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26 March 2001 National cover story

Reign Of The Triad

The Prime Minister has three blind spots. and everybody seems to see them but he.
They've had it coming for some time now. Ever since Atal Behari Vajpayee became prime minister and consolidated his hold over the nda, the whispers in the corridors of power in Delhi have been about the formidable clout Brajesh Mishra, N.K. Singh and Ranjan Bhattacharya enjoy. It was said any contract could be bagged or any deal swung, if the interested party won the support of the powerful trio. And what was till then only speculation now appears to have more than a semblance of truth, what with BJP president Bangaru Laxman confirming Ranjan's role in the clearance of power projects.

Indeed, the political class seems to have joined the anti-PMO chorus. None other than the RSS has demanded an inquiry into the PMO's functioning; key Samata leaders, stung by the sacrifices they've had to make, are now asking for Mishra's scalp; the Congress and others too have earmarked the trio for special attention. Says Congress spokesperson Jaipal Reddy, "Mishra and Singh must be sacked and Ranjan's role investigated."

These demands threaten to drag the PMO into the cesspool of corruption and scandal that has rocked the government last week. For one, the trio is closely linked to the prime minister. Mishra is his principal secretary, a man whom the PM treats as a personal friend; Singh, an officer on special duty (OSD) in the PMO, hand-picked to handle economic affairs; and Bhattacharya is Vajpayee's foster son-in-law.

Once the Tehelka tapes became public, the PM realised that the allegations of corruption seemed to be directed at him. This is why BJP insiders say Laxman was asked to quit as party president as he took Ranjan's name as a quiet and stealthy 'mover and shaker', involved in power projects deals. That Bhattacharya was involved in "deals" is articulated further by RSS swayamsevak R.K. Gupta, who says in the spycam recordings: "Ranjan is doing for himself. In one deal, I killed Ranjan and Brajesh Mishra."

So, how does the hotelier son-in-law operate? In his first interview with a news portal some years back, Ranjan had stated: "I do not fix appointments." On his link with Singh, who was then the revenue secretary, he said, "I don't know him at all, must have met him precisely once." Further, he stressed, "The work I do is not even remotely connected to the government."

But all that has changed. Over the last couple of years, Bhattacharya's influence has grown. And done so formidably. A cross-section of people Outlook spoke to—including bureaucrats, industrialists and politicians—say Bhattacharya is a "powerful yet invisible force" which drives the PMO. His primary conduits, say all, are Mishra and Singh.

Nothing illustrates this better than two deals that bureaucrats confirm Ranjan has a special interest in. Topping the list is the Rs 58,000-crore national highways project which has been moving at a frenetic pace because of the extra push being given by the PMO. The first lot of contracts have been awarded to a clutch of seven Malaysian firms. The PM, incidentally, was supposed to go to Malaysia but his trip was cancelled because of the earthquake.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), the agency which gives out the contracts, is flush with funds—Rs 2,000 crore collected annually from the cess levied on diesel and petrol and a $750-million loan from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The NHAI target is to award contracts worth Rs 29,000 crore for the Golden Quadrilateral, connecting all metros, by the end of the year.

In one stretch—Panagarh to Palsit in West Bengal—the lowest bid was, strangely, Rs 600 crore, even though the Infrastructure Development Finance Company had estimated the cost to be Rs 250 crore. What makes the NHAI deal lucrative is that the firms are paid in full under the annuity scheme and do not have to recover their investment through charging tolls.

The Rs 20,000-crore fast-track Hirma power project being put up by Reliance is the other in which a finance ministry bureaucrat says Bhattacharya has shown particular interest. On the question of counter-guarantee, the PMO had been pushing the Reliance case. Says a former bureaucrat who till recently held a key economic post in the Vajpayee government, "Interested lobbies are very clever. They go through Ranjan. There is a base law in logic. If it rains, then some grass will sprout. If the grass has sprouted, there is the probability that it has rained."

When Jagmohan's tenure as telecommunications minister was rung out by a powerful lobby of private telephone operators—who owed a huge sum of Rs 3,719 crore to the ministry—they found they had access to the PMO household—Ranjan. The defaulters included Birla-AT&T, Reliance, Tatas and Essar—all among the most influential of India's corporations. Relentless lobbying, says a Department of Telecommunications official, through the PMO for extensions of the payment deadlines succeeded. Further, they (the operators) also managed to push through a draft New Telecom Policy 1999, heavily tilted in their favour. "The best thing about Ranjan was that he ensured that he always stayed at the back," says a telecom operator.

Also illustrative is the manner in which Rakesh Khanna, a friend of Ranjan's and the tourism secretary in the Himachal Pradesh government, was given the plum posting as minister (economic) in Washington a few months back. Khanna's proximity to Ranjan goes back to the time when Bhattacharya was setting up hotel projects in Himachal. Khanna was chosen bypassing the Civil Services Selection Board (CSSB) candidate, Sumati Mehta of the Rajasthan cadre.

Despite the CSSB clearance, her appointment was held up for a year. It is reliably learnt that senior BJP man Bhairon Singh Shekhawat organised protests by the Rajasthan unit of the BJP against Mehta's possible selection. "He (Shekhawat) held three meetings with the prime minister and also impressed upon Mishra that Mehta had worked as chief minister Ashok Gehlot's secretary and was a Congress worker," says a former bureaucrat, who was forced to take voluntary retirement. Shekhawat wanted his own candidate. The PMO, however, had other designs and went for Ranjan's man. Khanna was the surprise choice despite his not-too-impressive Confidential Report.

The clout wielded by Ranjan is also demonstrated by the durbars he holds. A senior BJP leader from Rajasthan who happened once to visit 7, Race Course Road, was surprised to find Ranjan having a drink along with a Union cabinet-rank minister and a minister of state in the anteroom next to where Vajpayee was meeting a delegation of foreign diplomats. The bjp leader mentioned this incident to Vajpayee, who apparently gave his son-in-law a dressing down.

Of more recent vintage is the extension of Singh's tenure as OSD in the PMO. That Singh was extremely keen on prolonging his tenure was known to all. Says a senior BJP MP, "Advani was strongly against retaining Singh and had said so to many in no uncertain terms." But Bhattacharya's lobbying won the day. Equally strange has been the rapid change of finance secretaries. Says a finance ministry official, "Three finance secretaries have been changed under his term. The present one, Ajit Kumar, was brought in because he was Ranjan's choice." In his reckoning, secretaries were now being treated like "district collectors" and can be transferred any time.

That the PMO will be in the line of fire in the coming days has already been seen in Samata Party MP Prabhunath Singh's hard-hitting missive to the PM on March 16, a day after defence minister George Fernandes' humiliating exit. The MP has demanded the removal of Mishra and N.K. Singh. "Vajpayee should immediately remove Mishra and Singh if he is keen on presenting a clean image of his government," Singh told Outlook. He has also demanded a probe into charges of corruption against Ranjan.

During his recent Kerala sojourn, insiders point out that it was Ranjan and his wife, Namita, who impressed upon Vajpayee to pen the now-famous "Musings", as his image, they felt, had suffered a serious setback from the Opposition's attack on him over his Ayodhya remarks. The musings, they believed, would restore his stature. It will be interesting to know who will do the same for Ranjan Bhattacharya as the heat turns up on the PMO.

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TAGS: Politics
SECTION: National
SUBSECTION: Cover Stories
OUTLOOK: 26 March, 2001
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