For days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi effected his recent Cabinet reshuffle, Delhi was rife with talk of a “big” lateral entry. The PM had stunned just two years earlier by promoting former foreign secretary S Jaishankar straight as the External Affairs Minister. However, no rumour so much as mentioned the name of Ashwini Vaishnaw, the bureaucrat-turned-politician who had been hanging about largely unnoticed in the Rajya Sabha since 2019.
Since the 50-year-old was inducted though as a Minister with the heavyweight portfolios of Railways, Communications and Electronics, and Information Technology —filling the big shoes of Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal — everyone has an Ashwini Vaishnaw story.
About his technical expertise, given his IIT and Wharton School lineage. About his bureaucratic finesse, given his handling of the 1999 Super Cyclone in Odisha. About his corporate mind, given the firms he founded. About his broad acceptability, given that the BJD helped the BJP get him to the Rajya Sabha. And, even about his “proximity” to the top BJP leadership, given his ties with Gujarat.
And yet, there is no denying that the PM left even senior BJP leaders stunned by his choice. At least three admitted they did not know much about Vaishnaw. “But Modiji has chosen him. There must be something khaas (special) in him,” says a senior leader.
According to BJP sources, Vaishnaw’s name had also come up when there was talk of a reshuffle in 2020, but the RSS had opposed his induction. The RSS felt party workers should get more prominence, though the BJP leadership stuck to his name.
By all accounts, Vaishnaw made his mark first as a bureaucrat — still remembered by his then colleagues as “dependable” and “patient”, some of whom are still in touch with him.
Born in Jodhpur, Vaishnaw graduated in 1992 with top honours in electronics and communications engineering from Rajasthan’s Jay Narayan Vyas University. He then did MTech from IIT-Kanpur, only to join the civil service soon after, in 1994.
One of his first postings was as District Collector of Balasore in Odisha. Officials said that when the Super Cyclone hit in October 1999, Vaishnaw tapped into the US Navy’s forecasts to give valuable inputs to the state government, and led the evacuation of over 10,000 families in Balasore, preventing casualties — thus establishing a reputation as one of the few tech-savvy officials at the time. In a state frequently beset with disasters, the government especially appreciated his skills.
Says former Odisha Chief Secretary Sahdeb Sahoo, “Vaishnaw was an astute worker, very bankable. He knew how to get work done.” Sahoo also talks about how Vaishnaw picked up Odia and spoke it fluently despite his short stint.
“Even after the cyclone, he worked tirelessly to rehabilitate people. It was because of his work in Balasore that he was moved to Cuttack as the Collector since the district was one of the worst-affected,” a senior Odisha Administrative Service official who worked with Vaishnaw at the time says.
Another former official of the service, who is still associated with Vaishnaw, says, “We have seen him work 20 hours at a stretch without taking any break. He is keen on learning new things, exploring new ideas.”
Around this time, Vaishnaw was reportedly introduced to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik by the late Pyarimohan Mohapatra, also a former bureaucrat-turned-politician, who was at the time Patnaik’s closest associate. (Mohapatra later fell out with Patnaik.)
By 2003, Vaishaw had moved to Delhi, to work as deputy secretary in then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s office, reportedly drawing attention with his work on a policy regarding public-private partnerships. In 2004, when Vajpayee lost power, he continued as his private secretary, which is when he is believed to have come to the BJP’s attention.
In 2006, he served as deputy chairman of the Mormugao Port Trust in Goa, before heading out to the prestigious Wharton School in the US for an MBA. After returning, he quit the IAS and joined private service.
Vaishnaw had stints in multinational companies General Electric and Siemens, and was involved in the setting up of manufacturing units by Maruti and Honda in 2012.
Around this time, he also incorporated two firms in Gujarat. Three Tee Auto Logistics, incorporated by him along with Dinesh Kumar Mittal in 2011, offers warehousing and logistics services across India. Based in Gurgaon, it employs around 100-odd workers in Gujarat.
