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The Big House Constant

Meet Omita Paul, the woman who has got Pranab’s back—and his ear

The Big House Constant
Sanjay Rawat
The Big House Constant

In the fiefdoms of Delhi, everyone wants to know—or think they know—Omita Paul. In government circles, her name is taken with care, fear—and often with anger. She is that powerful. She is a close confidante-cum-aide-cum-advisor to the man who was the most important minister in the UPA—and now India’s freshly-minted President—Pranab Mukherjee. At 63, as Omita enters the Rashtrapati Bhavan as one of the rare non-IAS secretaries to the President, all eyes (including many unfriendly ones) are on her.

The funny thing is, though, not very many quite know (or are unwilling to divulge) just how Omita has risen to her position of super patronage. By all accounts, it is a fascinating, and often controversial, story that has placed this woman at the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi.

Omita is from Punjab and is married to K.K. Paul, a former police commissioner of Delhi and presently a UPSC member (he had played a crucial role in busting the cricket match-fixing scandal in the 1990s). She had joined the Indian Information Service in 1973, armed with an MSc in chemistry and a degree in journalism from Punjab University, scoring first class in both. Before taking up the government role, she even taught for a while at a college in Chandigarh. Later, in 1985, she also obtained an MPhil in Social Sciences from the same university. Again, with first class.

As an information officer—her early career involved stints at All India Radio and being press officer for an international film festival—Omita was quick to make her mark. Colleagues from those early days describe her as, invariably, a “go-getter”, “aggressive” and “one who would do anything to rise up the ranks”. They agree that she knew “how to get work done”. These former co-workers did not wish to be identified; nor did Omita revert to a request for an interview.

No file would move without her clearance and none she did not will could see Pranab. Differing opinions were quickly silenced.

Her association with Pranab Mukherjee started in 1980, when he was commerce minister and a rising star in the Congress. She was appointed advisor in the ministry, a post she held until 1982. Soon after, Pranab faced political exile following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Omita spent much of the 1980s working in different financial ministries, including the department of fertilisers and the department of public enterprises. Along the way, she also found the time to co-author a book, Corporate Soul: Dynamics of Effective Management (Vikas, 1985), with Narinder K. Singh, who was chairman, IAAI, from 1986 to 1989 and a member on the boards of Air India and Indian Airlines. Singh is also the founder and former president of the fore School of Management in Delhi, which she had been a vice-president of.

By the early 1990s, she was firmly identified with Pranab Mukherjee, who was then in the Planning Commission (Omita was an Officer on Special Duty). Subsequently, she was responsible for the running of two national television channels—DD-Sports and DD-India—during her posting as additional director general of Doordarshan. Her responsibilities also extended to the setting up of DD Archives and Marketing.

She took voluntary retirement in 2002. After the UPA came to power in 2004, Omita was Pranab’s constant professional companion in the crucial defence, external affairs and finance ministries. Whatever her designation, though, one thing was always apparent—she was the most powerful person, the one who even the seniormost IAS officers had to report to and who Pranab had enormous faith in. She is said to know Pranab’s style of working—and even the way his mind works. In short, she ran the show.

Omita is credited with playing crucial roles in everything Pranab has done over the years. In a 2011 profile in the Economic Times, Pranab (then FM) is quoted as saying at a budget meeting, “Omita knows the way I want to express it.” Insiders reveal that during the foreign trips that Omita did not accompany him on, it was a daily morning ritual for the then minister to call his secretary and say “Advisor ko phone lagao” (Call up the advisor), to get updated on the happenings back home where “Madam Paul” was holding down the fort.

It is common knowledge that no file would move without her clearance and no one had access to Pranab if she did not will it. Anyone who had differences with her methods or opinions would quickly find themselves transferred or ejected from their positions, however important they were. Present and retired officials say every appointment, transfer and extension in the finance ministry had to be approved by her. Omita’s constant presence in even the most crucial and in-camera meetings of the government irked senior ministers and bureaucrats. Some politicians are learnt have complained to the PM, to no avail.

“She was always present with Pranab Mukherjee. In a meeting with the PM, Salman Khurshid and (Team Anna’s) Arvind Kejriwal and I, she was there. She was even present at a meeting of the joint drafting committee of the Lokpal Bill where five ministers and five of us were present. What was her locus standi to be there?” asks lawyer and anti-corruption activist Prashant Bhushan. Arun Agarwal, a lawyer and financial activist in Bangalore, adds: “Under what guidelines has she been appointed advisor over and over again in three ministries?”

Omita’s obvious clout has fuelled many controversies. Her appointment as Central Information Commissioner (CIC) in 2009, for instance, has been mentioned as being illegal and a violation of the election model code of conduct. More recently, there’s the case of the appointment of the current chief of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), U.K. Sinha—Omita has been accused of having cancelled an extension of the former head C.B. Bhave to accommodate Sinha, who was heading UTI Mutual Fund. Once Sinha got the job, she is said to have delayed the appointment of the UTI MF chief to enable her brother Jitesh Khosla, a 1979 batch IAS officer, to have a shot at the post (he wasn’t even in the initial shortlist). Omita has denied any hand in this, saying Khosla had applied of his own accord. His candidature was reportedly protested by the fund’s largest shareholder, the investment firm T. Rowe Price. Khosla later withdrew from the race.

On June 1, 2011, K.M. Abraham, a whole-time director on the SEBI board, shot off a letter to the PM, pointing out the former FM’s and Omita’s interest in a few cases involving big business houses such as Reliance Industries, ADAG, and the Sahara Group. However, after this salvo, Abraham has disappeared from public view. “While reviewing these cases in his three months as chairman SEBI, Shri U.K. Sinha, has directly or indirectly referred to how these cases are sensitive and are engaging the attention of the Union Minister for Finance or Smt Omita Paul, Advisor to the Finance Minister,” Abraham wrote in the letter.

However, none of these allegations have stuck—a sign of her staying power. In the ET profile, Omita said, “The suggestion that I or any bureaucrat can influence that is absurd. You are making me out to be more powerful than I really am.” Everyone is trying to figure out exactly what kind of power Omita will have as secretary to the first citizen. The answer is perhaps summed up best by a joke doing the rounds: even if the PM’s not under the Lokpal, Rashtrapati Bhavan will now be under Omita Paul.

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