January 24, 2020
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Who On Earth Is Ashok Saikia?

He’s soft-spoken and shuns publicity but can walk into Vajpayee’s office whenever he wants

Who On Earth Is Ashok Saikia?

He epitomises the faceless bureaucrat. Ask Ashok Saikia, joint secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), exactly what he does there, and he’ll say, "I just order the air-conditioners for the office." Of course, his duties extend to more than ensuring a cool atmosphere at South Block.

In fact, along with principal secretary Brajesh Mishra, if there’s any other official in the PMO that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee trusts implicitly, it is the mild-mannered, unassuming Saikia. But while Mishra is the high-profile, visible face of the PMO, Saikia prefers to push his files as far away from the limelight as possible.

There are two reasons why Saikia is widely regarded as the most important joint secretary in this PMO. When Vajpayee became PM, he asked Saikia, who was about to pack his bags and leave for an assignment in North Korea, to move to Delhi instead of Pyongyang. The two know each other for over three decades, ever since Saikia studied history at Ramjas College in Delhi University. He was a regular visitor to the home of Vajpayee’s adopted family, the Kauls.

The personal relationship is one reason Saikia is where he is. The other reason is purely professional. Saikia handles personnel at the PMO. This includes, among other things, transfers and appointments of bureaucrats. And though the portfolio is not as high-profile as external affairs or defence, it is not without its share of the spotlight. Or flak. As one of Saikia’s friends pointed out, "He refers to this as the Disappointments Section, rather than appointments. In other words, all the bureaucrats who have been left out start gunning for him." For instance, the bureaucracy blames him for favouring ias officers from the Northeast. Currently, there are about five secretaries from the region on deputation at the Centre, a record of sorts. Saikia’s friends say that it is not just he but the PM himself who is committed to promoting the Northeast. "The question of course is, is there any officer who doesn’t deserve to be a secretary in this list?" they ask. The answer to that one, of course, depends on who’s carrying out the survey.

But allegations of parochialism and such like probably explain why the 53-year-old joint secretary is so obsessively low-profile. Although he goes with him to Manali for a holiday, Saikia rarely accompanies the PM on official functions, often sending director-level officials in his place. In fact, the only three places that he does escort the PM to are Lucknow (the PM’s constituency), the Northeast (Saikia’s constituency, since he is an ias officer from the Assam-Meghalaya cadre) and Orissa. The last, because Saikia handled the management of the cyclone relief operations.

The low profile has helped. Few outside the PMO recognise Saikia. And like any other joint secretary, his photograph is yet to make it to the front pages of a newspaper. But within the four walls of South Block, there are no delusions about his importance. Apart from the principal secretary, Saikia is the only other official who can walk into the PM’s room without an appointment. And later in the evening, he is also a frequent visitor at the PM’s residence. In fact, he is seen as the link between South Block and Race Course Road.

The 1971 batch ias officer is, however, very clear about the fact that he is there in South Block only because of this prime minister. And for no other reason. "Last April, when the government lost the vote of confidence, Saikia came to office early the next day, packed all his stuff in four boxes and said bye to all of us," recalls a PMO official. Saikia had, in fact, contacted the chief secretary of Meghalaya and asked for a transfer back to the state. "So for him, it’s not the PMO. It’s the pmv (Prime Minister Vajpayee)," says a friend.

The accessibility often leads to extended responsibilities. For instance, recalls a PMO source, one evening at around 9 pm, when the PM saw the speech he was supposed to deliver the next day, he said he didn’t like it. Saikia, who was there at that time, was asked to do something. In the end, it was the joint secretary who stayed up till 11 pm, reworking the speech.

Speechwriting, however, is not technically part of Saikia’s portfolio. In fact, apart from the appointments section, he handles very non-glamorous (and hence non-controversial) subjects, such as agriculture, the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, rural development and administration. In fact, the only map in his room is not of the Northeast but of Orissa. The map highlights the tribal and drought-stricken districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput, where the PMO has undertaken a poverty-alleviation programme.

Those who know him say agriculture and poverty-alleviation schemes are his top priorities. Saikia, who holds a master’s degree in social administration from the London School of Economics, was the first international consultant flown in by the UN to work in Vietnam on development projects. Perhaps that’s why his analogies are almost always related to that country. During the previous tenure of the Vajpayee government, Saikia was asked by a friend to list the achievements of the PMO. Recalls the friend, "He compared the situation to an American soldier returning from the Vietnam war with a chestful of medals. When his son asked him about the medals, the soldier replied, ‘The important thing is not the medals but that we survived.’"

Which did sum up the precarious existence of a government held hostage by Jayalalitha’s tantrums rather well. Another Saikia-ism is his description of the advisory council on trade and industry set up by the PMO. "Saikia pointed out that the plus point in this was not what the council would achieve as much as the fact that they had got Nusli Wadia and the Ambanis to sit at the same table," says a bureaucrat.

Often, when he is cornered by a journalist, or worse, invited to a party by a lobbyist wanting to show off his contacts in the PMO, Saikia launches into a discussion on the various categories of rice. Says a friend, "By the time he has finished describing rice japanica and rice assamica, the poor wheeler-dealer is so bored that he’s convinced that this man has nothing to do with influencing policy at the PMO!"

And that’s the way Saikia likes to play the game. But PMO sources claim that while it is the principal secretary and the prime minister who have the final word, Saikia’s input is often taken on various matters. "One reason why the prime minister listens to him is that Saikia almost always has an original take on the subject. He is blunt and because of the equation he has with the PM, doesn’t hesitate in speaking his mind." Actually, Saikia’s is almost always the voice of dissent, so much so that he has been labelled as the in-house critic by his colleagues.

Equally legendary is his informal look. No one in the PMO has seen Saikia wearing a tie, though he does keep a red one in his office cupboard-just in case. He is also a keen photographer. The mountains in Leh, the landscape at Mauritius and the prime minister on holiday are some of his favourite subjects. In fact, C.R. Irani of The Statesman has a picture taken by Saikia, which shows the PM reading his newspaper. Saikia has sent a caption along with the picture: "The statesman is never far away from The Statesman. "

But surprisingly for one who is known for his closeness to the PM, the joint secretary has only two pictures taken with Vajpayee. The standing joke is that he had better get some more taken. Otherwise, how would the rest of the world realise that he "knows the PM".

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