The Right Hand Man
- Shastry seen as the person who had joint secretary Tirumurti transferred
- It is alleged that Tirumurti was moved out as he was trying to prevent unfair practices
in awarding contracts
- Shastry also accused of interfering in the MEA’s functioning
- Charged with leaking information to the media
- Has little knowledge of diplomacy but attends minister’s meetings with his counterparts
On April 29, the ministry of external affairs saw a “unique reshuffle” of five joint secretaries, setting South Block all abuzz with speculation about corruption, deal-making and subtle but sinister power-plays. The Indian diplomatic corps still remains incensed, with agitated MEA officials putting all the blame for the controversy at the door of Raghavendra Shastry, foreign minister S.M. Krishna’s advisor who was brought to South Block in May 2009—with the rank of additional secretary—soon after UPA-II was sworn-in.
The controversy (the MEA has scarcely ever been dogged by the C-word) revolves around the award of contracts for projects and the line of credit, worth a few billions of rupees, extended to neighbouring countries, particularly Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and in Africa. This is said to have led to the shifting out of joint secretary T.S. Tirumurti, who till recently headed the Bangladesh-Sri Lanka-Myanmar-Maldives division (commonly known as BSM). Four other joint secretaries were shuffled around with Tirumurti but they, insist diplomats, were just “collateral damage”. Such was the haste in effecting the transfers that some of the officials came to know about new assignments on their return from lunch.
Sources say trouble for Tirumurti began around the time India began to develop a housing project in Sri Lanka for displaced Tamilians in the country’s central, eastern and northern provinces. Initially, a project for 1,000 houses was planned and a public sector enterprise was engaged to provide a detailed report on the design as well as cost of each unit. But after Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi in June last year, the Indian leadership increased the number of houses from 1,000 to 50,000, prompting the MEA to rope in two more PSUs. Each was asked to furnish a quote for the project.
The project soon began to smell fishy, with one PSU quoting a price exorbitantly higher than the other two. When this was pointed out, the quote was revised downward substantially, and in just a day or two at that. Bemused MEA officials pointed out to the PSU that price revisions can’t be arbitrary, and advised it to send a team for an on-the-spot assessment before reverting back with a fresh quote. The PSU heeded the advice, their new price was found acceptable and they got the nod to initiate work on the project.
Raghavendra Shastry with S.M. Krishna. (Photograph by KPN)
But soon enough, what had earlier just smelt fishy now began to toss up evidence of the actual corruption. A few days after the aforementioned PSU was given the green signal, senior officials from the other two public sector entities called the BSM enquiring whether the MEA expected a cut from the project. When asked for reasons, PSU officials disclosed that a businessman, claiming to be close to Raghavendra Shastry, was demanding a cut. The BSM division promptly replied that its expectations were a “zero cut” from the housing project, and the businessman was asked to buzz off.
Armed with these allegations, Outlook went over to meet Shastry in South Block. The man had all the trappings of someone who likes to calls the shots—three escorts wait at the South Block gate to accompany me to his room, located next to Krishna’s office on the first floor. For one who is popularly described as the foreign minister’s “shadow”, it comes as no surprise to discover in his room a door internally connected to his boss’s. The shadow part isn’t an exaggeration either—he travels with Krishna on every foreign visit and sits in on important meetings the foreign minister has with his counterparts or senior officials from other countries.
About the housing project controversy, and other allegations of influencing award of contracts, an unperturbed Shastry told Outlook, “I have never introduced anyone or asked any official to favour someone or the other for the Indian contracts.” More specifically, he says had Tirumurti’s removal been part of a witch-hunt, then it would have happened last year, when the housing project contracts were awarded. For good measure, he also added that a secretary-level official is handling the line of credit for Africa, and that he has been waging a battle in the ministry to bring about greater “transparency” in its functioning—whether it is in handling the Haj, issuance of passports or contracts for India’s projects abroad.
The project soon began to smell fishy, with one PSU quoting a price exorbitantly higher than the other two.
