It might seem that the short-cut to Race Course Road runs through Kerala, but Punjab also matters. Ashok Malik explains who’s who
SO WHOSE candidate was PJ Thomas? It’s a question that has absorbed power circles in New Delhi since Thomas was named Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) in controversial circumstances in September 2010, and gained renewed importance after the Supreme Court nullified his appointment earlier this month.
Rumours have flown thick and fast. Some have suggested Thomas, or his wife, is related to a Congress politician from Kerala. Others have pointed to alleged connections with a Gandhi family confidant who worked on the personal staff of Rajiv and then Sonia Gandhi. This “pressure from the party” argument also figured in the Congress core group meeting shortly after the damning court judgement of 3 March, and is believed to have been the prime minister’s first line of defence.
However, insiders at the core group meeting say for once Manmohan Singh was challenged and asked to be specific about who in the Congress had pushed Thomas’ case and when. Instead, it was suggested — and rather bluntly — that he should look around him, in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). From the Devas-Indian Space Research Organisation deal to the Thomas affair, the level of exasperation top leaders in the Congress are reporting with the PMO is only rising.
Who runs Manmohan’s PMO? How true is the part-humorous, part-sarcastic belief in sections of the bureaucracy that to make it anywhere with the UPA government “you have to be a Mallu (Malayalee)”? Is there really a Kerala lobby secretly manipulating the brains trust of UPA raj? These questions inevitably point in the direction of TKA Nair, principal secretary in the PMO, among other things accused of being Thomas’ benefactor and Devas’ patron.
By a series of actions and accidents, Nair has emerged as the most powerful man in the PMO, which he wasn’t when he got the job of principal secretary in 2004. In many senses, he has surprised even the two men who in effect placed him in the PMO: NN Vohra, former home and defence secretary and now governor of Jammu & Kashmir; and Rashpal Malhotra, executive vice-chairman of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), Chandigarh.
Vohra’s is a well-recognised name, Malhotra’s less so. Even so, Malhotra is a key influence on the Manmohan PMO. It is a telling coincidence that he (Malhotra), Nair and Thomas were together on the board of governors of the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, till recently. Yet all that is getting ahead of the story, which must rightfully begin in May 2004, with the Congress’ surprising victory in the general election.
Shortly after he was told he was becoming prime minister, Manmohan sounded out Vohra for the principal secretary’s position. He was to be one of a robust triumvirate at the PMO — with JN Dixit as national security adviser (NSA) and MK Narayanan as adviser on internal security. It had the makings of a powerful, high-octane PMO. However, it was not to be.
Vohra had more or less started functioning as Manmohan’s chief of staff when the upper echelons of the Congress exercised their veto. As defence secretary, Vohra “had not been too helpful on Bofors” it was said, and his nomination was nixed. Manmohan asked Vohra, whom he had known since his days as a lecturer in Amritsar, for a recommendation. Vohra suggested Nair, then chairman of the Public Sector Enterprises Board and like Vohra a former chief secretary of Punjab.
IN THE early weeks, there was a battle for turf in the Manmohan PMO. However, Nair was relatively low-key. He did not have Dixit’s stature or Narayanan’s profile. Though he had served as secretary in the IK Gujral PMO (1997-98), he was not quite seen as a larger-than-life principal secretary. He was not in the grand strategist mould of Brajesh Mishra (Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s principal secretary), not an uber economic policy czar like AN Varma (PV Narasimha Rao’s principal secretary). He was only a survivor, albeit a charming one.
Also, there were others who seemed to matter more. Even though Dixit died about six months after he joined the PMO, Narayanan quickly combined the portfolios of internal security and foreign policy (the NSA’s brief ). As a former Intelligence Bureau chief with a politically agile mind, he became a sort of super principal secretary, deploying his knowledge of the government and the system, as it were, to become indispensable to Manmohan.
TKA Nair was not in the grand strategist mould nor an uber economic policy czar, only a survivor
Two serving IAS officers were also pivotal to that early Manmohan PMO: BVR Subrahmanyam as the prime minister’s private secretary and gatekeeper, and Pulok Chatterjee as additional secretary. Chatterjee, who had served under Rajiv Gandhi and then at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, was trusted by Sonia and, as such, a link with the Congress president. He was so crucial to the partnership between Sonia and Manmohan that Ahmed Patel, widely seen as the lady’s political ADC, used to drive down to South Block to meet Chatterjee. The circle was completed by Sanjaya Baru, the senior journalist who served as Manmohan’s media adviser and made it clear he reported to and was loyal to only the prime minister.
