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Amit Khare: The man in the corner office

Amit Khare, who has helmed at least two of the most high-profile govt policies in recent times, the NEP and IT Rules, has now been appointed advisor to the PM.

Amit Khare, who holds an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, had taken charge as the higher education secretary in December 2019. (Illustration by Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Amit Khare, who has helmed at least two of the most high-profile govt policies in recent times, the  NEP and IT Rules, has now been appointed advisor to the PM. Ritika Chopra on how Khare’s reputation as a “doer” who could “read the mind of his bosses” saw him straddling key ministries, roles.

On September 30, the day Amit Khare retired from the civil services, he had a visitor: his former boss in the Education Ministry, Smriti Irani, now the Minister of Women and Child Development, who had dropped by at his office in Shastri Bhawan to wish him luck.

It was a rare gesture from the minister.

As Secretary in charge of two crucial ministries, Education and Information & Broadcasting, Khare was known to have been the quintessential bureaucrat — clear-headed and cautious, adept at “reading the mind of his bosses” and achieving the “desired outcome”, qualities that made him indispensable to his ministers, across political regimes.

So last week, when Khare was appointed advisor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi (in addition to Bhaskar Khulbe), many saw it as a logical career trajectory for a bureaucrat who has helmed at least two of the most high-profile government policies in recent times — the National Education Policy, 2020; and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, or the IT Rules.

A 1985-batch IAS officer from the Jharkhand cadre, Khare had two stints at the Centre — from August 2008 to April 2015, and later from June 2018 until his retirement last month. In between, he was Principal Secretary and Additional Chief Secretary (Finance & Planning) in Jharkhand.

A BSc graduate from St Stephen’s College, Khare holds a post-graduate degree from IIM Ahmedabad. His wife Nidhi Khare is Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Consumer Affairs. They have two children.

During his first stint at the Centre, as joint secretary at the HRD Ministry (as the Education Ministry was then called), Khare enjoyed the confidence of his UPA-2 ministers Kapil Sibal and Pallam Raju, as well as the NDA’s Smriti Irani.

Following a brief stint in the Chemicals & Fertilisers Ministry, he was repatriated back to his parent cadre state, Jharkhand.

Khare first shot into prominence in the 1990s, when, as District Commissioner of Chaibasa in undivided Bihar, he was instrumental in unearthing the fodder scam in which RJD supremo Lalu Prasad was convicted.

Rakesh Asthana, who as a CBI SP probed the case till 2002 and is now Delhi Commissioner of Police, told The Sunday Express, “Khare was DC of Chaibasa when the scam was first detected by then Finance Secretary of Bihar, who ordered all district commissioners to investigate. Mr Khare took the lead and was the first to raid the Animal Husbandry Department in Chaibasa, detect irregularities and get an FIR registered. He withstood all the pressure. The documentary evidence he collected was extremely crucial.”

Sources said when the trial began, Khare even deposed before the court.

Shunted out after the scam and posted as Managing Director of the Bihar State Leather Corporation for almost a year, Khare told The Sunday Express: “It was a defunct body that couldn’t even pay salaries.”

The reputation he gained then, of a “doer”, but stayed with him. “He always delivers what is expected of him,” says a former colleague, on the “secret” of Khare’s career longevity.

Speaking at Khare’s farewell function, his last boss in the Education Ministry, Dharmendra Pradhan, sources said, recalled his first meeting with Khare about six years ago, when he was Principal Secretary (Finance) in Jharkhand.

“At that time, Pradhan was Petroleum Minister and was trying to execute the Ujjwala Yojana. He recalled how he was struck by Khare’s willingness to arrange for funds to implement the programme in Jharkhand, given that finance secretaries are almost always reluctant to loosen the state’s purse strings,” said an officer present at the function.

His critics say this very “bureaucratic quality” — of being someone who got the job done for ministers, as opposed to someone who would argue on merits or stand his ground — has been Khare’s biggest strength, and drawback. Asked about this, Khare says, “If I were always on the right side of the boss, I would not have exposed the fodder scam. I was a collector appointed by Lalu Prasad, the powerful CM of the state.”

Critics also point to his “cautious approach” towards possibly controversial issues. Ironically for someone who is known to be taciturn, Khare was the man in charge of devising a communication strategy for both the NEP and the IT Rules.

While Khare did not author the new IT Rules, he played a key role in coordinating with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which handled the technical aspects of the IT Rules.

“When you have a rule which is going to be administered by two ministries, there has to be coordination, synthesis and logic. That coordination — talking at secretary- and minister-level — was done by Khare,” said an officer in the I&B Ministry.

Similarly, the officer said, when the allocation of business rules was changed last year — to bring all online content under the ministry — Khare spoke to his counterparts in other ministries to explain that I&B has the domain understanding for how content should be regulated, whether online or offline.

Even when the NEP was being released, though much of the groundwork had been prepared by his predecessor R Subrahmanyam, Khare ensured that the communication policy was in place for “the right narrative”, a colleague said.

Khare’s colleagues also credit his rise in the current regime to his stint as the I&B Secretary, a role that saw him becoming one of Prime Minister Modi’s trusted people for all communications strategies. “He doesn’t speak much during meetings. However… it was evident (from what he said) that he had direct knowledge of what the PM wants,” said a senior officer part of meetings with Khare.

“The I&B role gave him relatively better access to the PMO. He seems to have made a solid impression during this time,” said a bureaucrat currently serving as Secretary in the Union government.

His success in this role can be gauged by the fact that he was called back to the I&B Ministry within six months of becoming the Higher Education Secretary in late 2019 and maintained its additional charge almost till his superannuation. During this time, he was also tasked with the government’s communication strategy for the pandemic.

Closer to his retirement, bureaucratic circles were abuzz with rumours of Khare getting posted in the PMO. While he dismissed such speculation, Khare’s speech at his farewell on September 30 offered a broad indication of his future role. “He said in his speech that he is superannuating, not retiring. Maybe he always knew there was something waiting for him,” said an officer. —With Krishn Kaushik & Deeptiman Tiwary.

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