His Three Hats
- Secretary Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP)
- CEO NITI Aayog
- Chairman Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corp Ltd
- And the one that slipped away Chairman, Competition Commission of India
A few days ago, ad-man Swapan Seth wrote to Amitabh Kant on Twitter: “Few have the courage to wear a lime green tie with a grey suit.” Seth was referring to what Kant, 59, wore while receiving the Economic Times “policy change agent of the year” award. Quick on the draw, Kant wrote back: “Just disrupting your fabulous sense of style! Officials must break rules!” It hasn’t escaped everyone’s attention that Kant is stretching many established rules of the Modi regime with impunity. He’s no faceless bureaucrat; if anything, he seeks publicity (not many serving bureaucrats have a personal website). There’s more: his personal imprint as savvy packager of most high-profile Modi government initiatives is evident.
At the launch of Shekhar Gupta’s Off The Cuff, the journalist was hosting Softbank’s Nikesh Arora. During the ad-break, Kant joined the audience. After the break, Gupta asked Arora about dealing with India’s bureaucrats, adding that some of them are very efficient. “One of them just walked in,” quipped the startup posterboy, referring to Kant. Clearly, Kant is perceived as one of the most powerful bureaucrats in Narendra Modi’s team. That’s a stand-out oddity—a man who has worked with Manmohan Singh has such heft with a regime that tends to view previous loyalties with hostility.
Two months ahead of his retirement on March 1, Kant was handed additional charge as CEO of NITI Aayog, the former Planning Commission-turned-thinktank headed by Arvind Panagariya. NITI Aayog has come in for a fair bit of criticism in recent times—as Panagariya is seen as not having delivered the goods. It is a role that is expected to see greater involvement of Kant as a policymaker, with close access to the PMO and the PM, the chairman of the NITI Aayog. A Chevening scholar, Kant was also the top contender for the Competition Commission of India before losing out to D.K. Sikri, a Gujarat cadre IAS official.
Till November, Kant held charge as CEO and MD of the 1,483-km Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) and is now the chairman of the project that will steer the planning and execution of 24 hi-tech cities. He is currently neck-deep in another high-profile campaign—wooing young entrepreneurs under the ‘Startup India’ brand. Sources claim that he, for all purposes, seems to be running the Union commerce ministry or at least influencing key decisions. And going by the grapevine, many are banking on Kant also leading the proposed National Industrial Corridor Authority, which will oversee all other industrial corridor projects beside DMIC. Here the government has garnered Japanese investment of $4.5 billion to push it through.
Given the number of tasks he has in hand, one must ask if this savvy, eloquent, workaholic super-bureaucrat is for real. “The over-reliance on Amitabh Kant underlines a key trait and a key flaw in Narendra Modi’s character,” says an IAS officer who took premature retirement during the UPA regime. “His ability to trust anybody who he thinks will deliver to the hilt, and his inability to trust too many people at the same time. Kant speaks in bullet points and thinks in easy-to-digest slogans. Modi, with his limited attention span, loves that kind of thing.”
Declining to speak as he’s hard pressed for time—one hears multiple phones ringing in the background—Kant brushes aside the focus on his growing stature as part “of the profile of work I do”. He calls back later, saying, “Whatever job I get I try to make a difference. Every single job the government has given me has been challenging. The canvas that the government gives you no other service in the world can give you.”
Among Kant’s successes as a bureaucrat was introducing fibreglass crafts, outboard motors, and the launching of beach-level fish auctions.
Nicknamed the branding man, project man or even AK-47 for his result-oriented style of operation, Kant has many supporters. More often than not, he’s described by former college-mates, friends, colleagues and journalists as a man driven to achieving results and translating ideas—whether his own or taken from others—into “tangible results”. “He is always positive. Whatever the idea, proposal or project, he examines them with an open mind,” says T. Balakrishnan, IAS batchmate and managing director of Inkel Ltd.
The Make In India lion made up of cog-wheels is Kant’s most visible branding exercise in the Modi regime. Though it is too early to predict its impact vis-a-vis turning India into a manufacturing hub, it has been accompanied by a more liberal foreign direct investment regime—again piloted by Kant in his role as secretary of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP). The campaign is showing results in defence manufacturing.
