Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Meet the Man Who Advises Manmohan, India's PM

Advisers came in various types. Duryodhana had Shakuni. Chandragupta had Chanakya. Akbar had Birbal. Nehru had VK Krishna Menon. So, who is TKA Nair to Dr. Manmohan Singh? Seasonal Magazine interviewed TKA Nair, Advisor to Prime Minister of India, to find out.

Interview and Feature by Jaison D and John Antony:

Bhagavad Gita’s Chapter 5 on Karma Yoga has this interesting verse: “One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme God, is not affected by sinful action, as the lotus leaf is untouched by water.” For the Adviser to Prime Minister of India, this is one principle that has always been of inspiration. This he didn’t tell us, of course, but then that is how TKA Nair tells everything - without telling.

When we set out to interview him, we were not intimidated by his personality - which is a perfect blend of dignity and modesty - but intimidated by the fact that TKA is infamous for not giving media interviews. When we pressed him for an interview on a specific day, he politely declined. But that request was over phone. So, how about just a meeting, we enquired. 

That was fine with him. TKA Nair loves meeting people. Because he is astute enough to assess people quickly in one-to-one meetings. The Adviser to Dr. Manmohan Singh obviously wants to know what he is getting into, always. 

Call it his superhydrophobicity or lotus effect. The leaves of the lotus flower doesn’t just possess very high water repellence, but dirt particles are picked up by water droplets due to a complex micro and nano-scopic architecture of the surface, which minimizes adhesion. It is not without anything that Nair has not just survived but thrived in the dog-eat-dog world of Indian bureaucracy and politics, with not even a blemish on his suit. 

For one who entered Prime Minister’s Office as a Secretary during the days of IK Gujral, TKA thrived to be a part of AB Vajpayee’s PMO, and scaled heights during Dr. Singh’s tenure, first as Principal Secretary and then as Adviser to PM with the rank of Minister of State. 

TKA has been noted by India’s topmost political leaders including Dr. Singh for his numerous skills, which include building difficult consensus be it with key opposition leaders or captains of India Inc. Nair has been an expert in developmental economics, and despite his soft-spoken nature, has made lasting changes to the PMO, almost all of them ending up with increasing the monitoring capacity or power of this topmost office. 

For instance, it was on Nair’s suggestion that Dr. Singh agreed that PMO should regularly and directly monitor the execution of massive schemes like NREGA, NRHM, & Bharat Nirman. 

Still, Nair ruffles few feathers, as he has that rare gift to wield power without showing off power. 

Another of TKA’s impressive skills that appeals to political bosses is his comprehensive knowledge about the aptitude and capabilities of hundreds of senior IAS officers. That makes him not only a team builder but a king maker. 

According to New Delhi grapevine, the list of senior IAS officers suggested by TKA for top posts, and agreed upon by Dr. Singh, is endless. It includes former CAG, Vinod Rai; former Cabinet Secretary, KM Chandrashekhar; and current National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon. 

But ask TKA about such things, and there would end even that remote chance for a media interview. We found it for ourselves during our first meeting with Nair. He was quite upfront about the fact that he wouldn’t be able to speak about any official or controversial matter. “I am still a government servant, and it is just not right speaking about such issues,” he says. 

But in the same breath, he adds, “There are so many other constructive issues to speak about.” So, we shared the detailed questionnaire we had prepared, and we could see his face alternate between smiles and frowns as he scanned the variety of questions we had prepared. 

Finally, he says, “See, if you ask me about Dr. Singh, I can’t say anything; if you ask me about Vinod (Rai) I won’t say anything. But, of course, there are other issues to converse here.” Then he adds, “Please also don‘t project me as a great figure, which I am not. I am just a small cog in the administrative machinery.” 

His modesty not withstanding, this cog is a pretty important cog in the machinery that governs India today. 

The latest instance has been government’s recent submissions to PAC titled, “VIP References for Coal Block Allocations”, which reveals that several prominent politicians including Central Ministers and Chief Ministers of all parties - including Narendra Modi - lobbied hard with PMO for getting coal blocks allotted in favour of certain companies. The written requests for all these have been received and recorded by none other than TKA Nair. 

But ask him about this, and we receive the reply that that question is also out of bounds. “See, I am privy to a lot of such information, but I can’t speak about it with media. It can only be shared according to accepted norms and rules,” he feels. 