MEA officials counter this saying the Sri Lankan project convinced Shastry that Tirumurti wasn’t among those who would play ball. They also say his removal was necessary because he would have insisted on stringent scrutiny of another line of credit pending in Bangladesh, where India is scheduled to build a railway line. (A line of credit is an MEA programme which has India finance a project in another country, with 85 per cent of it executed by Indian companies.) It’s said that the foreign ministry has been sitting on the files that Tirumurti long cleared. Diplomats also claim that the April-end transfers were meant to warn other officials, especially those handling foreign projects, that they too would meet the same fate if they proved unamenable. “After the Sri Lanka episode, Tirumurti had to go. He just knew too much,” says an MEA official.
Shastry, however, reels out reasons for the sudden transfer. One, that barring Sri Lanka, Krishna was yet to visit the other three countries under Tirumurti, implicitly accusing him of incompetence. This isn’t strictly true, argue friends of Tirumurti. He had twice asked Krishna to provide dates for a visit to Bangladesh; twice Krishna provided tentative dates, only to cancel later. The foreign minister was also supposed to fly down to the Maldives, but Tirumurti advised him against it because of a local election taking place there then. As for Myanmar, Krishna landed there in early June, two months after Tirumurti was transferred out, but the visit had been initiated during the latter’s BSM stint.
Shastry trots out other reasons too. Tirumurti was due for a transfer, he had been in the BSM division seven months in excess of the usual three-year stint an official of his rank enjoys; he had been earmarked for an ambassadorial posting to Kuwait as he is an Arabic speaker; and that he was to succeed ambassador Ajai Malhotra, who is eight years senior to him, in the Arab state, proof that his posting wasn’t punitive in nature.
MEA officials, though, allege that the arguments are twisted. For one, contrary to norms, Tirumurti wasn’t sounded out about his posting to Kuwait. Two, another diplomat who had expressed a wish to succeed Malhotra was asked to wait pending Tirumurti’s decision. Three, it wasn’t that Tirumurti hadn’t wanted to go to Kuwait, but only wanted the posting to be delayed so that he could attend to a pressing personal problem. As one diplomat asks, “Why was Krishna’s office so keen to have Tirumurti out of Delhi as fast as possible?”
The controversy over Tirumurti’s transfer may well have fanned the resentment against Shastry, whom many in the MEA see as an extra-constitutional authority interfering in their functioning. They say he sits in on meetings and is privy to sensitive information. Worse, his lack of training in diplomacy has made him commit many a faux pas—like when he smsed journalists saying India’s status of observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation had been upgraded to that of member. This message he sent out on the basis of SCO members saying India’s role should be enlarged. His tendency to feed the media is in fact a persistent irritant. For instance, when the high commissioner of a neighbouring country was asked to come to South Block so that India could lodge its protest over an incident, journalists descended there at the time of the appointment, apparently alerted by Shastry. To avoid an embarrassing situation, the high commissioner’s appointment was rescheduled. An MEA official complains, “He may be trying to build up the minister’s image by sharing all this information. But it puts us in an embarrassing situation.”
“Shastry may be trying to boost the minister’s image by sharing all this info...it puts us in an embarrassing spot.”
About these allegations, Shastry says, “I believe in 100 per cent ethical behaviour. When I was asked by the minister to join him, I told him I want to do something good for the people.” He says he has enough wealth, much of which has been diverted to philanthropy, and which is why he takes just a token `1 as salary and refuses the per diem that an official of his rank is entitled to on foreign tours. Shastry also claims to have received threatening calls ever since he tried to clean up the “racket” in the allocation of Haj seats.
All this doesn’t impress the diplomats, who fear a new culture is being ushered in—of MEA officials currying favours with powerful lobbies to bag a good posting, signing on dotted lines on bogus deals, and learning the dubious C-word as a new mantra for building a career. As for diplomacy, listen to what a senior official says, “It’s surprising how a rank outsider like Shastry, who hardly has any knowledge of conducting diplomacy, should virtually play the role of the de facto foreign minister.” And to think India wants to become a global power.