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The minister was very angry and rang me up. He asked me, ‘Who is the prime minister in the PMO? I have a photocopy of his approval with me. Who has cancelled the approval given by him?’ I quietly informed him that the PM had not given his approval as the conference was not for ministerial-level participation. The principal secretary was very firm that a minister should not attend a conference meant for officers. So much for the firmness of Mr Chandran that a proposal approved by the prime minister, albeit based on incomplete information, could not escape the rule book.
Mr Chandran had a vast knowledge of the energy sector in India and abroad. Before he became Secretary (Power), he was Adviser (Energy) in the Planning Commission of India. He had also been the President of the World Energy Conferences in India and abroad. I have seen his long notes in official files on energy policy issues particularly about Iran-India Gas Pipeline in the PMO.
Even though the Iran-India Gas Pipeline eventually did not come through, yet, the arguments given by him completely demolished the stand of MEA against the pipeline. One of the main arguments of MEA against the Gas Pipeline was the security of gas pipeline and gas supply due to possible disruptions in Pakistan by anti-India elements. His arguments were sound, practical and made business sense. An important point he made was that the gas brought by the Iran-India Gas Pipeline would provide energy less than 10 per cent of total energy requirements of the northern India.
As such, the disruptions of the gas pipeline now and then would hardly make any differences in India. Moreover, the gas use in both India and Pakistan would create vested economic interests for safety of the gas pipeline and be a strong deterrent against any disruption or sabotage.
Satish Chandran dictated comprehensive notes and kept records in files. It was an enlightening experience to read his notes. I remember an incident from way back in 1982 when we were at the Department of Power. The budget session of parliament was to begin in a few days and self-contained notes for the Minister (Energy) on important issues of the power sector had to be prepared for him for the budget debate. We were waiting for Mr Chandran so that we could prepare notes on different issues facing the energy sector. To our surprise, we got a terse message from his private secretary that we needn’t wait and could go home. All he wanted was three or four stenographers who could take dictations and type the notes. During the course of that evening, he dictated notes on all power sector issues ranging from generation, transmission and distribution of power. The next morning copies of the comprehensive notes given to the Minister (Energy) were on our desks too.
Another powerful bureaucrat in the PMO was S. S. Meenakshisundaram who was joint secretary to PM. He belonged to the Karnataka cadre and was considered a confidante of the prime minister. He was an upright rulebook bureaucrat considered as the second-most important man in the PMO. He used to get the PM’s approval on important files including appointments files. At that time all appointments up to the level of deputy secretary needed the approval of the Appointment Committee of Cabinet (ACC), which is headed by the PM. Any important matter which required the PM’s attention or approval would require Mr Meenakshisundaram’s attention too. He was a very pleasant and helpful person and easily accessible too. Since he had worked with the prime minister earlier, he knew his style of working. We could discuss any issue with him at any time as he was always supportive.
Mahendra Jain was the private secretary to PM Deve Gowda. He too belonged to the Karnataka cadre. He had earlier District Collector of Hasan district and was known to the PM. His main work was the organizing meeting and appointments of PM. He was a quiet and soft spoken person who was polite and always helpful. He was assisted by a team of junior officers which included Additional Private Secretary.
ACC AND A SPEEDIER DISPOSAL OF ACC PROPOSALS
In the PMO, C. Phunsog, my senior colleague handled the processing of all ACC proposals. Many proposals used to be sent to the PMO for the PM’s approval as he was chairman ACC. The PMO hardly made any contribution to many of these appointments of deputy secretaries, or directors and it took a lot of the PM’s time. One day, he was reported to have remarked, ‘What is this ACC, BCC? Please rationalize the system and reduce the number of files coming to me’. Immediately, a proposal was prepared by Phunsog and his juniors and with the approval of the PM, the rules governing proposals which were to be placed before ACC for approval were amended. After this, only appointments related to the joint secretary and above required the approval of the ACC, thus, reducing the workload in the PMO substantially.
Between 1994-96, when I was trying for deputation to the central government, I used to discuss with my colleagues and batch mates about central government postings as well as the vacancies in various ministries and departments. A point which invariably used to emerge was regarding the delay in processing ACC proposals at the PMO. I had thought that the PMO might be having some elaborate procedures to vet appointments before according ACC approvals. I wondered about the value addition the PMO was making in processing these proposals. I had also heard that in some ACC proposals, changes used to be made in at the PMO. The general impression was that it was better to know someone in the PMO to speed up the ACC approval. I did not know that the PMO followed a straight-forward procedure for processing proposals in almost all cases.
During PM Deve Gowda’s government, ACC proposals used to be cleared within hours of their receipt in PMO. This was possible because of the clarity on the part of the officers processing these and the prime minister’s clear-headed approach. I must say that credit for this goes to the PM for it was he who made the system of appointments to senior positions very fair and objective.
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