From trusted bureaucrat, to Wharton, MNC executive to businessman, and now politician, the man in charge of two weighty ministries is a unique all-rounder with specialist knowledge, reports Subhomoy Bhattacharjee.
In March this year, Parliament passed The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2021. It didn’t attract much notice, though it should have. It allowed for the first-time captive mine owners the option to sell up to 50 per cent of the production of all minerals in the open market.
What caught the attention of the senior members of government was the speech by a young Rajya Sabha member who in 30 minutes demolished all opposition to the bill, using no verbosity but a mass of facts. He began his speech with the disclaimer that he had business links with the sector. It drew attention and a routine debate came to life.
Ashwini Vaishnaw made it clear to his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, if any evidence was needed, why he would be an asset for them.
The first-time MP from Odisha had already drawn attention for not just being elected unopposed, but by a joint nomination from both BJP and Biju Janata Dal in 2019. Where every one of these seats is contested keenly, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had acceded to the surprise request made apparently from the top tiers of the BJP. A source close to Patnaik said the chief minister argued Vaishnaw deserved the unusual faith. He was a 1994-batch IAS officer from the Odisha cadre.
He has lived up to the billing, so far. In every meeting with the MP who has now become minister of railways, communications and information technology, his enthusiasm for debate backed with data is most arresting.
On one evening at his MP's flat on Bishambar Das Marg, he used spreadsheets to argue that the soft yields on government papers was just the window needed to almost double the level of public sector investments in the economy. Investments must climb dramatically in the term of this government to create a job spiral and whatever it takes to push it is welcome. One could argue with his assumptions but not with the pains he had taken to study the subject in detail.
Now, responsibility for two weighty ministries will mean a change of lifestyle. His wife and two children will have to migrate to Delhi from Gurugram. The bachelor-like existence in the heart of Delhi will be over.
“It allows me to work till late at night,” he says with a big smile. Vaishnaw has been often drawn in by the Prime Minister’s Office to work on aspects of the infrastructure sector in Parliament, the minerals bill being the latest among them. It is not surprising though.
He was deputy secretary in the PMO when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister. He recalls with relish how Vajpayee went against bureaucratic scepticism to announce a target of building 20,000 km of the Golden Quadrilateral highway.
“We were very small fries but we could watch the intense ministerial battles from up close,” he recalls. He thinks some of the old reticence to build big could still be embedded in the bureaucracy.
The Jodhpur-born man should know. After being with Vajpayee even after the National Democratic Alliance government fell in 2004, he became deputy chairman of the Mormugao Port Trust. It was from there he went to Wharton to earn an MBA. But he soon resigned and joined GE Transportation as managing director. He has also worked with Siemens as vice-president-locomotives & head, urban infrastructure strategy. To that extent, Vaishnaw is already a railway man.
It bodes well as the government veers towards bringing in specialists in the administration from outside. The new railways minister is the first generation of officers who left government service, worked in the private sector and today is back as minister to direct policies.
His experience should be most invaluable when the railways is about to take crucial decisions for private operators to run more than 150 train sets.
He will also be the minister on whose watch India’s first bullet train should become operational.
Post-IAS, Vaishnaw, however, didn’t stick around long in the corporate sector. In 2012, he quit and set up Three Tee Auto Logistics Private Limited and Vee Gee Auto Components Private Limited, both automotive components manufacturing units in Gujarat. Why? It is a story for another time. Instead, he regales me with a story of how difficult it was to switch to a political role, sartorially.
“I kept coming to Parliament in a shirt and trousers, till the watch and ward staff accosted me asking if I was the private secretary to any MP,” he laughs. “I showed them my identity card but from the next day changed to kurta pyjama”.
He has been teased for carrying a Made in Odisha label even though he is from Rajasthan. He accepts that as a compliment.
At 50 years, he has done quite a bit of walking across various sectors. It is now time for him to settle down as a minister and get used to his new outfit.