. He thought he could get to see if the contractor was delivering as promised if he made an early morning round before everyone turned up.
Once he drove his new car late at night over the Mandovi Bridge to his home in Mapusa. The constable on duty at the bridge did not recognise him and stopped him to check his licence. Even after seeing his licence the constable told him his car had a temporary registration and he should have a permanent one before driving it around. Manoharbhai nodded without identifying himself and went home. The next day he found out who was on duty and promoted him for doing his job well.
Unlike most politicians Manoharbhai walked the talk about simplicity that had become his trademark. Unlike most politicians he rewarded those who stood up to authority, even his, in public interest. Unlike most politicians who want their ideas implemented, Manoharbhai encouraged suggestions on initiatives that would make the state better governed. That’s why Goa experimented and implemented innovative ideas way before the rest of the world even thought about it.
I remember pointing out to him that government decays because no one in government knows why they do what they do. They only know procedures. Computers are being used to automate procedures without knowing why the procedure exists or even when the procedures are meaningless. I suggested we undertake a mission oriented governance and have every department identify its mission. While recognising the challenges this would involve, he recognised the importance of my initiative to invite every department head to articulate the mission of their departments and use IT to enable the mission, instead of merely automating procedures. Each one of the departmental heads went through an exercise of having to discuss their mission or understand why they needed to find one. I haven’t seen any Cabinet Minister or Chief Minister attempt anything close.
In an era when custom software was the mantra, he listened patiently to the idea of standard packages in open source that could be deployed across government. He was willing to backtrack and cancel projects that turned out to be failures, instead of continuing to justify them. He distanced partisan interests whenever it was pointed out to him that they were interfering with public interests. Unlike most other politicians, public interests mattered more to him, at least during my association with him, than partisan interests.
Manoharbhai allowed me to pick the best bureaucrats as my IT Secretary. I had argued that many tended to block innovations instead of enabling good governance of the state. He was not shy to support the move to consolidate government IT initiatives, so citizens would not need identification documents or be asked to provide documents that the government itself had issued to the citizens. Aadhaar does not even come close to a vision, let alone implementation of what we created in 2005 with open source technologies. Being concerned about education and the employment of youth, he recognised that the initiatives to explore building a cooperative of students from engineering colleges and the IT industry may be the best option Goa had.
It is a little surprise that, then, Goa was chosen as the best governed small state by the Planning Commission and in an independent survey by India Today.
During this period, in order to promote an IT culture and provide opportunities to the Goan youth, we launched a program to give every higher secondary student a free PC. We ensured every student had access to not only Microsoft Office but also Visual Studio and later even Linux machines with open source technologies. He wanted to create educational content servers that could deliver educational content to students and we even explored innovative technologies including transmitting information over power lines in order to overcome the last mile reach to students in villages. The scheme of distributing computers to students has been replicated across many other states in India.
The TRAI policies on leased line access disadvantaged IT companies in Goa over Mumbai and Pune. Manoharbhai helped me to reach out to the then IT Minister Arun Shourie. With the help of Arun Shourie and that of the then TRAI chairman, Pradeep Baijal, we accomplished parity with other cities. Against all odds, we signed an MOU for Zenta and then Wipro to set up 10,000-seater centres in Goa. I remember several politicians, surprised at the success, asking what deal Manoharbhai had made.
Goa had hosted a conference of TIE International where hundreds of IT entrepreneurs and venture capitalists gathered. Manoharbhai had to address them before dinner. In his speech Manoharbhai narrated a story about a king who lost everything when he lost his character as he pursued wealth and power. He urged the importance of character over wealth. Rarely do politicians hold themselves against the yardstick of character, integrity and conflict of interest. It is unusual to see politicians who emphasise, expect and hold themselves to high standards in public life.
Months after his coalition government lost power amid defections, I left Goa to join my family in the US. Manoharbhai was now the Leader of the Opposition. Whenever I visited Goa he would take me out to lunch. On one such occasion I had floated the idea that he should set up a school to create leaders in every sector. I argued that we lacked leaders who worked without their own gains and with any more than short term interests. I explained that leaders should be people who recognise and act in public interest. Leaders should commit themselves to visions over the lifetimes of children born today, not merely to schemes from election to election in partisan and private interests.
I had touched a raw nerve. He had tears in his eyes. He said that was indeed the need of the hour and had wished he could enable the idea. It was not the only time I saw him disillusioned with politics. On another such occasion he shared his frustration with politics. He wanted to take sanyas from politics. It was perhaps his disillusionment with the lack of true leaders that kept him from taking political sanyas.
I happened to visit Goa when the Panjim government was preparing proposals for JNNURM projects. He took me to a meeting to have me explain why the JNNURM approach was wrong.
When Manoharbhai became Defence Minister, he used to visit Pune often. I was based in Pune by then and had several students in Pune. Once I had requested him to address my students to tell them about the importance of character in governance. He spent over an hour chatting informally with my students. He preferred to answer questions, not sermonise. He told them his action should speak more than his words and that he should be judged by his actions alone. That is a very demanding benchmark that I do not see other politicians hold themselves to.
Manoharbhai rarely spoke in public about his disgust for politicians’ methods and hunger for power. Sometimes, in a rare moment, he would express sadness at the helplessness to change the vicious cycle of greed for power and money. His eyes always lit up when he talked about education. He felt that was the only way we will be able to transform society.
It is unlikely that it is a coincidence that he later returned to where he felt he could walk with his conscience. He has left his dream of using education to create leaders and a better society to those that follow him. Manoharbhai could not rest until he made a difference. He was a karma yogi. It is no accident that he worked till his last breath.
For me, he has left an example of valuing independent thought, initiative to include counter perspectives, acting beyond expediency, and acting in public interests, that will for long be the standard to distinguish leaders from politicians who represent partisan interests. More than the simplicity he was known for, I think these are the missing attributes in our politicians. May he find peace in leaving behind these actions as an example for others.
Dr Anupam Saraph served as Advisor on Governance and IT to Manohar Parrikar during Parrikar’s first term as Chief Minister of Goa. An internationally renowned expert on governance of complex systems, Dr Saraph advises on designing and governing sustainable systems.