Vaishnaw ceased to be director of the firm in 2017. “He continues to be a shareholder, but is not active. His wife Sunita Vaishnav is still on board as director,” Mittal, who is a co-director, told The Sunday Express. “We supply parts to Suzuki Motor Gujarat and Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India.”
Three Tee Auto Logistics participated in the Vibrant Gujarat Summit started by the state under Modi as CM. At the 2017 edition of the Summit, the company pledged investments in Halol and Panchmahal districts.
The second firm associated with Vaishnaw, Vee Gee Auto Components, largely works with Suzuki Motor Gujarat. Based in Faridabad, Haryana, it was incorporated in June 2016. Vaishnaw exited as one of the directors in 2017, after it took off. The firm has close to 700-odd employees.
According to a Rating Rationale by Crisil Ratings in April 2021, F-Tech Inc. of Japan picked up 26% stake in Vee Gee Auto Components in March this year, for Rs 28 crore.
As CM, Modi often took Vaishnaw’s counsel on tech-related policies, which is believed to have continued when the BJP leader moved to Delhi. What might have facilitated this is that Vaishnaw speaks fluent Gujarati, his family having migrated from Bhavnagar generations ago. Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani flagged this connection Friday at the inauguration of the revamped Gandhinagar Railway Station.
In the affidavit filed by at the time of his Rajya Sabha election in 2019, Vaishnaw declared that he owned 13,500 shares of Three Tee worth Rs 3.1 crore, and 4.5 lakh shares of Vee Gee worth Rs 45 lakh.
In 2017, Vaishnaw was nominated to the board of Thriveni Pellets Pvt Ltd, a sister concern of Thriveni Earthmovers Pvt Led led by B Prabhakaran, a businessman from Tamil Nadu who has had a phenomenal rise in Odisha. He stayed in the board till 2019.
A report by the Association of Democratic Reforms listed Thriveni Earthmovers as one of the top donors to the BJP in 2014-15.
The association with Prabhakaran has been the source of some heat for Vaishnaw. In a report submitted between 2013 and 2014, the M B Shah Commission named Prabhakaran in a massive mining scam in Odisha, as did the Supreme Court’s Centrally Empowered Committee in October 2014.
Vaishnaw has, in total, been associated with a dozen companies, mostly as director on their boards. At least nine are still on the records of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs.
In 2019, when the BJD announced it would support Vaishnaw, put up by the BJP, for a seat in the Rajya Sabha, there were protests by the Congress in the Odisha Assembly. The party accused Vaishnaw of involvement with the mining mafia and being a beneficiary of the discretionary quota scam under which land was illegally allotted to him. Vaishnaw had declared he had nothing to hide. “Let there be a probe into all the allegations. I insist because the allegations are false.”
Sources say that by then, Vaishnaw was acting as a channel between the BJP and BJD. While the two parties are rivals at the state level, Patnaik often votes along with the Modi government at the Centre. Sources say Home Minister Amit Shah himself called up Patnaik to secure the BJD’s help to elect Vaishnaw.
Odisha Congress CLP leader Narasingha Mishra says, “Our allegations against Vaishnaw still stand… (Plus) he is not a resident of Odisha… and I am not hopeful he will do any good for the state as is being anticipated… This is a democracy and ministerial positions should be held by politicians.”
But acquaintances say Vaishnaw won’t have much trouble adjusting to the trying demands of his new job. He is known to work late into the night, and be up by 5-5.30 am, making do with a couple of hours of sleep.
It’s not just party colleagues who are now having sleepless nights over the new kid on the block. In his ministries, Vaishnaw has directed his office staff to work in two shifts: 7 am to 3 pm, and 4 pm to midnight (others in the ministry believe it is a message to them too). Word has been passed down to “focus on getting the work done”.
Announcing the new shifts, ADG, Public Relations, Railways, D J Narain had said, “It means miles to go before we sleep!”
Says an IT Ministry official, “For us, meetings even at 11:30 pm now seem normal.”
with Avinash Nair & Ashish Aryan