Facing 26 television cameras, in a cramped room, can test anyone’s nerves, more so when there’s bad news— like a hike in petrol and diesel prices. Petroleum Secretary Raghaw Sharan Pandey, however, did that with aplomb last week and fielded all queries despite the presence of two ministers in the room.
Pandey, of course, continues to remain in the hot seat, for another reason — the dispute between Mukesh and Anil Ambani over the supply of gas from Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited’s (RIL) Krishna-Godavri Basin gas to Anil Ambani’s Reliance Natural Resources Limited (RNRL) has put his ministry under tremendous pressure. It took all his skills some months ago, for instance, to defuse tensions, when the government lawyer argued the RIL-NTPC contract (on which the RIL-RNRL contract was based) was not a complete one — at that point, Pandey argued the government counsel had overstepped his brief. After a few weeks, the tension got defused, though by then the government counsel formally withdrew his statement in court.
Given the high stakes involved in the war between the Ambani brothers, not surprisingly, Pandey’s appointment last year was criticised as one made at the behest of an industrial house. Samajwadi Party General Secretary Amar Singh, who is considered close to Anil Ambani, called it “the unholy influence of one of the biggest industrial houses in the appointments”.
It is to Pandey’s credit that no such allegations are made today. His two-year stint in the steel ministry was equally eventful, with the minister at loggerheads with steel firms who he accused of keeping prices high. Though Pandey was considered quite sympathetic to the industry’s woes, he ensured prices remained low.
In contrast to his predecessor in petroleum ministry (MS Srinivasan) who was a tough individual and often dismissive of others, Pandey is a more easy-going — he rarely turns down requests for meetings and goes out of his way not to annoy anyone. “While Srinivasan was too bright for a secretary’s job, Pandey is bright and amiable. Even on the gas price issue, Srinivasan complicated matters but Pandey has the knack of simplifying and solving problems,” says an official who has worked closely with the two.
A Nagaland cadre officer of the 1972 batch of the Indian Administrative Service, Pandey joined the service when he was just 22 years old. Besides petroleum and steel, he had a brief two-month stint as secretary in the ministry of parliamentary affairs. He has worked a lot in the field of education and welfare and has even written a book — ‘Perspective in Disability and Rehabilitation’ which has been prescribed as study material for post-graduate students in rehabilitation.
While Pandey may have got over the initial heat over the hike in petroleum prices, the Ambani gas dispute is hotting up all over again with both parties in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, other ministries, such as the fertilizer one, are adding to the fire arguing the RIL-RNRL contract was a private one and cannot possibly overrule the country’s gas allocation policy. In other words, things are only going to get hotter for Pandey. He’ll need nerves of steel, and a lot more, to survive this.