Debating India


All The Men Around Man

Sheela REDDY

Monday 14 June 2004, by REDDY*Sheela

With a crack team handpicked by a ’working’ PM, South Block hums with activity

On Friday, 28th May, Financial Express editor Sanjaya Baru was celebrating his fiftieth birthday with his parents and daughter in Hyderabad when the phone rang. It was a call from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office. Could he please return to Delhi as soon as possible to meet the prime minister? On Monday morning, still clueless

about the offer he was about to get, Baru met the PM-an old colleague and mentor. Once before, Manmohan had offered him a job at a thinktank he chaired. But this was altogether different. "I want you to be my media advisor," the prime minister said in his soft-spoken way that Baru knew few could refuse. "There was the salary cut-quite hefty-to consider," Baru confesses, but the leader had chosen, and the only answer was Yes.

Baru was the last of five men Manmohan had carefully selected as his personal team within a week of assuming office: Prithviraj Chauhan (minister of state in the PMO), T.

K. Ayyapankutty Nair (principal secretary), J.N. Dixit (national security advisor), former IB chief M.K. Narayanan (special advisor). One of the things this team of hand-picked men has in common-perhaps their main asset in their chief’s eyes-is that none of them dreamt of landing their

present jobs, let alone lobby for it. Chauhan, for instance, was surprised when Manmohan approached him within hours of being the prime ministerial nominee, inviting him to join the PMO. Similarly, Dixit confided to a friend that he was on his way to Mussoorie on the day the election results were announced when he got a call asking him to stay put. He was an obvious choice, everyone knew, considering that he was one of the best known foreign secretaries India has ever had, served as envoy in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, had been a member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) in the previous government and, not least, helped write the Congress manifesto. But the obvious choice for what? The answer to that he found out only 14 days later when Manmohan called him over to ask if he would be his advisor on external security.

In a sense-and this is probably why they were chosen despite the usual dozens of contenders-they are all an obvious choice for their jobs: Chauhan, the only political appointment and yet so unpolitician-like: a man without airs, a Berkeley college graduate, frequenter of the India International Centre’s Saturday Club; Nair, the low-profile former Punjab chief secretary whose vast experience includes a stint in I.K. Gujral’s PMO as secretary, well-known to Manmohan in his 32 years in government; Narayanan, the best known IB chief in two decades and the ideal man for the job of advising the prime minister on internal security; and Baru, an economist-turned-editor, also a member of the NSAB during the BJP government.

Sitting below the crack team, on the ground floor, are the PMO’s massive staff of mostly anonymous bureaucrats that Manmohan has inherited from his predecessor. Except one-Pulok Chatterjee, private secretary to the prime minister. With his pipe and his laptop, this reticent man is the improbable winner of a seat that was once being eyed by even political players like Jairam Ramesh and Ahmed Patel. But like all the rest on the first floor, Chatterjee has been picked precisely for that reason: he is no politician. A 1969 batch ias officer, Chatterjee was first hand-picked by Sonia Gandhi to work with her in the Rajiv Gandhi Trust. When Sonia became leader of the Opposition in 1999, he naturally followed her as private secretary, becoming a well-known, but slightly remote, route for those chasing an audience with the lady.

On his shoulders now rests an onerous responsibility: the go-between of the two new power centres-Manmohan and Sonia. It’s not a new job. In 1991, for example, when P.V. Narasimha Rao became the prime minister in similar circumstances, it was Wajahat Habibullah who became the link between the PMO and 10, Janpath.

Many say it was when Habibullah was sent away to Srinagar as divisional commissioner that relations between Rao and Sonia began to fray. Whether this is true or not, one thing is clear: setting up the link was vital. And in Chatterjee they found the ideal candidate: reticent, a shunner of both politics and controversy. A far cry from the late Jitendra Prasada who was there after Habibullah until 1996. Apart from being top professionals, these six men share a quality Manmohan prizes: a shining inability to say what they think the prime minister wants to hear. To speak openly, without fear, is all that their boss demands of them. According to one of them, the atmosphere on the first floor of the PMO, where all five sit along with the PM, is almost "collegial." And not only because Manmohan is a boss who doesn’t pull rank. Meetings with him are informal and everyone is allowed a say. But best of all, the five team-mates on the first floor are already friends, most of them belonging to the once-famous Saturday Club of intellectuals, or having worked as members of the NSAB, or having travelled abroad together.

The change from the last PMO is palpable: instead of a Brajesh Mishra virtually running the office from his room on the first floor, you have a security advisor (minister of state rank) dropping in uninvited into a principal advisor’s room for a cup of chai and a chat, and never mind the protocol. Also, the PMO under the Vajpayee regime was very secretive. There were allegations of files being pushed and decisions being taken bypassing key ministries. Access to journalists was limited. There is now a new openness with a new government in place.

There is another change as well: this is a PMO with a presiding prime minister. Unlike Vajpayee who preferred to work from his residence, rarely putting in an appearance, Manmohan believes in putting in office hours. With the boss spending half his day at his South Block first-floor office, the PMO is suddenly humming with meetings and conferences it has not known for nearly half a decade.


in Outlook India, Monday, June 14, 2004.

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