April 02, 2001
Issue


India Today, April 2, 2001

 

COVER
   

The Importance Of Being Brajesh
The Opposition and the Sangh Parivar launch an attack on the Prime Minister's Office by targeting the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Brajesh Mishra. The Vajpayee camp finds itself fighting a grim political battle to retain credibility even as the Establishment tries to discredit the Tehelka allegations. An analysis.


Supercrat In His Labyrinth
There are 240 secretaries to the Government, but N. K. Singh is always a cut above-in style, networking, and power. The economic policy wizard gets defensive.


The Ways And Means Of Ranjan
Ranjan Bhattacharya's role as nursemaid to Atal Bihari Vajpayee gives the fun-loving foster son-in-law
the image of one who dabbles in government decisions.

Congress' Coalition Flight Grounded
With sceptic constituents, Congress President Sonia Gandhi's
plan to form an alliance just before the assembly elections in five states, may backfire.

Desperately Seeking loopholes
The Bharatiya Janata Party and Samata Party find discrepancies
in the charges levelled against them by Tehelka. But it's just details.

 

 
NATION
   

Nursery Of Hate
The week-long violence in Kanpur has cooled down, but the spectre of the Students Islamic Movement of India still looms large. A look at the reach of India's in-house Taliban.

 

 
BUSINESS
   

Vroom Service
The four-stroke motorcycle overtakes middle-class India's greatest icon since the valve radio set, as sales of the doughty old scooter stagnate in spite of a spirited fightback.

 

 
INVESTIGATION
 

George Cross
The FIR against Sonia Gandhi's private secretary is a plain corruption issue says the CBI. But, an embarrassed Congress complains of vendetta.

 

 
BUSINESS
 

Nothing Official About It
The payment crisis is temporarily stemmed, but clandestine financing ticks like a time bomb.

 

 
OTHER STORIES
     
 



 
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COVER STORY: N. K. SINGH

N. K. SINGH
Supercrat In His Labyrinth

The economic policy wizard gets defensive

OTHER RELATED STORIES
PM'S Household: The Ways And Means Of Ranjan Bhattacharya

AICC Session: Congress' Coalition Fight Grounded
Brajesh Mishra: The Importance of Being Brajesh Mishra
Desperately Seeking Loopholes

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 in it.

 

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.


 

 
 
 
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When Kitsch Kitsch Hota Hai opened to an overflowing house at Delhi's India Habitat Centre last week, people didn't quite know what to expect.
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The 457-acre estate of the Roerichs near Bangalore is in a pathetic condition. But does anyone care, asks INDIA TODAY's Principal Correspondent Stephen David in Despatches.

 

 
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