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Will Vaishnaw, close to Modi since Vajpayee days, ever be turnaround man for Railways?

By Rajiv Shah 
Ever since he was appointed as railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, I was curious to know who he was and how did he come closer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, most important, when. Hence, I decided to talk with some Sachivalaya officials in Gujarat in order to find out if there was, if any, Gujarat (or Modi) connection.
I got particularly keen after I read in Free Press Journal (FPJ) that, a product of IIT, Vaishnaw “quit government service in 2008 and went to Wharton University in USA to pursue an MBA.” On his return, the daily said, “After working for top firms, he set up his own automotive components manufacturing units in Gujarat.”
First, let me put the record straight. FPJ is wrong: he did not quit government service (or IAS) in 2008, as reported. He quit in 2010, after returning from Wharton, as the Hindustan Times reports. Apparently, he went to the US to do MBA, obviously after taking study leave from the Government of India, which is what many bureaucrats have done.
Be that as it may, being a Gujarati, often derogatorily called “Gujju” (a term for strange reason I have always detested), anything on Gujarat interests me. So, I decided to talk with some of the officials who handled industry-related issues to find out which “automotive components manufacturing units” he set up in Gujarat, and what happened to them.
After talking with a couple of top insiders who are in the know of things, I gave up. One of them said, he “vaguely remembers” Vashnaw had set up “some unit” and did not recall which. However, he did reveal, Vaishnaw used to visit and meet IAS officials in Gujarat “quite often” when Modi was the State chief minister.
The second insider said, if it was an important unit he would certainly have known about it. “But surely he did not sign any memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the Vibrant Gujarat summit, that is for sure… Had it been an important unit, there is no reason why one wouldn’t know about it”, I was told.
So, failing to find out which unit (or units?) he set up in Gujarat and what happened to it (or them?) – I rang up a knowledgeable journalist who covers Gandhinagar to do a story on this, if he thought fit, after finding out the success or failure of the unit (units?) Vaishnaw may have set up in the State. A third insider, while pointing out he was “sure” Vaishnaw did not set up any unit or units in Gujarat, told me, he, to the best of his knowledge, did this in partnership with “somewhere in Gurgaon” to set up a unit.
Be that as it may, my “investigation” – if it can be called that – revealed that he connected with Modi in early 2000s. “Vaishnaw used to be a regular visitor to the chief minister’s office (CMO). He would meet Modi every month when he was deputy secretary to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee in 2003, and later also, after Vajpayee was unseated from power in 2004, when he was Vajpayee’s secretary”, I was told.
Further, I was emphatically told, “Vaishnaw would inform Modi and his CM office babus, including then principal secretary and now chief principal secretary K Kailashnathan, about goings-on around Vajpayee. That proved to be his stepping stone for him to be in Modi’s good books.”
Belonging to the 1994 Odisha cadre, most officials, surely, appeared to think that Vaishnaw would be a “great success” given his M Tech degree from IIT (not B Tech, which is considered a more of a prestige), and the fact that earlier he stood 27th in the IAS rank. Also, it is suggested, Vaishnaw’s “chequered career” included his MBA degree at Wharton Business School, Pennsylvania, after which, on returning to India in 2010, he left IAS to work in private companies like GE and Siemens.
I talked about this to an IAS official, who quipped, “IIT and the fact that he was 27th in IAS is no reason to say he was a great successes. Arvind Kejriwal is an IIT alumni, but nobody remembers the past now, as he is better known for his successful chief ministership of Delhi. So, being 27th rank in IAS or IIT post-graduate degree or even Wharton MBA is something of the past. One must judge him by what he did later, in the government.”
So, I decided to look up at his “contributions” in the government. The experience, if it can be called that, includes working as collector in Balasore and Cuttack districts. Then, came his job in PMO in Delhi, where, it is claimed, he “contributed” to creating the public-private-partnership framework in infrastructure projects. And finally, he was deputy chairman of the little known Marmugoa Port Trust in Goa, where he worked in 2006.
I was also interested in knowing whether he would become India’s “turnaround man” for Indian Railways, India’s largest public sector unit – to use the term being used for Alexander K Luke, Gujarat cadre IAS bureaucrat, who indeed did turn around several loss making State public sector units (PSUs), including Gujarat Fertilisers and Chemicals (GSFC) and Gujarat Alkalies and Chemicals Ltd (GACL) before resigning in 2006 from IAS.
I tried looking up at Luke’s twitter handle, and this is what he had to say about Vaishnaw on July 9, “Read of Ashwani Vaishnaw, new railway minister. 94 batch IAS officer, retired in 2010, reputedly of 'rare brilliance' evident at Wharton, sent there by Govt. Quit IAS in 2010 age 40. Dy Ch Marmugao Port for 2 years, no other PSU experience. Not known to have revived any PSU...”
A social media poster
“Respected Modiji you would have done better picking me instead…”, the turnaround man quips in his unusual style in another tweet, adding, “The talent available to ModijI is not large. That is his own doing. He has ruled out taking anyone with an independent mind... Independent mind? That means taking personal freedom for granted, as a right, freedom to do what is good for the organizational goals, that which creates similar freedom and free space for those I lead.”
While Vaishnaw has been quoted as saying that he spent his own money to do MBA in Wharton, Luke appears to dispute this version. I talked with Sachivalaya insiders to find out, and this is what least two bureaucrats in Gujarat had to say: First of all, when he went to US, he would have taken the permission of the Government of India. And secondly, there was a scheme under which the Government of India would substantially pay for study tour, to the tune of Rs 8 lakh, if it was not fully funded by the government.
Be that as it may, this is what Vaishnaw has said, “After my MBA in Wharton, I was deep in debt. Studies in US can be very expensive and mine was a full-fledged MBA. I figured that it would take me long to repay my debt if I stayed in IAS. So I quit (in 2010) and worked in private companies like GE and Siemens and came out of debt.”
So, what led Modi to choose Vaishnav? As already widely reported after he became Rajya Sabha member in 2019 from from Odisha as BJP candidate with Biju Janata Dal (BJD) support. Vaishnaw in fact did the pivotal job of bringing bitter rivals BJP and the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) together in Odisha at a time when BJP with just 23 MLAs in Odisha did not have enough numbers to put up a candidate of its own.
Referring to this, a Sachivalaya insider said, “It was politics which led Modi to choose make Vaishnaw Railway Minister – his closeness to Modi ever since 2003, and his latest effort to bring together BJP and BJD at a time when BJP badly needs regional allies for forthcoming polls, fearing me might lose the future polls. As for IIT, IAS, Wharton and his jobs in Siemens and GE, these are all showpieces...”

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