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The Rediff Special/Aditi Phadnis

June 15, 2004

If you look at the curriculum vitae of the minister of state in the prime minister's office – not his official curriculum vitae, but his recent personal and professional history – it becomes immediately clear why a man like Manmohan Singh should have chosen Prithviraj Chavan.

No MoS (PMO) has ever lasted his (or her) full term with the exception of Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi in P V Narasimha Rao's PMO.

Sheila Dikshit found herself jobless within a year of Rajiv Gandhi's tenure and Vasundhara Raje was given specific charges instead of an overall grandiose portfolio of junior minister in the PMO and then packed off to Jaipur after serving a short spell in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government.

The job is what you make of it, and experience suggests that most incumbents tend to make too much of it.

But Chavan runs no such risks. An egghead politician, if there is such a thing, Chavan is young, idealistic, and a professional who shares Singh's world view in respect of intellectual honesty and Calvinist ethics.

Although Chavan belongs to a political family – both his parents were MPs from Karad in Maharashtra and his father a minister in Jawaharlal Nehru's Cabinet – he studied at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, and having qualified as a design engineer, got a UNESCO fellowship to study in Germany.

From there, he went to the University of California in Berkeley in 1967-68 in the thick of the student revolt. Having grown up with politics at home, Chavan was enchanted by Joan Baez and long hair – but power politics was passé.

Having graduated, he joined Aerospace Industries and worked there for three years. Electronic design fascinated him and he returned to India to set up an R&D and design lab for information technology in 1974.

Chavan had his first brush with politics as a grown-up in 1983-84 when he met Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi had quit his job and joined politics. He wanted to develop a database for computing in Indian languages, so that land revenue records could be computerised. Chavan was developing a programme along precisely those lines.

The two clicked instantly and Chavan was given a ticket to contest from Karad in the 1984 election as a 'direct entrant'. He won the election despite warning Gandhi that he would be resented by the existing satraps.

Gandhi waved aside all his objections: "There must be thousands of engineers better than you, but they can't win an election," Gandhi told him. Karad fell in Sharad Pawar's sphere of influence in Maharashtra politics, so it was by no means a 'safe' constituency. But Chavan won that election and all the following ones, increasing his margin each time, except in 1999 – when the Congress split and he elected to stay with the Congress rather than go with Pawar.

In this, Chavan only did what his parents had done before him. Through the splits in the Congress in 1969 and 1978, his parents stayed with Indira Gandhi, believing the Congress had to be supported as a mainstream political alternative, not a regional outfit. Chavan agreed with this view.

It was widely expected that he would become a minister in Narasimha Rao's government. But he was identified with Pawar, an impression that couldn't have been further from the truth. But Chavan got on well with Manmohan Singh and tried to learn from him, recognising that he was in the company of a visionary.

There were many ministers in that Parliament, but few MPs who tried to defend Singh's reforms. Chavan understood Singh's grand plan and liaised closely with him to give political underpinnings to reform.

Chavan lost the 1999 election because of Pawar. He came to the Rajya Sabha in 2002. He would have contested the Lok Sabha election this time, but the Nationalist Congress Party bagged the seat.

Chavan was Congress spokesman and has had a long innings in Parliament. He is quiet, intense, and efficient. The bets are that he will be in the PMO as long as Manmohan Singh is in the PMO. How long that will be, no one knows.

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