Last week, the civil service, more particularly the IAS, lost one of its tallest figures. Naresh Chandra, Padma Vibhushan, former cabinet secretary, home secretary, defence secretary, chief secretary, ambassador to the US, governor, and adviser- at-large passed away.
I had the good fortune to work with him in handling the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute in the 1990s. That interaction paved the way for a life-long relationship. As the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute was spiralling into a major crisis, the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao called upon him to take the hot seat of special adviser.
It took me little time to realise where Chandra’s formidable reputation came from. When I entered his room in the PMO, I expected the gravity of the intractable problem to be writ large on his face. But Chandra was nothing if not the master of the role he handled. He was never “captured” by his job; he shaped it into the mould he wanted. I found him at ease and unruffled.
He drew frequently on his extraordinary circle of friends and acquaintances to help resolve knotty issues. When Chandra was handling the Babri-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, I often found several kinds of personalities sitting with him. These included legal luminaries and religious leaders of different shades. He was uniquely independent of files and paperwork; wrote only short notes and more often appended only his famous signature to a file. His sharp mind found lateral ways to resolve problems.
He was a remarkably calm person to work with. I never saw him lose his cool. Once, when I delayed briefing him on a crucial development, I feared a dressing down. But all he said when he called me from his home was, “Vinod, kya ho raha hai?” (Vinod, what’s going on?)
Despite the high positions he occupied, Chandra was never inaccessible. I could talk to him or visit him at any reasonable hour. Sometimes I would send him a file and instruct the messenger to bring it back with his orders/approval. He never minded that. Chandra never stood on ceremony.
Chandra had a view on everything and a prodigious memory. He would hold forth in any company and share anecdotes. It was only recently that he recalled a childhood incident, when his brother and he were pulled out of bed one dark night in pre-Independence Varanasi to make place for two unannounced visitors. It turned out the two visitors were freedom fighters, who were being pulled into a safe place to keep them away from the police.
During the early 2000s, the US was hit by unprecedented corporate scams that destroyed many big names like Enron and Arthur Anderson. America’s knee-jerk response was deep regulation and the tightly prescriptive Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Around the same time, India also witnessed extensive corporate and stock market fraud. The day for overhaul of corporate governance had arrived. But I needed a balanced and sane head to chart the road, and turned to Naresh Chandra. He kindly accepted to head our reforms committee. His report laid the ground for game-changing reforms which have been continuing till this day. These reforms mandated transparency and accountability in corporate affairs, and expanded roles of audit and independent directors.
Out of that advisory role also emerged the corporate Chandra. He was avidly sought for directorships and advisory positions, and business leaders swore by him. He rather enjoyed the corporate experience, and did not mind the honest money it brought. Always full of grace, he once jokingly remarked that he had “been selected and appointed” to a corporate role by Vinod Dhall.
His relationships in the business world have been abiding. C. K. Birla has always been full with admiration for his sagacity, wide knowledge and practical advice. Anil Agarwal, Chairman, Vedanta Group has written tributes in the press. Rahul Bajaj, his long time friend, mourned the deep personal loss and told me how unique and invaluable Chandra’s presence on the boards had been and of the way he kept everyone enthralled with his views and anecdotes. Even other directors, eminent in their own right, vied with each other to be seated next to him.
There have not been many like Naresh Chandra.