The Importance Of Being Naresh Chandra

Updated: Nov 7 2003, 05:30am hrs
No Indian envoy had danced with a US secretary of state. Naresh Chandra did. Madeleine Albright invited him and Chandra accepted. The picture sits in his study. Albright looks happy, Chandra wears a bow-tie.

Next to this is a frame bearing farewell signatures from foreign service colleagues at the Indian embassy. Well played Sir, they say.

The two images explain why this genial mathematics topper from Allahabad University is governments pointman for the relationship with Washington. He chairs their aviation reforms committee where Boeing has a vital interest. For this he uses a minister of states office in Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan. As chairman of the expert committee on corporate governance he helped untangle some of the knots. And now theyve asked him for help on Dabhol.

Hes wired among both Republicans and Democrats. Hell say the toughest things in a dead-pan manner. Hell go into detail. Hell have you in stitches with his humour. They trust him in Washington. So does every government in New Delhi, explains one self-confessed admirer. If I had a fight and my enemy gave me five names to arbitrate, Ill pick Naresh Chandra. Even if the other four were my best friends, says this India Inc senior. He was our man in Washington at the most difficult time of the relationship and he came out with his credibility intact. The story goes that the minute US TV networks wanted the Indian ambassador to defend the nuclear tests Chandra was on the line to Henry Kissinger. Kissinger couldnt say no. India couldnt have fielded a better ambassador.

The resourcefulness and credibility didnt come in a day. Chandras CV is a pointer. Chief secretary in his parent cadre. Defence secretary, home secretary, cabinet secretary, all for Congress governments. The Prime Ministers senior advisor on Ayodhya. Governor of Gujarat under a United Front government. A political appointee who Atal Bihari Vajpayee inherited, but one who was asked to serve his full tenure as ambassador to the US.

Last year, when Chandra returned home, people would slot him as the next principal secretary to PM. Thats if Brajesh Mishra decided to concentrate on being national security advisor. The only disagreement would be whether hell be in a Raj Bhawan instead.

In a word, no one gave Chandras frugal Vasant Kunj house much of a chance. Chandra would listen to all this and claim why the country should give him anything more. I am free, hed say.

He was wrong. Today, when he isnt advising Jaswant Singh on corporate governance or Yashwant Sinha on Iraq, Chandra walks into the boardroom of CK Birla. Why staid old Hindustan Motors Thats for old times sake. Old man GD Birla loved to invite the young district magistrate of Jhunjhunu for a meal. Star TV couldnt believe its luck when after the Suhel Seth fiasco, Chandra agreed to lend his name on the board of MCCS-II. CII has him co-chairing the Aspen Track-II dialogue alongside Ratan Tata. Chairmanship of their broadband committee may be next. The list is getting longer.

The reason When CII needed someone impartial to chair their (in)famous session on Gujarat where industrialist Anu Agha and others blasted chief minister Narendra Modis nominee Suresh Mehta who did they ask Naresh Chandra. And when the battle wouldnt end and this Parsi lady in the audience would keep begging, some more time, Sir, some more time, Chandra went for the kill. I cant give you more time. Before the lady could protest, he completed the sentence. Because I dont have any time myself. Both Agha and Mehta came out with smiles. Dabhol lenders and FinMin bureaucrats hope for an encore.