Chaste Urdu and Hindi coalesce with an American twang in the waiting room outside 302-C, Shastri Bhawan, as visitors prepare their pitch for a minister fast becoming a go-to man for the Manmohan Singh government. When the door to the office opens, they are invariably greeted and ushered in by a smiling Kapil Sibal.
From the narrow by-lanes of Chandni Chowk to the information superhighway as telecom minister may appear to be a challenging road, but the dapper minister is equally comfortable in a starched white kurta pajama as he is donning formal western outfits.
The man who has confidence in Sibal’s ability to balance multiple roles is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who, in the past 10 days has assigned his human resource development minister the additional charge of science and technology, earth sciences and now telecom.
The timing though is what has set tongues wagging in political circles. The additional assignments have come amid crises for the government and the telecom portfolio is in the eye of a storm over the 2-G spectrum allocation scam that forced the PM to sack former telecom minister, A Raja.
Why has the PM and the Congress leadership picked the Harvard-educated Sibal as its face-of-change at Sanchar Bhawan? Sibal is a successful lawyer who can understand and tackle the intricacies of the Supreme Court case on the scam. The two-time Chandni Chowk MP has an unblemished public record and is known for his transparency. His debating skills will prove handy in countering Opposition arguments on the telecom scam especially in Parliament.
But these reasons may not tell the entire story, observers point out. Since returning to power in 2009, the PM has twice publicly lavished praise on Sibal for his work at reforming education. No other Cabinet minister can claim such praise, suggesting that Sibal enjoys the PM’s special trust.
Like the PM, Sibal too is not a “career politician” and made a “lateral entry” into mainstream politics, an observer pointed out. “The PM appears to like successful professionals who join public life. Former Infosys chief Nandan Nilekani’s appointment at the head of the government’s unique ID project is a case in point.”
Sibal, too, has clearly linked his mission in education to what the PM did for the economy two decades back. “We need to do for education what Dr. Manmohan Singh did for the economy,” was his catchphrase when he took over as HRD minister in June 2009.
Over the past year, with almost missionary zeal, Sibal has transformed the government’s approach to the education sector. From the upholstery, tasteful paintings from his personal collection and the coffeemaker he quickly installed in his Shastri Bhawan office, to the reaction time expected of bureaucrats under him, efficiency has defined his approach.
Sibal’s “rush” to bring in reforms has, however, exposed him to criticism of inadequate consultations with stakeholders and with his own Congress party.
Critics — like Congress leader Keshava Rao, who dubbed him a “first class file pusher” — argue that Sibal needs to slow down.
Others argue that Sibal is “elitist” in his world-view. Some traditionalists question his “obsession” with foreign educational institutions — representatives of universities and governments from across the globe meet him with a frequency unseen before at Shastri Bhawan. Officers have at times questioned in private what they perceive as his “tendency to micromanage.”
But even his worst critics admire Sibal’s energy and enthusiasm — not just for work, but for life as well. Rushing between meetings, appointments and public events through weekdays, Sibal still often manages to steal time over weekends to travel to his hometown Chandigarh. He types poems on his mobile phone while travelling.
He is also a rare boss, who, despite being a hard taskmaster, has earned the respect of his officers. He lets even director-level officers disagree with him in front of others, they point out.
At home, he receives guests himself at the door, the smile ready. He refers to the household help as “beta” when he calls on the intercom to order drinks for guests. As in Shastri Bhawan, his office walls at home, too, are covered with large canvases.
Sibal is not known to lose his patience easily — the one recent occasion when he did in public was after an hour-long grilling by journalists almost immediately after he landed from a long and exhausting US visit.
When he does get angry, it generally isn’t for long, say those who know him. He isn’t vindictive, they say. He sulks — almost like a child, said an aide — for a bit, and then does what comes to him naturally. He smiles. Minister on the move