A non-Malayali well conversant with Malayalam, Kant grabbed national attention with the branding and promotion of Kerala as a ‘must see’ destination (God’s Own Country) and later followed it up with the branding of India (Incredible !ndia) as a desirable tourist destination. “At that time, tourism was in the periphery. To the Left it was a bourgeois thing and an embarrassment, but he was able to take it to a higher level,” says Jose Dominic, CEO and MD of CGHEarth.
The word ‘branding’ has become so synonymous with Kant that his critics tend to dismiss him as ‘all fluff and no stuff’. Ironically, they criticise Kant’s ability to work within the system irrespective of his political masters. In fact, as one observer put it, “winning friends and influencing people is an art at which Kant is well adept. The result is he is able to deliver without ruffling the feathers of his political bosses.”
“By no yardstick is Kant a yes-man, but he knows which way the wind is blowing,” says the bureaucrat quoted earlier, adding “the fact that he thought up policy under the UPA (Manmohan) and NDA (Modi) shows what a smart bureaucrat can really achieve if he puts his mind to it.” Kant has indeed picked his fights. He once famously asked if “Arvind Kejriwal seemed more of a chief agitator than chief minister”. Kant also took on RBI governor Raghuram Rajan’s much-cited critique of the Make in India campaign, saying: “You do it initially (make domestically) but then you expand, you grow and penetrate global markets.”
The ability to pick up issues also comes from his high-profile background. Kant comes from a family of high achievers—his father Rajni Kant was an administrator and legal expert; mother Dr Sita Srivastava was principal of Maitreyi College and author of prose and poetry books. His brother is Ravi Kant, CEO of Tata Motors; and brother-in law A.N. Roy was former police commissioner of Mumbai. Kant is a a card-carrying member of the St Stephen’s family and a post-graduate from JNU.
Family members describe the 1980 batch IAS officer as hyperactive and a workaholic who never takes holidays but makes time for activities like golf, and even penning a book, Branding India: An Incredible Story, in 2009. “He is a dedicated public servant with a very private sector mindset,” says Pramod Kapoor, whose book publishing company Roli brought out Kant’s daughter Vedika’s book on World War I. “That’s what has enabled his great success with projects that have caught the fancy of people.”
Many feel that part of this success is driven by a belief that the government should facilitate, not do business. This was evident from the start of his bureaucratic career, which he began as an assistant collector attached to the Kerala land revenue department. Among his achievements was the introduction of fibreglass crafts and outboard motors, as also the launch of beach-level auctions of fish as managing director of Matsyafed. In the process, he was able to transform the lot of fishermen by enhancing their incomes. Kant lists it as his “most challenging and satisfying” assignment.
Unsurprisingly, most people who have been closely associated with Kant or have interacted with him note his ‘shrewdness’ and ability to communicate. It helps that many of the government’s focus areas—like sanitation and employment generation—has been tried out by Kant in other guises, like his rural tourism boost under a UNDP project or the Atithi Devo Bhava campaign to promote clean environment and friendly behaviour by taxi drivers.
Kant’s skill sets are obviously useful to a government that is driven by quick sound bites and moves from one stage-managed event to the other. “FDI, infrastructure, bullet trains, smart slogans—the convergence points are many,” smiles a senior bureaucrat. “In that sense, Modi and Kant are a marriage made in heaven.”
- PMO Unwavering support from the top office—thus far. Prime Minister Modi has reposed faith in the Kerala cadre officer (like NSA Ajit Doval). Is seen as Modi’s go-to man.
- Continuity Rare bureaucrat to have served Manmohan Singh as well as Modi. Has also served ministers Jagmohan and Renuka Chowdhury.
- Packaging From ‘God’s Own Country’ to ‘Incredible !ndia’, ‘Make in India’ to the latest ‘Start-up India’, Kant—also known as AK-47— is a master packager, much like Modi.
- Self-Promotion Has his own website, amitabhkant.in, and has written a book, Branding India. Picked up an ET award despite Modi’s antipathy for officers seeking publicity.
- Policies Has played a role in influencing policies like ‘ease of doing business’ to influencing relook at FTAs. Has played a role in boosting FDI inflows at a time it was dipping globally.
- Execution Earned his spurs, and Modi’s respect, in roping Japanese investment for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor project
- Pedigree His St Stephen’s network and ability to smoothly present the government point of view has won him many friends and some enemies. Seen as ‘different’ from regular bureaucrats.