In the summer of 2008, all three left. Chatterjee and Subrahmanyam went to the World Bank. Baru departed for a thinktank assignment in Singapore. A few months later, the 26/11 attacks happened and Narayanan came under siege. He survived about a year and had to leave in January 2010, when he was sent to the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata.
REPLACEMENTS FILLED some roles but not all. Shiv Shankar Menon, who took over from Narayanan as NSA, was an old Foreign Service hand, more comfortable with diplomacy than meddling in internal politics. Other junior officers in the PMOwere settling in. There were vacant spaces, and Nair grabbed them. His principal ally was KM Chandrashekhar, who has got multiple extensions as Cabinet secretary and is another Malayalee from the Kerala cadre of the IAS.
They have power — and they have each other
Shiv Shankar Menon
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER
An old Foreign Service hand, more comfortable with diplomacy than meddling in internal politics
Has been accused of being the benefactor of CVC PJ Thomas and a patron of Devas Multimedia
A principal ally of NSA Menon and has got multiple extensions as Cabinet Secretary
Took over from Deepak Sandhu in June 2009 with Secretary rank. Khare earlier worked with The Hindu and The Times of India
Nair himself is from the Punjab cadre of the IAS. He was an impressive deputy commissioner of Hoshiarpur in his younger days and had a short stint as chief secretary when HS Brar was chief minister in the mid-1990s. Yet, more than Punjab it is his Kerala links that come to the fore these days. There are both personal and professional affinities involved here; though from the Punjab cadre, Nair spent almost a decade of his career in Kerala. He moved there in the 1980s in an inter-state exchange and worked for the Kerala government.
Later he sought a central deputation and spent five years as chairman of the Marine Products Export Development Authority, a Kochi-based agency under the Ministry of Commerce. This experience has left him with more friends from the civil service in Kerala, one acquaintance guesses, than from the civil service in Punjab. Its implications can be guessed. “Malayalees have got disproportionate advantage,” says one former IAS officer, “even when a CAG had to be appointed, Nair found Vinod Rai, not a Malayalee, but from the Kerala cadre nevertheless.”
Even so, Nair is not done with Punjab. He had to use his Chandigarh network to get into Manmohan’s PMO. While he is said to be in infrequent touch with Vohra now — “In true Delhi style,” says one person who knows him, “he has learnt to kick the ladder he used” — Malhotra remains a comrade. A regular at the PMO and the PMH, Malhotra is a particular favourite of the Manmohan dispensation. Beginning life as a junior administrative official in Punjab University, he was once a tenant at Manmohan’s Sector 11 house in Chandigarh. He rose to become, in the words of an acquaintance from those days, a ‘political entrepreneur’, a protégé of PN Haksar, and a listening post for Indira Gandhi, developing links with business and the intelligence community.
Malhotra’s most visible creation is CRRID, a well-funded institution that has been blessed by successive Congress governments and has benefited under the UPA. A BA in Urdu with an honorary doctorate from Seoul’s Sookmyung Women’s University, Malhotra is more political gogetter than social scientist. He invited both Manmohan and Nair to serve on the governing body of CRRID (they are still there) and first brought the men together.
A regular at the PMO, Malhotra is a favourite of the Manmohan dispensation
Malhotra’s son-in-law is DPS Sandhu, a Railway Service officer who is director in the PMO. Sandhu has spent seven years in the government’s most important office without being repatriated to his parent cadre. Other than his father-in-law, he has Nair to thank. In recent months, Sandhu has begun cultivating the media, attempting to offer ‘PMO spin’ to journalists, bypassing media adviser Harish Khare. This dual-track approach, typical of a PMO that is increasingly looking confused, is also credited to Nair.
As a civil servant, Nair is not a political heavyweight in the manner of a Brajesh Mishra or a ‘Mike’ Narayanan or even an NK Singh. Yet, he has artfully optimised the transfers, posting and promotions capacities of the PMO. This has given him tremendous clout in the bureaucracy and if his Thomas gambit had paid off, he would have had his man behind the CVC’s desk as well.
He’s riding his luck, and as long as the prime minister shields him there’s nothing anybody — not in the Congress, not in the IAS community, which has its fair share of Nair sceptics — can do.