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HomeOPINIONP Chidambram - one of the sharpest of politicians in India

P Chidambram – one of the sharpest of politicians in India

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P Chidambram - one of the sharpest of politicians in India

P Chidambram is undoubtedly one of the sharpest of politicians in India. He is decisive too but on occasion abrasive as he doesn’t tolerate mediocrity. My first interaction with him happened when he, as Finance Minister, was chairing a Group of Minister that was tasked to develop the details of a health insurance scheme that was announced by the then Prime Minister, Dr Man Mohan Singh in 2007. I was then Director General, Labour Welfare in the Ministry of Labour and Employment. The Labour Minister was supposed to attend the meeting but on account of his absence, I was deputizing for him.

The meeting commenced with P Chidambram asking the Health Ministry to work out the details of the health insurance scheme and present them during the next meeting. The representative of Health Ministry expressed his reluctance to work on the scheme on account of their pre-occupation with the recently launched National Rural Health Mission. For some reason the Ministry was not pushed. The Chairman then turned towards the representative of the Department of Institutional Finance that was handling Insurance and Banking. This Department too expressed reluctance as they were already struggling with the Universal Health Insurance scheme. As it often happens in the government, the hunt was now on to find somebody to hold the baby. Suddenly I heard my name being called out. Apparently, Additional Secretary, Finance who was sitting next to the Chairman whispered something in his ears that prompted him to call out my name. I acknowledged my presence not knowing what was in the offing. There was then an announcement made by Chidambaram that the Ministry and Labour and Employment will work out the details of the scheme and implement it. It came like a bolt form the blue as I wasn’t prepared for this. I mustered the courage to ask, “But Sir, what has Labour Ministry to do with the scheme?” The answer came even before I had completed my question, “The scheme is for workers. Hence, Labour Ministry should do it.” I wasn’t prepared to give up without a fight, “By that logic, most of the schemes of the government are for some kind of workers. Shouldn’t all of them be transferred to the Labour Ministry”. I was promptly over-ruled and directed to formulate the details. I didn’t really know what had hit me as I came out of the room like a zombie.

My first experience with P Chidambram wasn’t a very pleasant one.


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It was 2013. Everything was going wrong for the UPA II Government. There were scams all around. Everyone, including civil servants, was on the run with enforcement agencies in hot pursuit. Consequently, no one had the time or inclination to take decisions. Investment had come to a grinding halt as necessary clearances were not coming through.

“Cabinet Secretary wants to speak to you urgently,” came a message as I landed at the IG International Airport while returning from Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had gone there to discuss about RSBY. It was late evening yet I tried to reach him on phone, apprehending some ‘news’. He came on line and asked whether I could meet him early in the morning on the following day. I attempted to ascertain the context but his reply was cryptic though pleasant, “Just for a brief chat.” Aware of the fact that the top bureaucrat would not just want to ‘brief chat’, I could barely sleep during the night. My mind was cluttered with all sorts of thoughts.

Arriving ahead of the appointed hour at the Cabinet Secretariat housed in one corner of the Rashtrapati Bhawan (perhaps a colonial hangover as the Cabinet Secretariat has nothing to do with the Rashtrapati now), I awaited the arrival of the Cabinet Secretary with bated breath. I was more anxious than nervous. Even the Cabinet Secretary arrived early. As he walked through the corridor leading to his room, he spotted me sitting in the visitor’s room. He waived and called me in.

“You have been drafted for a new assignment,” he straightway came down to business even before I could settle down. My mind was racing. A couple of years ago I was drafted to man the ‘Naxal Division’ in the Ministry of Home but the Labour Minister saw to it that I continued to serve the poorest of the poor through the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). On this occasion, however, there couldn’t be any such excuse as my extended tenure of seven years was coming to a close. In fact, my reaction to the CS’s statement was in this context: “Sir, I am completing my extended tenure. Hence, I will have to return to the State for mandatory ‘cooling’”. His response confounded me further, “You have been given extension of one more year”. This was unusual. Maximum tenure for IAS officers on central deputation was for seven years and he had already announced extension beyond that. My apprehensions grew, as I was still not aware what exactly was waiting for me. As I looked incredulously at him, he revealed the nature of assignment. With a view to fast tracking stalled large investment projects, a Project Monitoring Group (PMG) was to be set up in the Cabinet Secretariat and I was being drafted to head that Group. This was a decision taken after a discussion between the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh the Finance Minister, P Chidambram and the Cabinet Secretary, Ajit Seth. Hence, there was no choice. Had I been given a choice I would have loved to continue to serve the poorest of the poor for this additional year but I was now assigned the task of serving the richest of the rich.

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As I got out of the room, there was a buzz on my phone. One of my school friends who had risen to become the Chairman of a Public Sector Bank, called me. He informed me that the Finance Minister, P Chidambram had just announced in a meeting of bankers in Mumbai that a ‘Swarup Panel’ had been constituted to fast-track projects that had an investment of Rs. 1000crores or more. P Chidambram hardly knew me (or so I thought) and he was instrumental in getting me to head the Group for such a daunting task.

Also Read: Arun Jaitley – the master strategist


Aware about his reputation, I was a trifle apprehensive when I went to call on the Finance Minister after taking over as the head of the Project Monitoring Group. He was known to be very terse in his conduct. I wasn’t very sure about what was expected of me in the new assignment. I was ushered in as soon as I arrived at his office in North Block. As I entered the room, he got up and walked up to and extended his hand. I couldn’t believe what was happening here. He then took me to a nearby-sofa where we chatted for a while as he outlined my task. He was candid enough to confess that he didn’t know me but he had heard about the good work that I had done in various assignments. Just before I departed, he assured me of all possible help to carry out my tasks. I hardly met him thereafter but he kept track of what I was doing.

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I was waiting for the return flight from Guwahati to Delhi and was engrossed in the book that I was reading on my Kindle. I suddenly felt a flurry of activity as P Chidambram walked into the waiting room. He was no more a Minister as the United Progressive Alliance had lost the elections and National Democratic Alliance had come to power. He immediately recognized me even though we had met on a very few occasions. He was all praise for the work I had done as head of the Project Monitoring Group. Much later, in his columns, he went on to appreciate the good work that was done by the Project Monitoring Group in facilitating clearance of a large number of projects that entailed investment of Lakhs of Crores.

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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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