COVER STORY: N. K. SINGH
N. K. SINGH
Supercrat In His Labyrinth
The economic policy wizard gets defensive
There are 240 secretaries
to the Government but he is always a cut above-in style, networking and
power. The subdued lighting and rich Persian silk carpets distinguish
his room on the first floor of the PMO at South Block from the staid top
chambers of the capital's bhavans. There is a classy casualness about
everything on him, be it the Hermes tie or the Patek Philippe watch. Nand
Kishore Singh, secretary to the prime minister till January and Officer
on Special Duty (OSD) at the PMO, is too powerful a man to be seen telling
before television cameras: "I am clean." A 1964 batch IAS officer
of the Bihar cadre, son of Sir T.P. Singh, ICS, and married into the Jodhpur
princely family, he is perched too high to stoop and defend himself before
the media. Yet, the great leveller of egos that the Tehelka aftershocks
became, last week "Nandu" goose-stepped in tow with his boss
Brajesh Mishra to appear before the media in a joint self-exoneration
bid. And that despite his name figuring nowhere in the Tehelka tapes.
A CUT ABOVE:
Singh is classy, casual and powerful
Singh is a survivor par
excellence and a consummate power player.
At the press conference, Singh was evidently
proxying for Mishra on economic issues, of which he (Singh) is in charge
at the PMO. Much of Singh's arguments were rebuttal of the charges hurled
at the Government by former secretary E.A.S. Sarma, which were lapped
up by the media. It is not true, as Singh said, that the Centre was planning
to accord a counter-guarantee to the Hirma power project in Orissa, promoted,
among others, by Reliance Industries Limited (RIL). Nor was there any
hanky-panky in awarding the national highway project contracts, and the
PMO was in no way involved in setting up a fertiliser project in Oman,
which was "initiated by the previous government".
However, it was while defending the PMO against
the charge of bending the telecom policy to the advantage of its "friends"
that Singh tied himself in knots. The allegation was that the PMO had
allowed the fixed telecom service providers limited mobility through wireless-in-local-loop
(WLL) technology, thus exposing the cellular service providers to unexpected
and unjust competition. Their loss on account of the old licence fees
was computed at Rs 7,500 crore. Singh argued that the PMO had no hand
|HIS MASTER'S CHOICE: Singh (left)
lobbied to stay on in the PMO
Contrary to his assertions
that the PMO had no hand in changing the telecom policy, the move
had been initiated by Singh.
The facts are somewhat different. The demand
for limited mobility of fixed phones was indeed turned down by the Telecom
Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in June 1999, when Justice (retd)
S.S. Sodhi was at the helm of the regulatory body. Subsequently, TRAI
members got the marching orders and a new body was set up under the chairmanship
of former State Bank of India chief M.S. Verma. While the brand-new TRAI
was toying with policy changes, Singh called, on October 11 last year,
a meeting of the Group of Secretaries on telecom. It was on the recommendation
of this group operating within the PMO that the recast TRAI gave the green
signal to WLL use. It took just four weeks for the decision taken in Singh's
room to be processed in the dot and reach TRAI for consultation. The main
beneficiaries of this decision include RIL, the largest player in the
emerging basic-service market, and Himachal Futuristic Communications
Limited (HFCL), which tied up with a host of foreign telecom companies
to provide basic services. The Government decision was decried by all
major cellular operators, though nobody had the courage to point a finger
at the PMO. On his part though, Singh asserts that he never directed the
dot to refer to TRAI the issue of Short Distance Charging Area (SDCA)
which has created an uproar against cellular operators.
A consummate power player, and known to be an
efficient officer, Singh loves flattery, particularly from corporate CZARs
who never tire of complimenting him as the "true architect"
of every budget. Singh accepts the toast with a Bonaparte-like chin-raising,
which, in turn, creates heartburn amongst his colleagues. If he has still
survived in power, it is because of his great capacity to outsmart even
powerful enemies. In 1998, when Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha was eager
to see him out of his ministry as revenue secretary, he triumphantly walked
across Vijay Chowk to enter the most powerful office of the land. Since
then he and Ahluwalia have become a permanent target of criticism for
the inner core of the Sangh Parivar, notably the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.
The duo was accused, among other things, of cosying up to MNCs. Ahluwalia
then got shunted out of the Finance Ministry to the nondescript Planning
Commission. But Singh was too high for the Sangh's reach.
He proved his power of survival as recently
as January, when Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee announced to his ministers
that Singh wouldn't be seen at the PMO after his retirement on January
31. A "Save Nandu" lobby immediately sprang into action. Commerce
Minister Murasoli Maran was sounded out by Mishra if he could recommend
Singh for ambassadorship to the WTO, but Maran's reply was a resounding
"no". External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh was then persuaded
to send him to Canada as the high commissioner. But Singh, reluctant to
leave India, sought the help of Disinvestment Minister Arun Shourie to
plead for him with L.K. Advani, the powerful home minister. Advani gave
his nod to Shourie for appointment of Singh to an innocuous post in India.
Much to his dismay, he saw Singh back in the PMO, in the same room as
before, and with the same power.
A survivor par excellence, Singh served as special
assistant (SA) to the late L.N. Mishra when he was in charge of the Ministry
of Foreign Trade (later renamed Commerce Ministry). The Tulmohan Ram scandal
broke in that period, but it didn't touch Singh. In the Emergency he was
SA to pro-Sanjay Gandhi commerce minister D.P. Chattopadhyay and hit it
off famously with Indira Gandhi's powerful SA R.K. Dhawan. However, in
the post-Emergency hunt for Dhawan's lieutenants, Singh remained unnamed.
He flitted with practised ease in the Finance Ministry under Manmohan
Singh, P. Chidambaram and even Sinha for a while. It is to be seen if
he can do an encore when he's the target of not only the Opposition but
also a sizeable section of the ruling BJP.