After the rockstar-like aura that trailed Raghuram Rajan during his three years as RBI governor, his successor Urjit Ravindra Patel brings a completely different shadow to the job — aloof but emotional, who opens up fully only while expressing his views on the economy and India’s trajectory to transformation. And firm, when he believes he is right.
Patel’s name was picked after interviews were conducted with shortlisted candidates at the office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his residence on Race Course Road, in a marathon session involving top officials, including the Finance Secretary.
Apart from his impressive qualifications, what finally went Patel’s way was the admiration that he has been viewed with since the government of P V Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s. Patel had caught the attention of Rao, his then finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh and commerce minister at the time P Chidambaram, when he was selected by the International Monetary Fund to head its India office. It was known that even though he was born in Kenya and later studied in the UK and the US, the focus of Patel’s scholarly pursuits was India.
And so, after Patel was deputed to head IMF’s India chapter, Manmohan Singh requested the then IMF chief to “loan” him for two years to be an advisor in the finance ministry at the end of his stint. It didn’t matter that he learnt Hindi and Gujarati only after he was posted in India.
Since then, the Congress leadership, corporate leaders such as Mukesh Ambani and Deepak Parekh, and Modi, when he was Gujarat chief minister and now as head of the NDA government, have ensured that “Dr Patel”, as he is commonly referred to, has remained in the country.
Not many know that when Patel applied for an Indian passport, before taking up the offer to become the RBI deputy governor in 2013, his recommendation letter addressed to the home ministry was written by none other than Manmohan Singh, the prime minister then. “He is very important for the country,” Singh had said.
Patel’s career had, meanwhile, started gathering pace. In the mid 1990s, he drafted the first report to create the Infrastructure Finance Development Company (IDFC), monitoring its birth and later playing a key role for some years. Then, when he wanted to leave IDFC to take up a position with the World Bank, Mukesh Ambani stepped in with an offer to lead Reliance’s energy operations, a job he held for two years. It was around that time that Patel met Modi who tried to woo him to the state — he was a non-executive director on the board of Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC) in 2005-06.
Patel’s knowledge of India’s ailing power sector is widely believed to have led to the privatisation of distribution. He is also known to enjoy warm and enduring professional ties with those who matter in India’s economic circles, particularly those involved in the liberalisation process.
One of those close to Patel told The Indian Express that he staunchly believes in the potential of India and the importance of development as the solution to issues hampering the economy. “This must be done,” is said to be a common refrain from Patel when it comes to discussing ideas on taking the economy to the next level. He is also said to be on the same page as Singh and Modi as far as the fundamental ideas of growth are concerned.
On the personal front, Patel’s grandfather is believed to have migrated from central Gujarat in the early years of the 20th century to Kenya, where the British had embarked on various infrastructure projects. His father Ravindra was born in Kenya and established himself in Nairobi with a business in “spare parts”.
Incidentally, the extended family of Patel’s grandfather belong to Palana village in Chartotar, an area from where I G Patel, the first Gujarati governor of RBI, hailed from. Born in Nairobi, on October 28, 1963, Patel’s identity was shaped, to borrow a recent phrase from Rajan, in the “realms of knowledge”. His thought-papers were well appreciated in Yale University and Oxford, from where he completed his MPhil, and in many global institutions including the IMF and World Bank.
For his small circle of friends, Patel is a “jolly fellow”. He is known to lead a spartan life and maintain transparency in all matters, taking into account the sensitivity involved in his RBI job. He is also admired for maintaining his emotional balance in the personal and professional spheres.
Patel’s father died a few years ago and his mother lives with him in Mumbai. A few months ago, when he realised that his mother was feeling lonely at his official four-bedroom residence on Napean Sea Road, he shifted to the smaller family home in south Mumbai. He is also said to have declined an offer to head the newly formed BRICS Bank in Shanghai to be with his mother in Mumbai. Patel also has a sister who is settled in New Jersey, US.
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