The Exacting Minister


The Senior Superintendent, Posts, Jaipur, remembers how Jyotiraditya Scindia would chase numbers and operational metrics. Every week, at a fixed time, without fail, he’d hold a review over video conference of the post office’s performance


CAN I expect some efficiency from you? The least I expect of you is efficiency,’ an annoyed Jyotiraditya Scindia sputters, talking to an assistant over the phone. He is tanned from travel, in a kurta the colour of denim and white pyjamas. The young MP, despite a brow furrowed with all that’s going on during the workday, still looks like a schoolboy. We’re meeting in a room full of framed family portraits and photographs: Jyotiraditya’s father, the late Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia, sister Chitrangada, wife Priyadarshini, and their children Mahanaryaman and Ananya. A stiff, silver-haired servant, probably from the Scindia palace in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, brings in tea and a bowl ofpoha. ‘Maharani has sent it,’ he says formally. Jyotiraditya puts down the phone, looking preoccupied.

‘Okay, let’s begin,’ he says suddenly, the expression on his face now demanding. He has exacting standards — of himself and of everyone around him. It’s evident from the fastidious way he dresses, the rigour with which he runs his office and the method with which he conducts interviews — never too guarded but also never revealing too much.

‘How did you first hear you’d be Minister of State (MoS) for Commerce?’ ‘The same way you did. From the news channels.’ Scindia is known for his no-nonsense, deadpan responses; I press on. ‘You didn’t lobby for it? Did you expect this department?’ Scindia switches to a formal, measured tone. ‘It’s primarily the purview of the Congress president and the prime minister. I had no clue which department I’d get; I had no clue that I would be a minister. But I was very happy and very grateful for getting this opportunity, to serve not only my constituency, but to serve a larger interest in terms of India’s interest. I try and shoulder it to the best of my ability.’

I have seen Scindia play pranks and shake up sit-down dinners. Before he became minister, I once saw him start a game of throwing ice cubes at unsuspecting people across a long, formal dinner table. I have seen him crack jokes and have a sombre group in splits within minutes. I’m expecting him to be light-hearted and funny, but here, in the middle of the workday, he’s serious and precise in the words he uses.

On the wall, I notice a particularly cute portrait of Madhavrao holding up baby Mahanaryaman, Jyotiraditya’s son. Madhavrao was a doting grandfather; he was an indulgent father to his daughter, but tougher on his son. He expected a lot from Jyotiraditya. ‘My father was clear about the distinction between being loving and strict,’ Jyotiraditya remembered in The Times of India a few months after Madhavrao’s death. ‘I was never pampered as such, growing up with clear-cut guidelines. But whenever I performed well,’ he recalled, ‘be it academics or anything else, Baba’s joy was apparent.’

The younger Scindia pushed himself to study economics at Harvard as an undergraduate, and then through Stanford Business School. Back home for summer holidays, he’d hear about his friends’ jobs and feel he wasn’t ‘performing enough’. He worked at the investment bank Merril Lynch and then at Morgan Stanley, in financial services, moving from New York to Hong Kong and finally, to Mumbai.

Vote Of Confidence: Profiles Of Young Politicians Aashti Bhartia  Roli Books  192pp; Rs 195
Vote Of Confidence: Profiles Of Young Politicians Aashti Bhartia Roli Books 192pp; Rs 195

When Madhavrao’s plane crashed in 2002, he had been an MP from Guna, in Gwalior-Chambal, for over 30 years. Just four months after his father’s passing, a grieving Jyotiraditya stood for his first election and became MP from Guna. He was 32 at the time, fresh out of Morgan Stanley in Mumbai. ‘The only precondition that my father and myself both put on my life together was that I would want to do something for my region,’ Jyotiraditya says, when I ask him if his father had expected him to join politics. ‘Now, that could be not necessarily in politics — politics must not be an end, but it must be a means. It could be through politics, it could be through business — by making sure that there are employment opportunities. It could be by just doing social service non-politically. So the means are varied, but the end goal was very clear in my mind.’ In the piece in ToI in June 2001, a few months after Madhavrao’s death the previous September, the young Scindia said simply, ‘My dream is to make Baba proud of me.’


