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Pranab Mukherjee's all-powerful advisor Omita Paul

July 10, 2012 15:34 IST

Pranab Mukherjee is likely to be advised on crucial issues by Omita Paul once he moves into Rashtrapati Bhawan, writes Santosh Tiwari.

On June 26, before he resigned as the Union finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee accepted a resignation letter: Omita Paul, 63, Mukherjee's all-powerful advisor, had put in her papers. Mukherjee will, in all likelihood, become the next occupant of the president's house at Raisina Hill; Paul is expected to move with him.

In the unspoken euphoria over Mukherjee's exit from North Block, the significance of Paul's resignation was lost. Mukherjee is expected to hold an important, and not just ceremonial, office over the next five years, which will include the 2014 general elections, and he will be guided by Paul's advice.

Paul knows Mukherjee and his thought process to the minutest detail -- something she has picked up from years of association -- and her temperament suits his functioning perfectly. Mukherjee would tell his senior finance ministry officers that Paul knows best what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. She knew intimately Mukherjee's likes and dislikes. For instance, Mukherjee, though deeply religious, doesn't like public servants wearing religious marks, threads and charms. Paul would make sure that officers who met Mukherjee hid their religious hardware.

This made her indispensable and therefore very powerful in North Block. Her spacious office was right next to Mukherjee's. A finance ministry officer had told Business Standard late last year that just like Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of learning) is worshipped before starting an academic exercise, "we look to her for guidance and direction before (taking) any initiative."

An advertisement put out by the income-tax department around the same time to welcome delegates to a global tax conference in New Delhi mentioned her in the same line as the two ministers of state for finance, S S Palanimanickam and N N Meena, though she was a secretary-level officer. Of course, the three other officers of the same rank -- Finance Secretary RS Gujral, Chief Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu and Central Board of Direct Taxes Chairman MC Joshi -- figured way below in the advertisement. "If Madam (Paul) doesn't want it," a finance ministry officer had said a few months back, "no file can move forward."

* * *

Paul, who studied chemistry and journalism at Panjab University, Chandigarh, joined the Indian Information Service in 1973 and took voluntary retirement in 2002. Her association with Mukherjee started in 1980 when he was the commerce minister and she an under-secretary in the ministry. In 1982, when Mukherjee became the finance minister, Paul was his director for public relations.

After Indira Gandhi's death, Mukherjee's fortunes took a turn for the worse, perhaps because he projected himself as her successor -- a suggestion Rajiv Gandhi obviously didn't like. Things improved in 1991 when he was made the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. Paul became his officer on special duty. From there, she followed Mukherjee in the commerce and external affairs ministries. The eight years, from 1996 to 2004, when the Congress was out of power and Mukherjee without a ministerial portfolio, Paul did sundry jobs in the ministry of information & broadcasting.

In 2004, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power, Mukherjee was made the defence minister and Paul came out of retirement to become his advisor. Since then, she followed him to the foreign ministry and the finance ministry.

Next stop for her could be Rashtrapati Bhawan (it's being called Mukherjee's Retirement Bhawan).

Paul, who keeps her room tidy at all times, keeps a low profile but is no quitter -- she likes to take problems head on. Even when the air at North Block would be heavy with tension -- and there were numerous such occasions -- she would often laugh her heart out in the midst of serious discussions.

When the acrimony between Mukherjee and Home Minister P Chidambaram was brewing over clandestine listening devices found in the finance minister's office, she was advised to ignore those out to create bad blood between the two senior ministers. "I am Punjabi," she had retorted, "I know how to give a befitting reply to anyone who thinks he or she can get away with it."

When a finance ministry note surfaced that blamed Chidambaram, the former finance minister, for letting the 2G spectrum scam happen in broad daylight, Mukherjee was so piqued on being blamed for the leak that he even contemplated resigning. Paul had a straight question for him, "For how long will you subsume the poison, while others run away with the nectar?" Mukherjee decided against resigning, and the row was resolved.

* * *

But there was a flip side to it as well. Now that she has resigned, her ex-colleagues in the finance ministry say that Mukherjee had begun to rely too much on her for advice. As a result, he would often fail to get the full picture. This perhaps resulted from the fact that Mukherjee was the Congress's main troubleshooter and headed several groups of ministers formed to look into various matters; as a result, he often did not have the time to meet all his officers in the ministry of finance and let himself be guided by Paul.

Otherwise, the officers say, the embarrassment caused by GAAR (General Anti-Avoidance Rules) and the retrospective tax amendments introduced in this year's budget could have been avoided. The officers disclose that one Central Board of Direct Taxes functionary had convinced Paul that this was the right thing to do. Once she was convinced, there was nothing that could stop it from becoming law. In March, after Mukherjee had presented the budget in Parliament, Paul had looked tired. When asked the reason, she said she hadn't slept for many days -- the days when the budget was being prepared.

The heartburn amongst other finance ministry officers was obvious. A veteran technocrat considered close to the Congress high command had personally advised Mukherjee to play down his association with Paul. Mukherjee heeded the advice and Paul appeared to be lying low, but only for a while. She came back with a bang again.

There have been other controversies too. T Rowe Price of the US, the largest shareholder in UTI Asset Management Company, had alleged last year that the finance ministry (under Mukherjee) was pushing Jitesh Khosla, a bureaucrat, as the chief executive of the company, though the job would be done best by a professional. Khosla, for the record, is Paul's younger brother. In a newspaper interview, Paul had dismissed charges that she was trying to influence the appointment.

He was a competent officer of the Indian Administrative Service, she had said, and had applied for the post on his own. The vacancy at UTI Asset Management Company had arisen because the CEO, UK Sinha, had been appointed head of the Securities & Exchange Board of India. A proposal to extend the term of CB Bhave, Sinha's predecessor, was allegedly nixed by Paul. Right through, the finance ministry denied these allegations. The Supreme Court also rejected public interest litigation on this issue. Paul possibly got dragged into the controversy because of her insistence on being kept informed on all matters so that Mukherjee was not embarrassed by any decision.

Paul ensures that she stays away from the public glare and prominence. In this age of all-powerful gizmos, she doesn't keep a mobile phone with herself. She will talk to only those whom she wants to and that too only on a landline. When you ask her what will she do if there is an emergency and she is not close to a landline, she replies with a twinkle in her eyes and a smile on her lips: "The driver has a mobile phone and anybody who wants to talk to me can dial that number!" It is unlikely that Paul will change this habit in Rashtrapati Bhawan, however eventful her years there might be.

Santosh Tiwari in New Delhi