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This man could unravel politics in Tamil Nadu

By T E Narasimhan and Gireesh Babu
December 30, 2016 09:01 IST
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'Appointed, sponsored and nurtured' by Jayalalithaa, P Rama Mohana Rao is now seen as a man who holds the key to the secrets of ministers and bureaucrats.
T E Narasimhan and Gireesh Babu report.

P Rama Mohana Rao, former Tamil Nadu chief secretaryIn June 2016, just a fortnight after taking over as chief minister for the second consecutive term, J Jayalalithaa appointed P Rama Mohana Rao as the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu.

This had raised eyebrows of many, considering he had superseded several senior bureaucrats.

Besides, he had worked with Jayalalithaa's arch rival, M Karunanidhi.

Pattali Makkal Katchi founder S Ramadoss alleged that Jayalalithaa had ignored 22 officers of the 1981 batch of the Indian Administrative Service to appoint Rao, a 1985 batch officer.

Hailing from Andhra Pradesh, Rao, 59, who has post-graduate degrees in cost accountancy and economics, had been the personal secretary to Jayalalithaa from the day she came to power on May 16, 2011.

Five years later, after she won the election for the second consecutive term, he was appointed chief secretary in place of K Gnanadesikan.

Things took a turn for the worse when Jayalalithaa died on December 5.

On December 21, income tax officials raided Rao's Anna Nagar residence; in the next 26 hours, they searched 13 places including his office, son's house and office, relatives and friends' house.

Tax officials said they unearthed in the raids Rs 30 lakh (Rs 3 million) in new Rs 2,000 notes, 5 kg of gold and documents with details of undisclosed assets worth about Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million).

Rao, who is to retire in September 2017, was removed from service. On his part, Rao questioned if the tax sleuths would have the guts to enter the secretariat if Jayalalithaa had been alive.

A day after the government announced that Girija Vaidyanath would be the new chief secretary, Rao defiantly said he was still the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu.

Rao alleged that the search was conducted at his residence and office, while the warrant was in the name of his son, Vivek Pabbisetty.

A few days before searching Rao's residence, the I-T department had seized crores of rupees, including new Rs 2,000 notes, jewellery, and documents of assets worth crores of rupees from sand baron Sekar Reddy who also hails from Andhra Pradesh.

Reddy is believed to have been close to senior bureaucrats in Tamil Nadu and also Chief Minister O Panneerselvam.

The ongoing I-T raids at Rao's residence are said to be based on the alleged connection between Pabbisetty and Reddy.

Rao, along with Sheela Balakrishnan, adviser to the Tamil Nadu government, was reportedly calling the shots in the administration when Jayalaithaa was hospitalised for well over two months.

Rao also declared that he was responsible for maintaining law and order in her absence as well as during her funeral. He also claimed that he coordinated the disaster management during Cyclone Vardah.

He himself claimed that he had been 'appointed, sponsored and nurtured by Honorouble Madam.'

From 1994, when he was the district collector of Chengalpattu, she took Rao under her wings.

He was said to be one of the most powerful officers in Jayalalithaa's regime and even had control over cabinet ministers because of his closeness to the chief minister and her close friend, Sasikala.

Rao is known as a man of numbers and commands loyalty among the state's bureaucracy. These traits were the key to his growth. Rao had never been on central deputation, though he worked as the vice-chairman of the Gujarat Maritime Board between 2001 and 2003.

In his career of nearly 30 years, Rao has held positions in various departments including agri-production, housing and urban development, industries and backward classes welfare. He had also held additional charge of vigilance commissioner and commissioner for administrative reforms of Tamil Nadu.

A day after the search, Rao was hospitalised after he complained of chest pain. After two days when he was discharged, he called the media to his house (not even once as chief secretary he met the media) to take on the state, the centre and the IT department.

'What did I do? I may be a hurdle to many forces,' he said. 'My life is in danger.' He denied any business link with Reddy, adding that he has thousands of friends in Tamil Nadu and he may be known to him.

Again, the press conference and the way he took on the central government surprised many -- it was after all an unprecedented move.

He hinted that in the chief secretary's office there lie the secrets of many chief ministers, details of cases against ministers and bureaucrats.

'I am going to the people's court,' he said, reiterating that there was no security without Jayalalithaa, which made S Gurumurthy, chartered accountant and co-convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, to comment that Rao spoke like a Jaya fan and not a civil servant.

Amid all the mayhem, the Tamil Nadu government has not issued a statement whether the tax officials sought its permission to enter the secretariat.

Chief Minister Panneerselvam, who has been seen in a picture along with Reddy during a visit to Tirupati, has not come out with any explanation on this, though Rao said he was not aware whether the chief minister gave permission to the investigators.

Former CBI official K Ragothaman, who was the chief investigator in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, in a television programme said that if the investigation goes beyond Rao and leads to anybody such as the chief minister himself, the central government can dismiss the state government.

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T E Narasimhan and Gireesh Babu in Chennai
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