ONCE, AT a dinner, I overheard Jyotiraditya announce melodramatically to a friend, ‘I’m just not ambitious. They say my father wasn’t ambitious,’ he said, in a black bandh-gala, a red handkerchief sticking out of his pocket, ‘neither am I.’ I ask him about this now. ‘I am very ambitious for my people and my region. But I am not very…,’ he pauses. ‘I think that’s maybe the genetic code in this family. My father was always accused of not being ambitious for himself.’ Following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, Madhavrao had been touted in the Congress as the next possible prime minister. Scindia had the education and subdued charisma of a statesman. But with Narasimha Rao — who eventually did become prime minister — and fellow Congress MP Sharad Pawar already in the fray, Scindia appeared to have stepped aside. Refusing to fight for the prime minister’s post, he came across as rather meek. But Madhavrao apparently hated the intrigue of party politics. Even years later, when he could have easily become the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Madhavrao told the party he wasn’t interested. He couldn’t be bothered with managing alliances, negotiating with and shepherding MLAs in the state. So a sense of mystery and unfulfilled destiny has always enveloped the senior Scindia.

What Madhavrao really enjoyed was turning around ministries. In their biography of Madhavrao, journalists Vir Sanghvi and Namita Bhandare comment on the extensive work Scindia did as minister of railways in the Rajiv Gandhi government. In his first eight months, Madhavrao travelled widely to diesel locomotive factories and coal units to understand the breadth of the Railways. Scindia then worked on how to make systems in the ministry more efficient. He reduced the turnaround times for freight trains, implemented the computerisation of train reservations with custom software. He introduced a new model for railway stations all over the country. During Scindia’s tenure, files in the ministry were cleared in four days instead of the weeks it usually took. In 1988, Madhavrao launched his brainchild: a fast commuter train, the Shatabdi Express, which would compete with aeroplanes for inter-city passengers. Sanghvi and Bhandare describe the zeal with which Madhavrao managed the ministry, the late nights he spent there. George Fernandes, Scindia’s successor as minister of railways, is said to have thumped Madhavrao’s seat and said, ‘The man who sat on this chair for five years has done a bloody good job!’

‘My father’s condition was that I should give back to my region — through politics, business or social service’

Later, Madhavrao brought as much energy to his assignment as Minister of Civil Aviation. He recruited a new chairman from the private sector to revitalise the national airline. Air India posted profits of Rs 1 crore a day in 1993, under Scindia. (Today, many ministers later, the national airline is abysmally bankrupt.) No one had expected the ‘fun-loving Maharaja’ to turn into such a capable and effective minister, Sanghvi writes. The Scindias seem to define success and ambition by their own unusual, stubborn standards. Madhavrao hadn’t worried about how high he rose in the pyramid of politics, or about his closeness to so-and-so. He had gotten a kick out of measuring and improving the operational efficiency and the financial performance of his ministries.

Jyotiraditya defines himself by his father’s yardstick. ‘I have taken my zeal and my passion very much from my father,’ he says. His ‘lack of ambition’ translates into a strange hunger for results. The young Scindia puts an enormous premium on his work in his ministries. He’s tense, almost edgy with self-imposed pressure.


BACK IN 2008, towards the end of the first Congress term, Jyotiraditya was made MoS in the Ministry of Telecom, Information Technology and Posts. In the ministry that handles all mobile phone and Internet initiatives, Scindia was given independent charge of the unfashionable Postal Department. In his 10-month term in the ministry (General Election came in 2009), Scindia put together a core group of dynamic talent — including the flamboyant advertising chief Piyush Pandey, known for his unique, mass appeal campaigns and business consultants — to develop a new strategy for Posts. ‘I believe in forming a group that is dedicated to a particular project,’ Scindia explains. ‘They ate, slept, and worked on nothing else but Project Arrow.’

‘If you show a tremendous amount of passion, even bureaucrats are more than happy to help you out,’ says Jyotiraditya