When Dr. Manmohan Singh was invincible - returning to power in 2009 even after completing a full 5-year term thereby becoming the only PM other than Nehru to achieve that feat - TKA Nair’s job was obviously easier. 

But today, after reeling from the impact of a global economic crisis, when Dr. Singh has been facing flak for practically everything, TKA knows that he should be extra vigilant. 

Only time will judge Dr. Singh’s contributions to India and its economy. Meanwhile, Thottuvelil Krishna Ayappan Nair pulls on, believing in Karma Yoga, like the lotus leaf glorified in the Gita.

Seasonal Magazine in conversation with TKA Nair,  Adviser to Prime Minister:

You have been a part of PMO since the time of IK Gujral, serving in the offices of AB Vajpayee, and then with Dr. Manmohan Singh. Do you especially like this role of aiding the Chief Executive of the country, than any other role that you could have landed?

Being part of PMO has indeed been a great privilege. I think I was fortunate to be where I am today. Though I have been part of PMO when IK Gujral and AB Vajpayee were Primer Ministers, my role then was as Secretary. It was under Dr. Manmohan Singh that I became the Principal Secretary and later Adviser. On whether I like this role than any other roles, obviously yes. But it was not a result of any planning. It just so happened.

Being a Punjab cadre IAS officer who spent considerable professional time in Kerala too, you would have sufficient exposure to the strength and weaknesses of both states. What lessons should both states learn from each other?

That is a very interesting question. Both states are very developed in their own way, and they are far ahead of many Indian states in this regard. In fact, the rest of India has much to learn from both these states. Still, I would say that Punjab has a lot to emulate from the Kerala model, which leads the nation in important sectors like healthcare and education. By leading in those two sectors is how Kerala manages to record the highest Human Development Index in this country. If the whole country achieves Kerala’s HDI, that will be a major developmental milestone.

How will you assess the social commitment of our topmost political leaders of all parties - of the rank of PM, Cabinet Ministers, Chief Ministers etc. Is it worse than public and critics assess, or is it better than such assessments? Do they really have to work hard at these posts?

It is a very difficult question to answer. I am not even sure whether it is proper that I answer that.

But you can, as the question is not about leaders from any specific party or coalition or government…

Well, I would emphatically say that the top political leaders are much more socially committed than the assessment by critics, media, or public. I am not someone who harbours a very negative view on all politicians or politics as a whole. They indeed have to work hard.

What would be the most difficult thing that they are called upon to do on a routine basis?

I would mention something that readily comes to my mind. Managing conflicting interests in each issue is a major challenge. Almost every issue that reaches a PM, Ministers, or CMs involve these kind of conflicts. An elected administrator has to look after the interests of all sections of affected people in each issue. Managing such conflicts and developing an amicable consensus is a major challenge that they face every day.

So, you emphatically feel that our top politicians work hard on social commitment?

Yes. Even if you take a completely cynical view on it, we shouldn’t forget that all of them want to be re-elected by the people. So, no party or politician can afford to forget social commitment. If they does, it is nothing but political suicide.

Coming to the role of bureaucracy, and you being a top-most bureaucrat for many years now, how would you assess its effectiveness in this country?

First of all, I don’t believe in such elevated statures. In fact, anyone who has worked in government for some years, would agree with me in this regard, at least in private. We all are just small cogs in this huge machinery called government. When all major initiatives are fine-tuned and executed by thousands of officers at various levels, how can a single officer be credited with success? Of course, there might be some officers who believe in projecting such larger-than-life persona, or the media may be creating such image-building, but count me out of it.

You mean a single officer can’t make any drastic change?

He can, but what really works in the background is that such change is the net result of the planning and execution by hundreds or thousands of officers. If somebody wants to take credit for that, will he or she take the blame too when something goes wrong? The reality is that, forget officers, not even ministers or the prime minister himself has got such invincible or superlative powers to make changes on his own. Again, the blame too shouldn’t be the leader’s alone. It is not only a case with India, but with any truly democratic nation.

Earlier on, you mentioned the Kerala model. Have you analyzed how the state got such an edge and what could the rest of India do to emulate this?

