He is not the only bureaucrat from Gujarat to have followed Narendra Modi to the Centre. Or the most high-profile. But it’s A K Sharma alone who has made that next leap: from the backstage to the front. Nearly 20 years after he emerged as one of Modi’s most trusted men, and six months after he took voluntary retirement from the IAS, and became a BJP MLC, Arvind Kumar Sharma, 58, is now a vice-president of the party in Uttar Pradesh.
The politically crucial state is in the final lap before next Assembly elections, and there is some discontent within the BJP over Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The choice of Sharma, at this time, with Modi’s blessings, is not lost on anyone.
A senior official in the Central government says that while it is not unusual for a PM to have a core group of trusted officials, Sharma stands out among the charmed circle. “It was understood that any directions from Sharma had the PM’s seal of approval. It helped that Sharma never threw his weight around.”
Sharma earned that confidence steering some of Modi’s pet projects as CM. Retired IAS officer Harsh Brahmbhatt, who was Officer on Special Duty in Modi’s CMO, says as someone totally “new to government and bureaucracy”, Modi wanted officers he could trust. Brahmbhatt says he suggested Sharma, P K Mishra and Anil Mukim.
Sharma came into the job in 2001 with praise for his work in districts and experience in the industry department. This put him at the heart of the Vibrant Gujarat Summits. “Sharma went with Modi abroad to get investments,” says a former bureaucrat.
Younger to Mishra and Mukim, Sharma stayed the longest in the CMO, never even going on deputations to the Centre, says Brahmbhatt. “When he went for a year for training, we kept the position vacant.” (Mishra is now principal secretary to the PM, while Mukim is Gujarat Chief Secretary.)
In Modi’s move to Delhi too, Sharma was key, as per a bureaucrat. The CM, seeking to contest from Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, tapped Sharma for “inputs” on “UP matters”. Sharma is originally from Mau in Uttar Pradesh. His father retired as a Senior Incharge of Mau Roadways Bus Station.
In the PMO, Sharma was given the charge of infrastructure. In May 2020, as Covid hit the economy, Sharma was named Secretary, MSME.However, six months in, Sharma opted for VRS and joined the BJP. An official says, “When Sharma was given an MLC ticket from UP, it was clear that Modi wanted his own man in the state before the elections.”
Soon, Sharma was fronting another crisis for Modi. In April, as Varanasi struggled under the second Covid surge, Sharma was named ‘Covid prabhari’ for the district.
Sharma took meetings of district and police officials, oversaw setting up of a DRDO hospital and a tele-consultancy app, and got the Command and Control Centre up and running.
Says a senior Varanasi official, “It is not like this centre wasn’t operational in the first phase. But when Sharma arrived, it was clear that the PM was unhappy.” Another officer says the PMO helped with issues of oxygen, crucial drugs, equipment. In May, when The Indian Express visited Varanasi, Sharma’s photo featured next to the PM on some posters.
Later, the PM urged states to follow the ‘Varanasi Model of Covid Management’.
But while few have doubts regarding Sharma’s administrative abilities, it is as a politician that the father of two will be tested now. And this is an unknown. Local leaders say that during the period he was in Varanasi, Sharma had no interaction with party cadre.
Much of the push for Sharma the politician is centred around Mau, part of eastern UP, which includes both Varanasi and Adityanath’s fiefdom Gorakhpur. Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has credited Sharma’s intervention for start of a special train from Mau to New Delhi; while the Mau administration has thanked him for his “guidance”.
However, politics is about more than that. As a Mau BJP leader notes, “Sharma has been welcomed as a senior leader. But he needs to work to make himself acceptable.”
As a ‘Bhumihar Brahmin’, Sharma belongs to a caste that is dominant in eastern UP and has been a BJP supporter. However, the region already has several strong Bhumihar Brahmin faces, such as Ghosi Lok Sabha MP Atul Singh Rai of the BSP. In 2019, despite the BJP wave, and a rape allegation, Rai had won by over 1.2 lakh votes. Former BJP leader and now J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha is also a Bhumihar from east UP.
In one of his first ‘political’ moves, Sharma recently posted on his Twitter handle @aksharmaBharat his letter to UP BJP chief Swatantra Dev Singh, touching all the right notes. He talked about how he had kept in touch with his village and ‘Purvanchal’ despite long years outside the state; said he had played “a small part” in Modi’s “historic” journey; and stressed that the PM’s name was enough to bring the BJP back to power in UP.
During recent rumours of a reshuffle in the Adityanath ministry, Sharma’s was one of the names doing the rounds. His appointment as vice-president of the BJP, one of 17 in the state unit, has settled some of that talk.
However, as an insider puts it, “Obviously he is there for some role… but no one knows the PM’s mind.”
BJP spokesperson Ashok Pandey, who hails from Varanasi, says, “Sharma is an honest officer and was brought to Varanasi to do what he is good at, i.e. managing.” He adds that all representatives in Varanasi helped people during the pandemic.
Another section in the party says it is these qualities that stand Sharma in good stead. “He is low profile, avoids controversy,” says a person who has known him for years.
His colleagues from Gujarat also talk of Sharma’s affability. Brahmbhatt goes one step further: Sharma, he says, is “ajaatshatru”, one without enemies.
with Liz Mathew & Leena Misra
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