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Narendra Modi – the driving force

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My first meeting with Narendra Modi happened way back on June 7, 2002. He was the Chief Minister of Gujarat then, grappling with the post-Godhra crisis. I was posted as Chairman, Agriculture and Processed Food Exports Development Authority (APEDA) in the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India. APEDA was engaged in setting up Agri-Export Zones (AEZ) to take a comprehensive look at all the issues in the entire value chain of an agricultural product to promote exports of selected products. We looked at the value chain relating to Kesar Mango from Gujarat as it had enormous export potential. However, there were issues relating to grading, sorting, storage, packaging and transportation. The idea was to build protocols. All this was part of the MoU that was proposed to be signed with the State Government, where the respective roles of the central and state agencies were to be defined.

The MoU was signed in the presence of Narendra Modi. There was hardly any conversation as he appeared to be preoccupied. Ironically, the video recording of this ceremony was used in the publicity material during the 2014 elections when NDA swept to power, and Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of the country. Many of my friends thought I was close to Modi, and I was not.


The second meeting with Narendra Modi happened after more than 12 years. I met a different man altogether. I was posted as Officer on Special Duty in the rank of Secretary, Government of India, in the Ministry of Coal, even before my predecessor had superannuated. There was a crisis in the coal sector, and I was tasked to handle that crisis. The order had come on October 16 2014, and I had joined immediately. The PM held a review on October 18 at 7, Race Course Road, the residence of the PM. Here, I saw a receptive, decisive, and confident Narendra Modi. Just before the presentation, I was introduced to the Prime Minister. A brief presentation was made before him by Secretary Power.

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This is the first of the three part series of articles on PM Narendra Modi based on Anil Swarup's forthcoming book Encounters with Politiicians.
This is the first of the three part series of articles on PM Narendra Modi based on Anil Swarup’s forthcoming book Encounters with Politiicians.

In the seven slides shown, there was a hint that almost all the power sector problems were due to the coal crisis. After patiently listening to the presentation, the PM turned towards me and said, “Anilji, you set the coal sector in order; the country’s economy will boom.” I was a greenhorn here, but I had some idea about both the power and the coal sector, having handled some of the projects as the head of the Project Monitoring Group (PMG), where my job was to fast-track large scale projects, some of which were related to power and coal. I responded to the comment of the PM by first assuring him that I would try and do my best and then went on to add that though there were serious issues that beset the coal sector, all the problems of the power sector could not be attributed to coal. The power sector would require a more comprehensive look. Though I had apparently gone beyond my brief, and that too in the first interaction, the PM immediately caught my point and nodded in agreement. He then turned toward Piyush Goyal, who headed both the Power and Coal Ministries and asked him to take a comprehensive look as I had suggested. Here was a Prime Minister prepared to listen to a difference of opinion and respond positively.


There was no dearth of ideas in the new government, and Modi was the driving force. Most of these ideas were imaginative and purposeful. One amongst them was to ask all Secretary level officers to visit the place of their first posting to assess what had happened during the past three decades or so and see what else could be done there. It was also to get in touch with the ground reality as most of those posted in Delhi had lost touch with the base for many years. Only a practitioner-visionary like Modi could have thought about it. I had been travelling throughout the country in my capacity as Director-General, Labour Welfare, while implementing the health insurance scheme, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana. Yet, I learned a lot when I visited the Subdivision where I was first posted (Kushinagar, which had by then been converted into a district). Much development had taken place in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh that was quite backward when I was there in the early 1980s. Yet, there were huge problems. I had gone there now as Coal Secretary, but this experience held me in good stead as I later took over as Secretary, School Education, and I had the occasion to revisit the place. All these helped.


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It was heartening to see the Prime Minister in full action. During his stint as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had perhaps understood the role that civil servants could play. He was trying to replicate that model in the Centre. One of the many initiatives he took in this regard related to the quarterly exchange of ideas with the top Civil Servants over a cup of tea. All the Secretaries (more than 100 of them) to the Government of India were invited over to his residence every three months. I did not attend the first one as I had not taken over as Secretary then, but I heard a lot about how the PM himself went around meeting each one of them. My first tea, along with the other Secretaries, was on April 1 2014. It was organized on the lawns of his residence.

To begin with, we sat around in semi-circular rows with the PM and just a couple of senior Cabinet Ministers in front. It was an informal setup. The Cabinet Secretary made the opening remarks, and then the Secretaries were asked to speak on any subject. Many Secretaries spoke, and spoke freely on many subjects. It was indeed a great way of getting feedback on various subjects. After remarks by several attendees, the Prime Minister responded to the suggestions and ideas. It was incredible. Perhaps a Prime Minister of the country was opening up in an informal setting for the first time. And then something happened. The PM took my first name and complimented me for the coal block auctions that had taken place. I had not expected this, but an accomplished leader was crediting me in front of my colleagues. Yes, the coal block auctions had gone on smoothly, and the government was getting all the credit for it but for the PM himself to say so on an occasion as this came as a surprise.

After the address by the PM, we were treated to a sumptuous tea, and even on this occasion, the PM went around and interacted with smaller groups. He was quite literally on the move and endeared himself to all.

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Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup is a former 1981 batch, Uttar Pradesh cadre  IAS officer, and was awarded Director's gold medal for "best officer trainee" at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA). He served the Government of India in various capacities for 38 years and went on to become Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy and the Coal Secretary of India. He also served as Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Additional Secretary, Labour & Empowerment, Export Commissioner in the Ministry of Commerce & Industry of India and as the District Magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri. He couldn’t make it to the “elite” Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on his first attempt but qualified for the Indian Police Service where he worked for one year before clearing IAS in his next attempt. He is today an author of several looks like 'No More a Civil Servant,' ‘Ethical dilemmas of a civil servant’ and ‘Not just a civilservant’. The views expressed are his own.


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