One of the highest posts responsible for probity in public life has been swung by a fatalist with a clean record. And we now have a foreign secretary who has never served in Pakistan. HT profiles the new appointees.
The new Mr Clean It
His was perhaps the most watched government appointment at a time the Indian polity was being rocked by some of the biggest corruption scandals the country has known. The choice was made harder by the fact that the previous appointment to the post of chief vigilance commissioner, that of PJ Thomas, was struck down by the Supreme Court. Yet there was hardly any kerfuffle when Pradeep Kumar's appointment was finalised last week by the selection panel comprising the prime minister, the home minister and the leader of the Opposition.
Yet, had he not been appointed defence secretary two years ago, the 1972-batch Haryana cadre IAS officer would have retired as secretary-in-charge of defence production. "My belief in destiny is unshakable. All contenders for the CVC's post had impeccable track records. It's been a lucky conjunction of circumstances for me. I don't think I have any special attributes," says Kumar.
There was, of course, something other than destiny that swung the career of this 61-year-old. A clean record was needed to secure one of the country's highest posts responsible for probity in public life. And Kumar had that.
By July 31, when Kumar's tenure as defence secretary will end and he will shift to the CVC's office, he would have traversed a long career that began in Haryana's villages, as a young deputy commissioner. Today, Kumar values the welfare schemes he executed in those villages more than the billion-dollar deals he negotiated for the country's military.
"Every job comes with its own challenges. But the work I did in rural Haryana gave me a chance to touch lives - be it providing access to drinking water, revamping healthcare or promoting literacy. I recall those years with a sense of fulfilment," says the officer who pipped three other top bureaucrats to get the CVC's job.
Former defence secretary Vijay Singh, now a member of the Union Public Service Commission, says Kumar's was a natural choice. "He has the capacity to stand up to pressure. His rectitude is well known. He scrupulously avoids personal publicity," says Singh, who was Kumar's boss as road transport and highways secretary in 2006. Singh and Kumar were also colleagues in the defence ministry during 2007-09.
Pallam Raju, minister of state for defence, describes Kumar as "a very thorough man" who is "quick to grasp things".
As chairman of the National Highways Authority of India in 2006, Kumar had a run-in with then road transport and highways minister TR Baalu over the way the organisation should be run. Kumar was removed from the job in nine months.
"I have always worked without fear or favour. I may have earned some goodwill and also rubbed some people the wrong way. It doesn't matter. I have learnt to take the rough with the smooth," says Kumar.
Will that streak help in his next appointment? "Corruption has to be dealt with ruthlessly... I have never strived to be the most popular guy around," says Kumar, an alumnus of IIT Delhi and University of Wales.
Behind the no-frills man is a private person who digs crime thrillers and shuns idol worship. He is also a sucker for Hollywood blockbusters. He enjoyed the futuristic Inception and Avatar. The last Bollywood film he watched was Band Baaja Baraat.
Books are his other stress-buster. Kumar has just finished Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy and started on Stephen Cohen's Arming Without Aiming and Ramachandra Guha's Makers of Modern India.
Kumar says his parents were the most defining influence in his life. "Whatever I am today is because of the values my parents gave me." He will need them now more than ever.
He is quite the diplomat
In a country where neighbours, China and Pakistan, and the United States make most of the foreign policy headlines, getting the Indian prime minister to visit a European country twice in ten months is no small feat. Manmohan Singh visited France in September 2008 and in July 2009 as the guest of honour at the French national day.
Substantive agendas apart, such visits are also logistical challenges for the host mission. Cliff-hanger moments were aplenty in Ranjan Mathai's tenure as India's envoy to France, which included sealing a liberal civilian nuclear deal. But Mathai, 59, is "suave and unflappable" as a former colleague describes him, and is known for not losing his cool easily.
This seasoned yet mild-mannered diplomat of the 1974 batch of Indian Foreign Service has always kept a low profile, preferring the image of man-behind-the-scenes. "Except when he makes a public speech. Then he's a forceful speaker," adds a former colleague.
Mathai is a frugal eater, but rarely misses out on his mid-morning snack of sliced apples. He enjoys long walks - considering that the residence of the Indian ambassador to France is located close to the Eiffel tower - and also "dabbles in golf," informs another diplomat.
Like his two predecessors, Nirupama Rao and Shiv Shankar Menon, his roots are in Kerala, making Mathai the seventh foreign secretary from the state. His father, Thomas Mathai, hailed from Mavelikara, a small town in central Kerala, also the birthplace of PC Alexander - principal secretary to late PM Indira Gandhi. Mathai's mother, Sarah, comes from Puthupalli in Kottayam.
But Pune is where Mathai attended his school and college as his father was teaching at the National Defence College. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Mathai is not an expert on China or Pakistan, though he was the joint secretary of the division that dealt with Bangadesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar and Maldives (BSM) and did one stint in Sri Lanka. He played a key role in clinching the crucial Ganges water-sharing treaty with Bangladesh in 1996. Does he think it's a handicap? "I had served as joint secretary BSM, and also in Sri Lanka. There could be many perceptions," he told HT on the phone. Many senior diplomats say that there is no rule that a foreign secretary should have served in Pakistan or China. Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal did key ambassadorial postings in Egypt and France. Mathai had served in Qatar and Israel as the country's envoy and was the deputy high commissioner in United Kingdom as well. "We are getting a foreign secretary who is an expert on Middle East. That's a positive sign," says another serving diplomat.
This time, too, the post of the foreign secretary was a keenly contested one. As seniority and merit prevailed, Ranjan Mathai made it into the post. Did it come as a surprise? "I won't comment on that. Rather I shouldn't. I should do the job given to me," says the true diplomat. At best "complex and challenging" is how Mathai chooses to describe his new job.
Mathai will soon be shifting to New Delhi from Paris. Some officials who know him say he travels light with books being a major part of his luggage. "They were mostly titles on international diplomacy," recalls a senior diplomat who served with Mathai. "We wish him luck. We will miss a compassionate officer, someone who took extra care of the issues of the casual staff at the mission," says an official at the Indian embassy in Paris.