Science, Administration and Politics are often difficult dots to connect. But if you do connect them well, to form a circle, then the magic of “ripples” happens! You can potentially bring in the change.
Dr R D Deshpande (RD) was one personality who showed me how.
He was a friend, guide and a storm in my life. I miss him today very much.
A very powerful, turbulent and impatient personality – Dr Deshpande held a doctoral degree on Marine Biology from the UK. He spent years in Department of Science and Technology (DST) as Director in Government of India. Did a stint at the Indian Consulate in Washington DC over four years. Accompanied Mrs. Indira Gandhi on key missions as scientific attaché. He had a great understanding of politics of science and knew how to cultivate connections.
He used to be in the circle of Who’s Who in India. Some told me that he was connected to the Indian intelligence agency – RAW. I don’t think this was true. And he was close to the senior politicians – I recall with people like Chief Minister Sharad Pawar.
I met Dr Deshpande for the first time in Bangkok, when he was working with UNEP Regional Office. We were attending a meeting organized by ESCAP. We took an instant liking for each other. He was very warm to me. I was only 26 years then. He must be close to 55.
Dr Deshpande discussed with me my career plans and we met in his office few times. He used to narrate to me his own career, his experiences and stress on how one must integrate science, science administration and the politics of science to be “effective”. Mere science is not enough he used to say. I found these conversations very stimulating. This was a great learning for me.
I started teaching at the Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay in 1984. One day when I was holding my class, I got an urgent message from the Office of Director to come right away to his office. I was wondering – did I do something wrong? I closed my class abruptly – and wrapped up.
When I reached Professor B Nag’s office, who was then IIT Bombay’s Director, I saw Dr RD sitting there. That was a pleasant surprise. “Dr Deshpande dropped in just now and was keen to see you. He wants you to accompany him to the Chairman of HLL, Dr Dutta – that’s why I asked you to come right away” Professor Nag said.
Dr RD was in a hurry. He told Professor Nag “Prasad is my old friend, take good care of him!” As he left for the loo, Professor Nag turned to me and whispered “How the hell you know this man? He is very influential. He seems to like you, do stay in touch with him”. And we continued to remain in touch.
Dr RD used to live in Pune after his “retirement” and in the later part of his life, became Senior Advisor to the Tata Group. He was heading the Environment and Natural Resources Division of Tatas. I worked with him on a project from Asian Development Bank (ADB) as a Consultant and used to shuttle to Pune. In the evening we used to spend time at a pub either 10 Downing Street in Gera Plaza or Zamus on the Dhole Patil Road. We used to order garlic mushrooms and draft beers. The conversations used to be on varied topics– such as diplomacy in organizations such as UN, ADB etc., scientific administration in DST, Corporate behavior and political obligations etc. I still cherish these conversations, some serious and some fun stories with implicit pieces of advice. He used to say that when you take up an assignment, map the people who matter, work on them to ensure that studies or advice you would provide is heard by the right people. You need to network and cultivate relationship with some of the powerful personalities in the society not always for professional reasons but to understand their vision and the power they wield.
One day, I was in Nariman Point area of Mumbai and got a call from Dr RD to show up right away to the Commonwealth Building opposite the Air India tower. There was never a chance to say no to Dr RD. So I took a taxi obediently and reached Commonwealth. Many powerful personalities of the Tata group lived in the Commonwealth building. It’s an address in Mumbai.
Commonwealth in Nariman Point, Mumbai
When I reached Commonwealth, I saw Dr RD waiting for me impatiently in the lobby. Why so late? He frowned. I am taking you to Nani. “You mean Nani Palkhivala?” I said in a tone all shell shocked. Who is other Nani – Dr RD shouted.
Nani Palkhivala, India’s respected Jurist and Top Economist
We reached the elevator and the liftman sitting on the stool got up to open the collapsible door. Dr RD said “Give this man 10 Rs.” I did not know why, but simply followed Dr RD’s instructions and gave the liftman 10 Rs. When we reached the sixth floor and were getting out, Dr RD turned to the liftman, pointed at me and said “Ye apne Saab hai, jab dekhoge tab salaam karna mat bhulo” (He is the boss, whenever you will see him don’t forget saluting him).
When we rang the doorbell, the door was opened by a simple looking short man with thick spectacles – and that was the legendary Nani Palkhivala. Nani greeted us and made us sit in the drawing room. I was introduced. Dr RD and Nani must be old and close friends and so the conversations began like a breeze. I was made party to the conversations and was not left out. The topic of discussion was India’s measure of true progress – not GDP but the Gross Ecological Product. I was quite excited to chip in and gave my views to my abilities. Both gave me patient hearing. We had I recall two rounds of masala tea with masca biscuits. The conversations were simply phenomenal and listening to Nani Palkhivala on extempore basis and in person was a treat.
When the clock on the wall chimed to six, Nani Palkhivala stopped and told Dr RD that now was his time to take a walk on the Marine Drive. Dr RD also had to go to take flight to Nagpur. So we all got up, Nani changed, told his servant to prepare the dinner. We opened the door, came to the sixth floor foyer and pressed button for the lift. The lift arrived and so the liftman sitting inside on the stool. He opened the collapsible door, saw me, and saluted to me in style. Nani Palkhiwala was surprised.
“You seem to be a regular to the Commonwealth then” he said.
That meant a lot!
When we reached the ground floor, Dr RD’s car was waiting to take him to the airport. I was about to step out too and just then Nani asked me casually
“Why don’t you join me for the walk? I would like to continue our discussions, Are you in a hurry to go?”
Of course I was not in a hurry. I joined him for the walk. Walking with one of India’s intellectual giants along the sea was so illuminating and memorable.
We returned to the Commonwealth after an hour. Nani took the lift upstairs after saying goodbye. Drop in again he said– and need not be with Dr RD.
After the lift came down on reaching Nani on the 6th floor, the liftman saw me waiting and said “saab, kuch chahiye?” (Sir, do you need anything?”)
I gave him another note of 10 Rs and said – “rakho” (keep). To me this was an advance for the next visit. The liftman saluted.
I understood Dr RD’s strategy. The key was timing. When and whom to give 10 Rs mattered.
10 Rs made my life that day.