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India's Top Bureaucrat: The Three Contenders

The three officers in consideration are from the 1987 batch (File)

New Delhi:

History seems to be calling on the country’s highest bureaucratic post.

Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba will create history if he demits office in August when his term is to end. The 1982 batch Jharkhand cadre officer will then be the longest-serving cabinet secretary of India. He will beat the record of his predecessor PK Sinha, who held the office for a little over four years.

The officers in the running to take over from Mr Gauba could also create history if Prime Minister Narendra Modi were to zero in on any of them.

The three officers in consideration are from the 1987 batch – Finance Secretary TV Somanathan, Gujarat Chief Secretary Raj Kumar and Jal Shakti Secretary Vini Mahajan, sources said.

Leading the pack is the man who would have exited the service many years ago after a bitter fight with his then-political boss J Jayalalithaa, who stubbornly didn’t accept his resignation.

Mr Somanathan, a 1987 batch IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre, was appointed Finance Secretary by the PM-led Appointments Committee in April 2021. A career finance man, Mr Somanathan was previously a Secretary in the Department of Expenditure in the Finance Ministry.

TV’s financial skills are so well respected that the chief of the World Bank, where he had a long stint, requested then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to extend the bureaucrat’s lien to the organisation beyond the stipulated time. Dr Singh agreed to the request.

That may be the principal reason why PM Modi, as he makes economy and job generation the focus of a possible third stint, could zero in on the Finance Secretary.

Interestingly, Mr Somanthan, known for his impeccable integrity, had a bitter tussle with Jayalalithaa early in his career, when she was chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He had ordered a vigilance inquiry on a subject handled by her, and the chief minister was so incensed that she refused to even relieve him from the state for a central deputation.

An aside – the Finance Secretary impressed his colleagues by speaking in chaste Hindi at the last comprehensive presentation to the cabinet by all secretaries.

Another candidate for the top post, per sources, is Raj Kumar, the chief secretary of PM Modi’s home state Gujarat. Mr Kumar came to central deputation in 2015, months after PM Modi took charge at the Centre. Mr Kumar’s last posting in the central government had been highly challenging and sensitive – he was Secretary, Defence Production in the Ministry of Defence. He returned to his parent cadre Gujarat in 2021 after an outstanding stint at the Centre.

After his return, the Gujarat government gave him charge of the sensitive Home Department. In January last year, he was elevated to the post of Chief Secretary.

Reputed to be a no-nonsense bureaucrat, Mr Kumar is from Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun.

One big factor in his favour, far more than the others, is the implicit trust that the Prime Minister places in him, according to his batch mates.

The third officer in the race, and perhaps in the order of preference, is Vini Mahajan. If the Prime Minister does appoint her, it would be history in the making as she would be the first woman cabinet secretary of India since the post was created pre-Independence.

Vini Mahajan is also from the same IAS batch. She was chief secretary of the highly sensitive border state of Punjab, which was her home cadre. The officer, considered close to former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, was removed after a midnight coup by the state Congress leadership against its own government.

Vini Mahajan, a second generation bureaucrat, is the daughter of a former chief secretary of Punjab. A dedicated, honest bureaucrat, she is known for her rational thinking and methodical planning.  

Amongst the three, Ms Mahajan is the only one with an extensive experience of the workings of the Prime Minister’s Office, having done a longish stint in the Manmohan Singh PMO.

All three are first attempt IAS officers, all three are youngest of their batch and two of them have been chief secretaries. Also, all three are known to be scrupulously clean.