‘We have a wonderful network, probably the largest distribution pipeline of any organised system in the country — 1.4 lakh points of presence across 6 lakh villages,’ Scindia says, laying out the spread of the postal network. While the Postal Department revenues have waned in cities with the coming of the Internet and private couriers, Scindia explains, it is still the only network in villages. In far-flung areas, the fabulous distribution network can ‘be used to sell everything’. ‘How to really update it and make it a 21st century product is what we looked at.’ The restructuring was not only for look and feel, or a simple rebranding, but also looked at back-end operations. ‘We did a sort of structured review of the standard post office — what are the efficiencies that need to be brought in, the latencies?’ They established ‘the rigours of a performance metrics review,’ Scindia explains. The team set up Web-based technology to monitor the systems in post offices — ‘I could tell you in a particular day, how many letters came into this particular post office, how many were delivered, what time the postman checked in, what time he checked out.’ Every day at 5 pm, Scindia pored over the metrics on efficiency and volume. Piyush Pandey’s team also developed the slick India Post brand. ‘We started off with 50 post offices as a pilot project,’ Scindia says, almost mirroring the method used by his father in the Railways. ‘Then we multiplied it by 10, went up to 500 and rolled those out to see the response over six months. I was contemplating rolling out another 2,000’ he adds, but after the 2009 General Election, Sachin Pilot became MoS for Communications and took over Posts. Scindia started his term as MoS for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Scindia isn’t ruffled by the cyclical changes in ministries. ‘The ability to be able to envision something and start seeing its effects is one challenge. But the change carries on,’ he says.

‘The project is still going on full steam.’


I IMAGINE bureaucrats in the ministries shaken up by all the data collection and monitoring. ‘How resistant is the old system and the bureaucracy to these changes?’ I ask Scindia. ‘Well, I don’t have any sort of hidden mechanism,’ he responds, looking irritated by the question. ‘I don’t think diktats or orders work in today’s environment, whether it’s in the public sector or private. I think it’s important to infuse energy to get people on board. Once you get that level of energy going and you get that commitment on board, then it’s a self-propelling system and it perpetuates itself, which is what I’ve seen in Project Arrow.’

I have the common perception that bureaucrats drink tea, push files and slow things down. ‘Well, you know, I think in India, we tend to generally be very wide in terms of painting people with one brush. In India, generally all politicians are labelled corrupt and useless and all bureaucrats as resistant to change. Neither is the case,’ Scindia retorts. ‘There are politicians who are very committed, dedicated, passionate public servants and similarly, bureaucrats who are very committed to their job and produce astounding results. In my experience in the last decade, I have found that if you show a tremendous amount of passion, people in the bureaucracy are more than happy to help you out in whichever way they can.’


A FEW weeks later, on my way to Sachin Pilot’s constituency, I happen to pass through Jaipur. Here I meet the Senior Superintendent, Post Offices, Jaipur district. Jaipur has one of the first 200 model post offices refurbished under Scindia. The Senior Superintendent talks without any prompting about the changes in Posts. He describes how the postal system was computerised, how data began to be collected on turnaround times. Now, a citizen’s charter is up on every post office wall; it guarantees a maximum five-minute wait for Speed Posts. A video-conferencing facility was set up in the Jaipur Post Office through which, he recalls with some amazement, the then minister, Jyotiraditya, would actually monitor the numbers every week.

An Assistant Superintendent, Posts, adds, ‘You can now access the Internet in a kiosk at the post office. You can track the status of your letter on the India Post website.’ (It works 90 percent of the time, he warns, not cracking a smile.)

His family ties with Gwalior may supply the passion, but Scindia is pragmatic, professional, and intent on results

The refurbished post offices — about 400 now with 150 added every year — were branded in white, with a red arrow across the top. New office layouts were designed to maximise efficiency. New steel furniture was made as part of the project to comply with standard measurements. ‘You know how the post offices were — old wooden tables placed any which way. Now, you don’t feel like you’ve entered a post office,’ the Assistant Superintendent tells me. ‘You feel good.’ There were, he adds, plans afoot to introduce ATM cards at post offices and special machines with biometric recognition for the illiterate.

SCINDIA COMBINES the vocabularies of very different worlds. Having worked at Morgan Stanley, he has an analyst’s bent of mind and vocabulary. He compares ‘verticals’ to ‘horizontals,’ and describes removing ‘latencies’ (delays) and bringing in ‘efficiencies’ in everything he does. However, breaking his work down, he also manages to speak simply, to sift through complexity and explain his projects in layman’s terms. At other times, he speaks with a lilt of emotion, with the poetics of someone who’s used to appealing to a large gathering of people. Scindia will be talking about performance metrics and, all of a sudden, he will describe the postal system as a ‘carrier of emotions’; the dakiya(postman) is still the most trusted man in the village because he ‘delivers people’s secrets,’ he will say.

