Manmohan Singh displayed a wry sense of humour and complete candour at a function last week to release the five-volume collection of his speeches. The audience consisted largely of academics and friends and there were only half-a-dozen Congresspersons present. Singh recalled that he was as taken aback on being appointed finance minister as when he was declared prime minister by Sonia Gandhi. After I G Patel declined the offer to be FM, P C Alexander vaguely mentioned the possibility of Singh being chosen. Since there was nothing definite, Singh left for Geneva for a conference. When he was unpacking on his return, he received a frantic call from Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, insisting he come for the swearing-in ceremony. “Get yourself dressed up,” was Rao’s cryptic advice. Singh comes from a humble background and temperamentally felt more comfortable in a secure government job than a temporary position in power. For instance, when Indira Gandhi wanted him in her Cabinet, he demurred, since he would lose his pension and job security. As a compromise, he was appointed member-secretary in the Planning Commission.
Guests to the recent Ambani wedding were requested in a letter, accompanying the invitation, to refrain from photographing the proceedings. But, the large number of videos which flooded WhatsApp groups indicate that the invitees did not respect the host’s wishes. From the mind-boggling jewellery to the high-powered politicians present, nothing remained secret. With elections round the corner, few politicians could afford to decline an invitation from India’s wealthiest industrialist. Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were among the few top politicians who did not attend. Thanks to the presence of the glitterati, film stars and political heavyweights, prying cellphone cameras did not bother to focus on the senior officialdom of Maharashtra and Gujarat and the key bureaucrats from Delhi who were also present.
Politicians are working hard to shed flab before the start of the gruelling campaign for the next elections. Narendra Modi has a gym in his South Block office and a fitness trainer who works for a paramilitary force. Modi’s problem is that he has such a crowded schedule that he gets to exercise only every other day. Many MPs and some ministers, including HRD Minister Prakash Javdekar and Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan, have been seen of late actively working out at the Constitution Club gym for parliamentarians. Steel Minister Chaudhary Birender Singh takes regular walks in Lodhi Gardens and so does Minister of State, Parliamentary Affairs, Vijay Goel. NCP president Sharad Pawar has also been exercising.
Several governments over three decades take credit for the Bogibeel Bridge over the Brahmaputra, which was inaugurated on Christmas Day by PM Narendra Modi. The railway and road bridge will greatly boost connectivity in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Though the long-delayed project was part of the Assam Accord of 1985 and the foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda in 1997, two individuals played a pivotal role in getting the project off the ground, despite enormous resistance from the Railways because of the unviable cost. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, elected as a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam, was responsible for declaring the bridge a national project in 2007, so that 75 per cent of the cost was borne by the Finance Ministry. The late Ashok Saikia, additional secretary in the Vajpayee government and the then PM’s trusted aide, ensured that construction work began in 2002. Saikia, who was from the Assam cadre, understood the importance of the bridge for his state, and got the PMO to pressure the Railway Board to expedite implementation.
Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot may be good friends with party chief Rahul Gandhi, but he nonetheless lost out in the power tussle in Rajasthan. Ashok Gehlot, who hails from a family of magicians, pulled off a rope trick to become the CM with the support of the old guard in Delhi, who believe in sticking together against young blood. A majority in the state Cabinet are now Gehlot’s men, and he managed to also hog nine portfolios, including key Finance and Home for himself, and unilaterally transferred 100-odd officers without consulting Cabinet colleagues. But Gehlot should not underestimate his young rival, who is the second longest surviving PCC chief in Rajasthan after Mohan Lal Sukhadia. Pilot’s immediate goal, however, is not state politics but the Lok Sabha polls round the corner.