A moderate earthquake in Vanuatu is no reason for Gopal Krishna Pillai to lose sleep. But he makes it a point to read every SMS, even ones that land at 10.34 pm, as this one did. He’s never away from his phone since its buzz may require his urgent attention, like it did on May 22. On that day, at 6.35 am, while Pillai was on a morning walk, the Central Industrial Security Force chief called to say a plane went off the cliff at the Mangalore airport three minutes earlier.
Pillai, the 31st Home Secretary of India, believes in keeping communication lines open 24x7. His father and grandfather were civil servants, but bureaucratic stiffness and aloofness are not for him. Ever smiling — some say ever talking — Pillai has been in news, and been making news.
The only thing the Indian and Pakistan foreign ministers agreed after their disastrous talks recently was that Pillai’s statement on ISI’s active role in the Mumbai terror attacks contributed to the failure of the talks.
The home secretary’s statement appeared on the day external affairs minister SM Krishna started his talks with Pakistani counterpart. “I was talking for a column that would appear three days after the Indo-Pak talks. And what I said on ISI has been an established fact and had been said earlier also,” Pillai said, after he got a rap on the knuckles from the Prime Minister. Pillai has had to retract his statement earlier, when he suggested that Hyderabad might be the capital of Telangana, an issue that is not resolved even today.
The home ministry has a designated spokesperson now, but Pillai doesn’t think it is a gag order on him. “Talking is essential,” he said a day after the spokesperson was appointed. Like, it is for Indo-Pak relations, one could add. “If proper communication does not take place, then half-truths and imagined stories will spread,” Pillai said.
Since Pillai talks, he gets others talking too. Recently he got a personal letter from a northeastern tribal council that a particular militant group conscripted few dozens of their youth. Pillai persuaded the group to let them free. As joint secretary in the home ministry 10 years ago, Pillai could travel to the highly volatile regions of the northeast.
Man with a plan
Pillai, 60, is “super-efficient and anti-red tape”, said an officer of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) who regularly interacts with him — traits that endears him to his boss, home minister P. Chidambaram. He wakes up according to the amount of work he takes home — at 3.30 am, if there are four boxes of files, which is mostly the case. “I don’t want to see files on my table when I enter office in the morning,” Pillai says.
Pillai is at his North Block office at 8.50 am every day, minutes before Chidambaram arrives. On his table, there could be one or at the most two, ‘To Do’ stickers carried over from the previous day.
On the wall is an original sketch of the Raisina Hills by Edwin Lutyens who designed the power centre of India, exactly where Pillai sits. There are two paintings on tile, signed by Sudha, who happens to be member secretary, planning commission and his wife. They met at the IAS training academy in 1972. “We took just three days off to get married,” says Pillai.
Both enjoy occasional getaways to hillstations and vacation at Kerala and while Pillai used to love playing bridge, je hardly has the time now. Pillai regrets that his reading is restricted to files and a book that is also related to work — Out of This Earth — on aluminum mining and its social consequences, particularly tribal alienation.
Recently, he received a death threat for the government operations against Maoists. Intelligence suggested the threat is real and Pillai’s security has been upgraded to Z-Plus. As commerce secretary until early last year, he used to shop for vegetables at Sarojini Nagar. Now, it’s a not good idea, especially when there is a cache of commandoes around, he says.
There are many such things that Pillai wants to do but cant because of the strings attached with his job as the home secretary — one of the reasons why he is waiting to retire in July 2011. Pillai doesn’t want any new assignments, instead he wants to teach. Eighteen hours of work a day is telling. Though member secretary, planning commission, is very happy the way he works, his wife, Sudha, is not.
That’s because he’s rarely at home.