Campaigning in his constituency of Guna, Madhya Pradesh, he will talk about his ‘dil ka button (the button to his heart)’. ‘Aap voting ka machine nahi, mere dil ka button daba rahe honge. Kisi aur ke dil ka button mat dabana (That’s not a button on a voting machine you are pressing, it’s the button to my heart; don’t press anyone else’s button),’ he said during his last election. He also appealed to people as their king, saying, ‘Let our old bond be strengthened… When votes are counted, you should be saying, Maharaj, have you ever seen so many votes being cast?’ Finally, he appealed to people on the Congress party platform of development. Referring to rival parties, Scindia said, ‘They will come and go. Our battle is for development. Yahi hamara dharm hai, yahi hamari jati (This is our religion; this is our caste).’ In the villages of the Gwalior region, Jyotiraditya appeals to people on many levels, at once a local king and a Congress minister. He dons multiple identities, like his father did. In rural, feudal India, old bonds still endure; people respond.

In the Assembly election in Guna, the BJP won most seats. Still, Jyotiraditya won the Parliamentary seat for the Congress with a huge margin. It’s said in Guna, the Congress can lose the election, but not the Scindias. To the international press fixated on his royal lineage, however, Scindia says with impatience, ‘All this Maharaja business is cosmetic.’ Instead, Scindia talks about the Lifeline Express, a train equipped with surgical equipment and doctors that he takes into Guna every year. Large private companies and the best doctors have partnered to deliver the Lifeline Express, and on each visit, it treats up to 10,000 patients and provides free operations to about 1,500 people. ‘I believe, in India, people are willing to give, they want to give, but I think the greatest apprehension that people have is whether that money is going to be utilised for the manner and for the purpose which they have determined it to be.’

In assessing himself, Scindia talks about his passion for Gwalior Chambal because of his family’s 300-year-old bond with the region. Sometimes, journalists give Scindia flak for being an erstwhile Maharaja, for an assumed uppityness, for royal titles that linger. Without a doubt, Scindia doesn’t make a warm and cosy interviewee — at times, he can be dismissive.

Yet, his is far from a laidback, lofty sense of responsibility. The family’s ties with Gwalior may supply passion, but Scindia is pragmatic and professional, intent on results, constantly assessing himself against specific deliverables. Having learnt the drill of corporate reviews and systemisation, Scindia brings a rare management discipline to the public sector.


ON TRANSITIONING from Posts to Commerce after the 2009 election, Scindia says, ‘I believe that before you expound on issues, it’s important to get a very clear, deep understanding of your subject. That’s why for the first few weeks, I actually took very detailed briefings. Our bureaucratic set-up is extremely well-versed and they bring you up to speed fairly quickly. They are outstanding in the way they put presentations together.’ In the Ministry of Commerce, he got an ‘allocation,’ by way of a job description. ‘My work allocation is mainly the areas of plantations, so tea, coffee, spices, rubber, all of that.’ It is a large allocation by most standards, enveloping entire industries and a few continents such as West Africa and Latin America.’

Throwing himself into the job, Scindia went to the country’s tea-producing region in the Northeast and to the tea centre of Kolkata. He then travelled to the south to understand spice production. While the world loosely associates India with spices, spices ‘made in India’ are not coveted over others. ‘I think a lot of work needs to be done in terms of our positioning, our branding, and also our value addition in these areas.’ Eventually, as he’d done in Posts, Scindia put together a ‘core team’ to understand how Indian tea and spices could be branded and promoted for export. ‘I love being a change agent. That’s what excites me and that’s what I’m passionate about,’ says the young politician, now warming up. ‘To get my hands around a problem and see what the possible solution could be and to get people’s support and enthusiasm so that we can work towards that solution.’

For the tea project, Scindia has again thrown together adman Piyush Pandey, along with 15 other leaders from the industry and executives from Hindustan Lever, Tata Tetley and Britannia. They are looking at a two-pronged approach to springboard the tea industry: Pandey and his team are looking to create an umbrella brand for Indian tea across the world while others are working on the ‘backward integration of manufacturers’. They are trying to understand how to create incentives for producers to make the higher grade of tea needed for export. Scindia is working on measures to facilitate trade. A group of 20 specialists is examining how layers of transaction costs in India — from the factory to the port — can be minimised. (The average cost of moving a container of goods in India is, apparently, double that of China.) ‘We are trying to understand the latencies, redundancies, and bottlenecks in terms of transaction costs so that Indian exports are cheaper,’ Jyotiraditya explains. Some measures like round-the-clock customs clearance and a reduction in levies were announced as part of the 2011 Budget.

