Soft talk and big stick
The former commerce secretary cut his negotiating teeth in the insurgency-infested north-east — experience that will stand him in good stead as he takes charge of the home portfolio
When Gopal Krishna Pillai was named the new home secretary, a junior officer in the commerce ministry broke into a smile and said: “Achha hai. Bahut danda marega udhar”(that’s good news. He will wield the stick there).
Pillai, who was to retire from the Indian Administrative Service (which he joined in 1972) on 30 November, will now have a two-year stint in the North Block. Playing with his two-year-old grandson will have to wait. Instead, he will have to ensure that his countrymen are safe from jehadis, Naxalites, Kalashnikov-toting separatists and other assorted villains, while also dealing with governors and state administrations, equipping the central police forces for the challenges they have to deal with, regulating foreign contributions to NGOs, and much else. And with an activist home minister like Chidambaram, life will be more than ordinarily busy.
Psychologically, all this is far removed from the commerce ministry where he has spent five years as additional secretary and later secretary. But it was during a stint as joint secretary in the home ministry (1996-2001) that he developed both expertise in and affection for the north-eastern part of India — and this may have helped this Kerala-cadre officer get his new job. When put in charge of the region, Pillai came to know it like the back of his hand. He can talk knowledgeably about Pangsau — the near impenetrable pass on the Indo-Burma border that American GIs named Hell’s Gate during World War II — and about Karimganj on the India-Bangladesh border where 90 per cent of the rickshaw pullers are Bangladeshis.
The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) are secessionist forces that Pillai knew and understood well. So much so that when Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to Japan as prime minister (2001) he met NSCN leaders there who told him: “It is an honour for us to meet the Prime Minister of India. But we know another prime minister — Gopal Pillai, who is negotiating with us in Delhi.”
Pillai’s philosophy when dealing with secessionist groups is: Don’t target the gun-slingers, talk to the ideologues. This worked well when the Bodos were raising their voice for ethnic recognition. He helped resolve that by pressing their case for inclusion of the Bodo language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
Pillai is a strong supporter of reform for the security forces. As the principal secretary to then Kerala Chief Minister A K Antony, Pillai did his bit for the state’s police by focusing on improving living conditions in police lines.
Pillai has moved to North Block after an eventful stint in Udyog Bhavan. Rapid export growth over several years ended with a disastrous 3 per cent growth in 2008-09, with the government able to do little to negate the effects of the global recession. The Doha Round of trade talks was an endless frustration too, but the initiative for setting up Special Economic Zones as tax-exempt export enclaves went through despite controversy. Over 500 zones have been approved, and are expected to employ around one million people.
Pillai’s wife Sudha — labour and employment secretary — is a batch-mate, soul-mate and a colleague with whom he shares a passion for the movies and Hindi film songs. As a young deputy collector of Quilon, Pillai recalls taking Sudha to the movies, the tickets paid for by selling old newspapers to the kabadiwalla.
One of the images that people have of this seasoned bureaucrat is of his walking around Udyog Bhawan’s corridors with a leg in plaster, using a cane. Late last December, Pillai fractured his leg on a holiday at Gir. Doctors advised bed rest, but Pillai insisted on attending office. As he would have said, there was work to be done and problems to be solved.
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