The joke in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) is that if you are an IFS officer who has slogged to learn Chinese, the chances are that you will be posted in Australia, given the administrative vagaries of the system.
Veeravalli Sundaram Sampath is an expert on power and energy. He has had extended exposure to the sector as an administrator and knows the political economy of deregulating the sector first hand, having done it himself—and guess where the government has sought out his talents? In managing elections.
Sampath took over as the chief election commissioner (CEC) earlier this month after a long innings in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) which he joined in 1973. An Andhra Pradesh cadre officer, between 1986 to 1989 in the state, he served as managing director in a cooperative bank, a handloom marketing society, and an oilseeds federation in the food and public distribution department, industries department and finance department
But in 1990, this quiet, self-effacing but thorough officer caught the eye of the then chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, who made him principal secretary, energy. Recall Naidu’s guts and glory days. His approach was to deregulate, free up, open up. At an Asean business forum, which he addressed as India’s no 1 reformer chief minister, extolling telecom reform, he said that when there was a public sector monopoly over telecom, the joke was that those who didn’t have a phone were waiting to get it, while those who were lucky enough to have one were waiting for the dial tone.
When Naidu launched power sector reform, he relied on Sampath. The Telugu Desam party (TDP) leader won at least one election in the teeth of opposition from the Congress to power sector reform—the party offered free electricity to voters but still lost the election! Naidu—and Sampath - demonstrated how effective governance and reforms could help growth, reduce transmission losses and improve efficiency.
Naidu then promoted Sampath to be the finance secretary. But, in 2004, around the time YS Rajasekhara Reddy brought the Congress to power in Andhra Pradesh in a landslide victory, Sampath thought it might be prudent to move to Delhi. He was posted in the Ministry of Rural Development in the relatively unknown department of land resources. A few months later, he became director general, National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad.
When Ram Vilas Paswan became the minister for chemicals and fertilisers, Sampath was asked to flesh out India’s first petroleum, chemical and petrochemical investment region (PCPIR). It was expected that massive investment would create the equivalent of Special Economic Zones in the petrochemicals sector. Paswan was ebullient about the potential the experiment offered – both for him personally and for the country. There were big corporate houses to meet, deals to be done. Colleagues recall Sampath as efficient and hardworking but correct. When ‘corporate plans’ were to be discussed, he always preferred to stay away from the meetings sending an additional secretary or a joint secretary instead.
The PCPIR was launched in Visakhapatnam and was expected to generate 1.2 million direct and indirect jobs with an investment of Rs 3.43 lakh crore. But private sector companies are cussed about money. The government did manage to attract ONGC and OIL to put in money. RIL also invested. But it never got beyond that: You needed railways, roads, power and water to get it off the ground. A PCPIR was almost like creating a new city. It might have worked in South Korea or Soviet Union in the 1970s where the government was all powerful. But this was India and this was the decade of 2000.
Anyway, after this Sampath became secretary (power). Those who interacted with him found him knowledgeable about the sector: he knew the game, but exerted himself only up to a point. The Restructured-Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme (R-APDRP to renovate and modernise Indian power utilities was his contribution. But this was no aggressive bureaucrat, thumping tables to get doors opened. Instead, a sober, thorough man, sincere about doing his best, but always by the book.
With a short time left for superannuation, Sampath did something that made his colleagues blink. AP Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy came to Delhi and told Sonia Gandhi that Sampath be given a job in the Election Commission.
Reddy was a fair and farsighted man. In the fashion of erstwhile feudal lords, if a bureaucratic from his state – who had not harmed him – asked him for something, he always took up the case. Sampath became Election Commissioner in 2009 after N.Gopalaswami retired and the general elections of 2009 were on. He became Chief Election Commissioner of India on 11 June 2012.
Sampath now has two important tasks: one, he has to set back on course, the relations between the Election Commission and the government, specifically the Law Ministry. And second, he will have to conduct the general elections due 2014, maybe even earlier, where a crucial electoral factor in the formation of the new government will be Jaganmohan Reddy’s new party. His actions will be watched very, very closely.