Scindia is also exploring how to use technology to cut costs and speed up transactions. He’s setting up ‘a horizontal and vertical portal’ that will ease the cost of doing business and reduce facilitation hassles.

The vertical portal, a service he’s excited about, called E-biz, is being set up in coordination with Infosys. It will try to be a one-stop shop for all government permissions an entrepreneur needs to get — from the nagar palika (local municipality) right up to the Central government. It could be, Scindia says, ‘to get a shop and establishment licence or to get an electricity bill paid… just a single vertical that any entrepreneur or business man would access for any processes done across the board.’ The portal will aim to cut through the forest of licences and departmental clearances needed to do business in India. The horizontal portal, called E-trade, will coordinate facilitation across ministries. So, any exporter who needs permissions from Customs, Ground Transport, or Civil Aviation to transport his goods will apply here, instead of running between different agencies and putting in multiple applications.

Scindia’s projects are complex, and a departure from the usual fanfare announcements. I ask him how he arrived at these particular ideas. ‘Through discussions,’ he says offhandedly, ‘with officials, with the private sector, and it also depends on what areas you have a flavour for, what you are interested in.’

Scindia enjoys delving into the details of the ministry. For all his concern with efficiency, he doesn’t, for a moment, mourn inefficiency in the country’s administration. He doesn’t give in to lamentation, or throw his hands up and look to the private sector. Instead, Scindia talks of problems in the ministries as problems of management, of data that needs to be collected, of systems that need to be managed, of chains of processes that need to be monitored, of people who need to be given real incentives.


A FEW weeks later, I meet Jyotiraditya Scindia’s wife Priyadarshini at a dinner. Priya is from the royal family of Baroda. She’s waif-like, her face always aglow, framed by a mane of long hair; she’s wrapped in a chiffon sari and speaks in a soft, graceful voice. Priya grew up in Mumbai, so despite her delicateness, she has the confidence and irreverent sense of humour of a big-city girl that puts me at ease. Priya has slowly become entrenched in Gwalior. She’s restoring the Jai Vilas Palace museum, holding local craft melas and health camps, and organising extra classes for schoolchildren. She spends increasingly less and less time in Delhi. ‘You have to be in Gwalior,’ she tells me. ‘You can’t organise these things in proxy and later ask — Kaisa hua? Kitney log aye?(How did it go? How many people came?)’ Priya talks of the women in Gwalior. ‘For me, sometimes, I think why are these women complaining to me constantly? But I realise they just need someone to listen to them. Nobody listens to them.’ The women tell her about problems with their crop, of the fights within their families. ‘And they feel,’ Priya says, in her soft voice, ‘if through me, they can get through to him (Jyotiraditya), something in their lives might change.’

‘He’s so busy, he goes straight to his constituency, Guna, but I ask him to stop in Gwalior,’ she says of her husband. ‘He used to wear dark glasses. I told him don’t wear dark glasses. These people have been standing here in the heat for hours to meet you — you need to look into their eyes and acknowledge them.’

Priya’s family lived in Mumbai but they constantly visited Baroda, their home state. ‘Baroda, for us, was the place we went to run wild. It was where we have some of our happiest memories,’ she remembers. Priya is adamant that her children grow up with a strong connection to Gwalior. Their son Mahanaryaman goes to Doon School in Dehradun, where his father studied, and their daughter Ananya is currently at school in Delhi. But Priya draws them to Gwalior regularly. ‘If they don’t come here, bring their friends here, spend time here, if they only come for holidays like Dussehra or Diwali, to dress up and take a picture, they will remember it as something they had to do. They will hate it,’ she says, her voice soft yet urgent. If that happens, Priya suggests, a crucial sense of responsibility, conveyed across generations and transferred across shifts in political systems, will be lost. Their father and their grandfather’s lives were shaped by this bond, with a feeling of belonging and responsibility towards Gwalior-Chambal. If the kids lose that bond, Priya knows, it will be, for them, a tremendous loss in their sense of themselves and the meaning of their lives.


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