The power of his example
Abid Hussain embodied an ideal that is fading fast
There are individuals whose achievements we can measure. But some individuals themselves become the measure of a life well lived. Abid Hussain, distinguished civil servant and diplomat, was one such individual. It would take pages to describe his extraordinary contributions to Indian public life. As a thinker, he was ahead of the curve in so many respects: a reformer, before reform became fashionable; a liberal, even when the word was a source of political embarrassment in our culture; a believer in opening India up to the world in a climate where our fears often got the better of our hopes. He served in a number of key ministries, committees, the Planning Commission and as ambassador to the United States at critical junctures, always leaving a legacy for the better. He was a consistent reformer, well ahead of his colleagues on a range of economic issues from trade liberalisation to industrial reform. His contribution to a range of social and educational institutions is enormous. But a measure of his achievement is that he was far more important to India than the sum of his administrative actions.
No one who knew Abid sahib could resist the force of his personality. His unmatched charm, generosity, curiosity, ability to incandescently light up a conversation, clear-eyed analysis of facts, acute insights into the moral psychology of power, and his belief in a better future for India, even in the darkest moments, were always like a fresh breeze energising the soul. His wit was legendary, often a laconic window on the working of government. A distinguished official once told the government of India, "Reform or Perish." Abid Hussain's quick admonition to the official was something to the effect, "The grammatical form of the sentence 'Reform or Perish' will lead the government to think they have a genuine choice between two alternatives. And they will choose perish."