In a curious turn of events on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked Rajeev Topno, a 1996 batch Indian Administrative Service officer from the Gujarat cadre and a part of the Prime Minister's Office under former PM Manmohan Singh, as private secretary.
In another announcement, last week's appointment of Rajiv Nayan Choubey, a 1981 batch Indian Administrative Service officer from the Tamil Nadu cadre, to the post of additional secretary in the PMO was cancelled.
The order of the department of personnel and training, appointing the 40-year-old Topno, currently a director in the PMO, as private secretary to Modi didn't specify the duration for which he would hold the post. Typically, government appointment orders mention the duration for which a person holds a post. Topno's central deputation is till June 28, and this has raised questions on whether or not it's a stop-gap arrangement.
That's not the only reason why Topno's appointment is seen as a surprise. In 2011, his name figured in a case relating to alleged involvement in an earthquake debris removal scam. The matter pertained to the Kutch earthquake of 2001, when Topno was Kutch District Development Officer. Before he joined the PMO in 2009, Topno was chief executive of Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority.
During the United Progressive Alliance regime, he was the only Gujarat-cadre officer in the PMO.
A bureaucrat said usually, prime ministers had two private secretaries, adding this was a powerful job, as a private secretary was in charge of the PM's appointment diary.
Considered a bright officer, Topno was known to Modi when the latter was chief minister of Gujarat. As CM, Modi headed GSDMA. At the time of the Kutch earthquake, P K Mishra, recently appointed additional principal secretary to the PM, was chief executive of GSDMA.
On Wednesday, the government, in a note, said the Cabinet's appointments committee had approved cancellation of the order appointing Rajiv Nayan Choubey as additional secretary in the PMO. Currently, Choubey is additional secretary in the Ministry of Power and is due to become secretary in a few months. It is believed the PMO, having realised the issue of hierarchy, cancelled the appointment.
It is learnt since Modi took charge as PM, Bharat Lal, the Gujarat resident commissioner in Delhi and a close aide of Modi, has been performing the dual roles of managing the PM's office and heading Gujarat Bhavan.
Under Modi, the PMO had started on a controversial note when former Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chairman Nripendra Misra was appointed principal secretary to the PM. To enable Misra to take charge, an ordinance had to be brought in to change the appointment rules in the Trai Act.
Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi