|A rare instance of media interaction|
tracked the corridors closely know it well, Seth was not UPA’s first choice to be the country’s top bureaucrat. It was Pulok Chatterji, Seth’s batch-mate in IAS and the only bureaucrat who had direct access to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, was tipped to become the cabinet secretary after KM Chandrasekhar’s four-year-long innings. But the government in 2011, under fire for appointing KV Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner, did not want to take any more risk as Chatterji was far below in the seniority list of 1974 batch IAS officers who were still serving then. Seth was the senior most bureaucrat then, and the government avoided a row by simply appointing him as the cabinet secretary. Chatterji, who was then executive director in the World Bank, was recalled from Washington DC mid-way to take charge as principal secretary to PM. Manmohan Singh’s confidant TKA Nair was side-lined as he was to be adjusted as adviser to PM, a newly created insignificant post.
When Seth’s appointment as India’s cabinet secretary was announced in May 2011, BoI wrote: “When all powerful man in PMO Pulok Chatterji dictated terms in Raisina Hills during UPA-I, his batch-mate from the same UP cadre Ajit Kumar Seth was the resident commissioner in New Delhi’s Uttar Pradesh Bhawan. Seth had a higher rank in 1974 batch IAS merit list, but no one even bothered to bet on Seth that this man from UP might one day snap the country’s top bureaucratic job. For six long years, Seth -- known for his honesty and meticulous work -- remained a mere resident commissioner in UP Bhawan. Finally, he got the break when he was appointed as secretary, coordination and public grievances in cabinet secretariat in January, 2009. And the rest is history now…”.
And in 2013, when Seth got one year extension, there was hardly a surprising element. As BoI wrote then: “Low-profile bureaucrat who studied chemistry in St Stephen’s college in early 1970s has maintained an excellent rapport with Pulok Chatterji, the man who matters in the corridors.” The then Prime Minister was also averse to experimenting with a new man to head India’s bureaucracy in the election year.
Then on May 26 this year, when Narendra Modi took charge as prime minister, everybody started guessing who all could be the key contenders for the coveted post of cabinet secretary. But the new PM surprised everyone when Seth was given a six-month extension till December 13, 2014.
According to BoI's analysis, Seth was retained at the top to bring in some kind of continuity to the system. “It’s Seth, not Nripendra Misra, who knows the strength and weaknesses of each of the current union secretary. And prime minister Modi may ask for Seth’s frank assessment of each of the secretary before undertaking a bureaucratic reshuffle at the Centre,” BoI wrote in a post dated June 3, 2014.
Apart from being a post-graduate in chemistry, Seth has a master’s degree in development finance from Britain’s University of Birmingham. In IAS, Seth had worked in the ministry of textiles, and in 1980s, he was the first secretary in Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations.
So, what could be the logic behind Modi’s decision to give Seth yet another extension when the PMO had a firm grip on bureaucracy now? Some say, PM wants to get rid of senior bureaucrats before zeroing in the next cabinet secretary. But that’s definitely not the case, as 1977 batch IAS officers such as power secretary PK Sinha and secretary of the department of administrative reforms and public grievances Alok Rawat would retire only in July 2015, thereby allowing them to be in the race next year too. So, it’s definitely not maths that helped Seth getting two extensions under the new regime.
Probably, PM has found in Seth the traits of an ideal cabinet secretary: highly low profile, meticulous, no media exposure and the one who adjusts well with Mishra square: principal secretary to PM Nripendra Misra and additional principal secretary to PM PK Mishra. Is not this good chemistry?
Modi Sarkar will be one-year-old when Seth’s successor is to be picked up next year. And it must not surprise anyone if PM hand-picks someone as junior as of 1979 or even 1980 batch of IAS!