Madam Paul,old constant who knows new President like few others do

Omita Paul is known for theforthright views she has on various things

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Published: July 27, 2012 12:25:11 am

The 1948-born Indian Information Services officer had edited an anthology of papers called Corporate Soul back in the 1970s and recalls that a full chapter had been devoted to the expression ‘chalta hai’,dealing with the downside of work culture in India. There is,however,no “chalta hai” or even “cholchhe” in what friends call the steel she has shown,or in what critics describe as her ability to control her boss.

Omita Paul is known for theforthright views she has on various things,and for the hornet’s nests these have stirred up over the years.

The name may sound Bengali but Omita Paul is actually a Punjabi from Chandigarh. She studied chemistry and journalism and is married to former Commissioner of Police in Delhi K K Paul,who is currently serving in the UPSC. She has had a varied and power-packed career,both as an officer and well after her retirement. Many in the IAS,who are used to monopolising control,have wondered how “an officer of the Information Service” has managed to enjoy the clout she does.

Now,she will be secretary to the new President,Pranab Mukherjee,capping her long association with him as “Madam Paul”,the officer heading his team. She would have preferred to stay low-profile but attention has once again come her way given the position she enjoys.

Paul,used to being a powerful man’s powerful adviser,has been the one constant as his roles have changed through their association of three decades. She has assertively managed his office,often been the single point of access to him,advised him,and been almost larger than life at times when things got really hot for him. Even on policy decisions,she has been known to have had a view,and one that has often prevailed.

She is said to know Mukherjee’s mind like few do,which is what gives her “control over her boss” in a way that political secretaries often have,and which many others resent. She knows his strengths — far-sightedness,being fascinatingly political,the enjoyment he takes in negotiation and discussions,and how he sees these as the basis of all agreements — as well as his aversions,for instance that to public display of religiosity,despite being very religious personally. She shares his workaholic nature and his determined approach to things,taking them head-on.

Over the years,she has gained his trust and that has often meant she has attracted adverse comments from fellow officers,who sniffed her “hand” in the controversial ‘2G’ note that seemed to implicate former finance minister P Chidambaram —something that was resolved only after the party’s top leadership stepped in.

“He has many sterling qualities. I have learnt a lot from Mr Mukherjee and the process of learning continues on a daily basis,on how he manages everything,” she says,firmly refusing to elaborate on any “instances” she can recall.

She brushes aside talk of her being seen as “too powerful”. She says many people started writing things about her and even about a recent,controversial PIL “without even as much as checking with me for my point of view”. The PIL,since dismissed by the Supreme Court,alleged that the Finance Ministry under Pranab Mukherjee acted inappropriately to promote the prospects of an IAS officer,who happens to be Paul’s brother,in a public sector company.

In her days as an officer,her firm views on governance and the way she pushed things had often unsettled established practice. A former colleague who worked with her at Doordarshan during the early 2000s remember how she sought to counter competition from private channels: “She changed the packaging of the sports channel and did not allow it to remain the joke it had become.” She insisted on live sports events and also set up the DD Archives,pushing the envelope constantly.

Which of the reforms she introduced is her favourite? “I just did my job; no real things I can tom-tom as my reform. But I recall that we did a lot of work with the voluntary sector. In our time at the Planning Commission,we moved the concept of working closely with the voluntary sector — an idea that is blossoming now.”

Paul recalls how “in our time” — the years “so close to Independence” — there was a keenness to join government. “The ideas of Nehru and Indiraji greatly impacted my generation of officers. Values were sacrosanct for us.”

Will being in Rashtrapati Bhawan give her some hours of leisure? There is actually a lot of work,she indicates,though “of a different kind,no doubt”. In the past eight to 10 years,she has been able to watch just TV and very few films,though she wanted to watch more. “I have seen some comedies with the children at home and enjoyed 3 Idiots.” The last film she recalls watching is Kahaani,set in Kolkata.

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