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Sudheendra Kulkarni: A lateral mover from left to right

Aditi Phadnis | July 21, 2003

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee set up his second Prime Minister's Office in 1998 (the first one doesn't count because the government lasted for 13 days) most people commented on one category that seemed over-represented -- former journalists. In addition to Kanchan Gupta, Ashok Tandon and H K Dua there was Sudheendra Kulkarni.

Since then, while Dua and Gupta have dropped out and Tandon concerns himself mostly with the media, it is Sudheendra Kulkarni whose rise has been nothing short of meteoric.

Though there are no public statements from him, his appointment as advisor to the ministry of information and broadcasting has put him plumb in the centre of the current controversy over implementing the conditional access system. And given the influence he has come to wield in the PMO, it will be his view that bids fair to determine the fate of this issue.

As yet, it's hard to fathom his thinking. His sympathies are said to lie neither with the multi-system operators, nor cable operators nor broadcasters. "I am the government. If you don't do what you promise to do, we have ways of making you do it," he is reported to have told a representative of Murdoch.

Kulkarni's life seems to have had three beginnings. It is unusual enough for a BTech from Indina Institute of Technology, Bombay in 1980 to become a journalist. But more unusually, he was associated with two publications owned by Rusi Karanjia -- the Daily and Blitz  -- that were radical chic in their outlook.

Kulkarni's colleagues from those days remember him as courteous and soft-spoken who had read Marx and Lenin well enough to internalise their lessons. When the star writer and USP of Blitz, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, died, his column called The Last Page was given over to Kulkarni. His writings of the time are full of emotion and passion.

In the early 1990s, L K Advani came to Mumbai. At a press conference he said he had no problems with intellectual disagreement. It was misrepresentation of his views that upset him. "I have for instance, read Sudheendraji's article today. It is not favourable to us, but I liked what he wrote. It was provocative," Advani said. For Kulkarni, this was a second beginning.

The third beginning proved to be a false start. For someone so committed to socialism, it was hard to join a corporate house. But going against the grain, he did, joining the Reliance-owned Observer of Business and Politics as an executive.

Suddenly Kulkarni, better known for his signature un-ironed clothes and wild hair, went in for an image change. At some point, he also worked for the Hindujas. It was not a phase that lasted long.

At the time the CPI (M)'s bullock cart was going nowhere. But Advani's rath was going all over the place. This was the life he had craved. He organised all Advani's campaigns in Maharashtra stayed with the rath, sometimes slept in it when he was too tired to go anywhere else.

When Advani woke up every morning, summaries of editorials, coverage, every printed word on the BJP was served to him with his tea. The BJP was, thus, able to fashion its public strategy even on the move.

Kukarni internalised the RSS's values and identified himself enough with the Sangh to write resolutions for meetings of the national executive.

Govindacharya's room in the BJP's Ashok Road office became his hang-out too.

It was, therefore, no surprise to anyone when he was made director (communications and research) in the PMO. Because Vajpayee was strict about not allowing bureaucrats to attend party meetings, Kulkarni found himself uniquely placed to represent the party's views in the PMO and take the PMO to the party.

Though he had been hired to write the prime minister's speeches, his involvement with people's causes grew. One speech, made three years ago at the Indian Labour Conference, stands out because it committed, in a fire and brimstone tone, the government to an irrevocable course of labour reform.

Many of his ideas have been co-opted officially by PMO. Linking the idea of India by roads through the Golden Quadrilateral was his idea that was fleshed out by others in PMO. The idea that crops should be insured to ensure a return to farmer even if they fail was sketched out by him.

Kulkarni has also been part of the government's task force on IT. He believes there can be resistance to power sector reforms, but there will never be resistance to IT because first-generation entrepreneurs have access to it to better their lives with talent and hard work.

He should know. Lateral entry into the Sangh doesn't usually take you very far. Kulkarni's rise, however, suggests that hard work can take you anywhere.

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