Yes, I have often been surprised with Kerala’s development on these fronts, especially as I travel around a lot across India which enables me to compare. The most critical advantage that Kerala enjoyed was good leadership during its earlier decades. When I say this, I am not mentioning any specific party or politician or anything like that. This leadership quality even predates the official Kerala formation, to the time of the princely states. Not only were the early leaders very benevolent, but they also had the foresight to bring up the living standards of all sections of the society through a focus on education and healthcare. Those two are great equalizers, and that is how Kerala got a head-start in social development. Everything else followed. Any state would stand to benefit from following this twin focus.

Any other significant factors that you have analyzed?

Yes, the contributions of Christian Missionaries in the state has been very valuable. They focused largely on education, and also on healthcare, and went about establishing pioneering institutions across the state, that has thrived even to this day. It was not driven by profit motive, but by social commitment. I can personally vouch for this, as I am a product of such an institution near by my home. If St. Thomas College, Kozhencherry, was not there, I wouldn’t have had a college education.

Earlier, you mentioned how Punjab could benefit from following this model. What is there for Keralites to learn from Punjab?

I would say it is sheer hard work. Punjabis are extremely hardworking people. If Punjab has become the Granary of India or the bread-basket of India, it is not only due to the soil’s exceptional fertility; it is more due to Punjabis’ exceptional willingness to do hard work. That culture has spilled over to other sectors like steel rolling mills, infrastructure, small scale industries etc, where Punjab leads.

So, you mean to say Keralites are very lazy, comparably?

No, not like that. What I meant was that Kerala can be much more productive. Keralites are very hardworking, especially when outside Kerala. One only has to visit Gulf countries to realize this. In fact, this extreme hardwork of Non Resident Keralites has been an equally important reason for Kerala’s high HDI, especially in recent decades. All said and done, Kerala has remained a money order economy. But the real lesson is that if such hard work has been adopted inside Kerala too, this state would have been number one in all respects.

Kerala’s developmental challenges are not unique to the state. How would you advise states like Kerala?

Yes, Kerala’s scarcity of natural resources like mineral ores, oil, or even land, is a major challenge. Even the processing of the only available natural resource, black sand, involves many serious hurdles. Secondly, labour is quite costly over here, with wages being multi-times that of some other states, but which is a good thing that contributes to the higher HDI here. But such issues are really only a challenge for large-scale industrialization. What I have always maintained is that, in Kerala, development is indeed possible by pursuing service sectors like education, tourism, healthcare, knowledge industries etc, where the real strength is human resources. It is a well-known phenomenon that Middle East countries absorbed more Keralites than any other Indians because of the higher educational achievements of this people.

How should Kerala or other such states go about doing this development?

Well, let us speak about education alone. There was a time when Maharaja’s College, Kochi; University College, Thiruvananthapuram; or CMS College, Kottayam were ranked among the best colleges in the country. A time when educated Malayalis were known to deliver the best written and spoken English. But today discerning Malayali parents would rather send their children to reputed colleges in Delhi or Mumbai to get the best education. What went wrong? Though we were pioneers, we lagged behind in creating Centres of Excellence. Today, if you take any higher education stream, including science, humanities, engineering, medicine, or law, there is no Centre of Excellence from Kerala. It is not a matter of faculty remuneration, which is at par with the best in this country, and teacher compensation has grown multi-fold along the years. What is lacking is the vision and will to create Centres of Excellence. Motivating teachers should be a big part of this exercise. When I joined St. Thomas College, Kozhencherry, it was quite a young college; but what teachers lacked in experience they made up in their passion.

You recently visited Attapady on behalf of PMO and submitted a 12-Point Implementation Plan. Can you elaborate on the ground situation there?

I did a two-day visit to Attappady in mid-July to study the situation first hand. The situation there is really very heart-rending. As you know, as many as 54 children have reportedly died in the Attappady hills, allegedly due to malnutrition, in the past 11 months. I met with lots of tribal people, especially women, who complained about various issues contributing to the current crisis. One thing that is striking about Attappady is that the infrastructure there is not bad at all. In fact, it has significantly improved from, say, 10 or 20 years back when I visited, thanks to projects like Attappady Hills Area Development Society (AHADS), which was backed by a Japanese government loan to the tune of Rs. 177 crore. Though the ecological situation has improved, the living standards haven't. Evidently, there are gaps in infrastructure, execution, and monitoring. So, I have written a 12-Point letter to the Chief Secretary outlining the suggestions. It includes tracking of around 900 pregnant women and all babies under 12 months in the three villages of Agali, Sholayur, & Pudur. Joint teams of medical professionals and Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) staff should visit each Ooru (tribal hamlet) once a week. The report also recommended micro-plans for procuring nutrient food requirements at each anganwadi centre (play school or day care centre), taking into account local sensibilities and local availability of edible items. Strict implementation of the midday meal programme should also be ensured at the anganawadis.

Land alienation and allegations regarding consumption of illicitly brewed liquor have also been mentioned in the report. Can you clarify?

The adivasis I met there, especially men, were unequivocal in their stand that they don’t want to be treated like beggars. What they want for the long-term is not food, but means to cultivate their own food. For this, they want to get back their alienated land, and I have addressed this issue comprehensively in my report, so that there is marked improvement in this regard within six months. Regarding illicit brewing and consumption, I am not quoting any government or media reports, but the tribal women themselves complained to me. Whereas long back they prepared semi-alcoholic medicinal brews with some herbs and roots, now it is the worst liquor imaginable with ingredients like crushed batteries. So measures to curb illicit brewing and consumption have also been detailed in the report.   
You are a history buff by education, and even by way of your initial teaching jobs. How has a history background helped you professionally? How relevant is a background in history for various occupations like IAS, Business, Law, Politics etc?

I wouldn’t say it was of much relevance. Forget history, no subject is exceptionally relevant to a long IAS career like what I had completed. I would say that it is relevant only as a backgrounder and of course for passing the IAS entrance. This career is all about learning on the job. If you are entrusted with a revenue job in Punjab, you have to prepare yourself for that by identifying and studying relevant real-world material. No academic course is going to prepare you for that. The learning never stops. When I visited Attapady, and interacted with the tribals there, it was the next round of learning.

You have a long association with KSIDC, and is still its Chairman. How far are you satisfied with the role KSIDC has played over the years? Do you think that much more could be done by a state development financier? Are there better models to emulate?

Institutions like KSIDC have played a pivotal role from many years back, in initiating industrialization in various states. What is especially noteworthy is that many of them including KSIDC was instrumental in pioneering public-private partnerships in the industrial sector, much before the PPP model was introduced in the infra sector. Rather than following a better model to emulate, KSIDC has been re-inventing itself by participating in infrastructure development, investments, promotion, venture funds etc.

As a veteran IAS officer who has scaled the apex of that career, what would be your advice for the youth, and especially for aspiring IAS candidates?

Firstly, IAS is not the ultimate career. The situation today is not the same as when I joined several decades back. Today, you can be a noteworthy part of nation-building whichever profession you are in. For instance, one can just be a journalist, or be a really good socially contributing journalist, who can contribute even more than an IAS officer. Or one can be a really good engineer. Or a really good entrepreneur employing thousands of people.

Do you think IAS officers need to be protected more in light of the Durga Shakti Nagpal episode?

The protective mechanisms are already there. But the more pertinent issue is the lack of motivation. Everything boils down to human resources. And humans can’t ever be conquered except through motivation. If a boss calls a subordinate “scum” all day, what he will get in return is work worthy of a scum. I was associated with many Indo-Japanese JVs, and it was stunning how the Japanese bosses treated their subordinates. If a Japanese worker had to be deputed to India, the company would first arrange an all-expenses paid survey trip to India for him to visit the actual factory and residential facilities, and only if he is satisfied, he is expected to take up the job. That is how the world operates, and Indian bosses have much to learn from it. On a personal front, I was very fortunate to have some of the most considerate of bosses, and I hope I too have extended the same to my colleagues.

You are known to be a very religious person, with a special adoration towards Sabarimala. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen says that he can belong to a majority community and still feel the insecurity of all minority communities. In this backdrop, how do you assess the current communalism versus secularism debate. How important is Nehruvian secularism as practiced in this country for its bright future?

How many of us have selected our own religion? Not even 1% of us, right? I became a Hindu because my parents were Hindus, and they too didn’t have any choice for the same reason. Because I was born a Hindu, I go to temples, but I am equally at home at any other places of worship. So, pursuing communalism in itself is absurd. How can any right-meaning person segregate himself into some religion that he was born into, something for which he had no choice? And when communalism begets hatred and eventual violence, it becomes quite dangerous. That is why secularism is absolutely essential for this nation’s continued well-being and prosperity. Amartya Sen is very right in this regard.

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