Industry captains now directly get in touch with the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) for issues that need quick resolution. For them, the go-to person in PMO is a bureaucrat from Gujarat Prime Minister Narendra Modi has known for years.
Arvind Kumar Sharma, a 1988-batch IAS officer and one of the many joint secretaries in PMO, definitely wields some power. And, that is because of his experience in dealing with industry as part of Modi's office as Gujarat chief minister, says a source. His contribution in organising the Vibrant Gujarat summit and getting the Tata Nano plant moved to Sanand are said to be among the reasons why Modi trusts Sharma. "It's rare that an officer of the joint secretary rank has so much say in governance," points out another informed person.
But a former bureaucrat argues the level of an officer does not matter in how much say he has. He names powerful joint secretaries under several prime ministers - Mani Shankar Aiyar and R Vasudevan in the Rajiv Gandhi PMO; Bhure Lal with VP Singh; and Ashok Saikia in the Atal Behari Vajpayee PMO.
Over the past three weeks or so, top representatives of most leading business houses have had multiple interactions with Sharma, better known as AK. A person in the know says the PMO meetings with industry are being held on a one-on-one basis, as well as through associations and business chambers. The focus currently is on the issues close to the Modi government - many of those were part of the Bharatiya Janata Party's election manifesto. Investment in infrastructure, environment clearance to stalled mega projects, checking power outages, building smart cities and making affordable housing work are some of the areas that this PMO man is learnt to be engaging with industry on, mostly without the presence of the ministers concerned. Modi and the Gujarat chief minister's office are believed to have worked on a similar model with industry.
In a glimpse of power that some bureaucrats enjoy in the Modi government, another source informs, Sharma can call Union ministers at any time to get issues resolved or projects fast-tracked. This appears in sync with BJP's goal - as outlined by now finance minister Arun Jaitley during his election campaign - of "spreading the red carpet for industry, rather than having red-tape". So far as industry is concerned, it often blamed a policy paralysis during the previous government for low investor confidence in the country.
Modi himself has had very few formal meetings with India Inc so far.
Even the traditional interactions that take place between any new prime minister and industry chambers have been kept in abeyance. He, however, met Tata group chairman Cyrus Mistry last month, besides top executives of Japanese retail chain Uniqlo and American networking company Facebook.
Sharma was among the first to be appointed in the Modi PMO, along with Principal Secretary Nripendra Misra. In fact, he is believed to be one of the very few officers from the Gujarat CM's office who were in Delhi when Modi went to the President to stake claim to form the government.
This low-key Gujarat-cadre officer, who hails from Azamgarh (Uttar Pradesh), has worked with Modi since the former became Gujarat chief minister in 2001. Until the present assignment, Sharma had never been posted outside the CM's office, even for a short period. Before coming to PMO, Sharma was additional principal secretary to the Gujarat CM. Known to be an efficient 'organiser' and 'implementer', Sharma delivered whatever Modi demanded - from Vibrant Gujarat to kite festivals. Besides coordinating road shows for Vibrant Gujarat since the summit's inception in 2003, he is considered the chief orchestrator for setting up of the Tata Nano plant in Sanand. He helped identify land and finalise the fine details of the agreement with Tata Motors, sources say.
In Gujarat's bureaucratic circles, Sharma and Bharat Lal - an Indian Forest Service officer who held the post of resident commissioner of Gujarat in Delhi till elections, and is now working closely with Modi in PMO - are credited with changing the US' attitude towards Modi. It is believed that the two officials played a key role in bringing Nancy Powell, then the US ambassador to India, to Gandhinagar for a meeting with Modi before the 2014 general elections were announced.