New Delhi: For over 40 days now, he has been appearing on our TV screens every evening to talk about how India has been faring in the battle against Covid-19.
He shares infection rates, talks about ICU beds, protection equipment, lockdowns and testing, among others, and generally tries to reassure the country through the media that there’s no reason to panic.
For Lav Agarwal, it could just be another day at the office. But the reality is, it isn’t. This is the biggest health emergency the planet has faced in decades, and Agarwal has become the face and voice of the Narendra Modi government’s efforts to tackle it in the second most populous country in the world.
The 48-year-old IAS officer is posted as a joint secretary in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and is the union government’s official spokesperson on the Covid-19 crisis.
For a spokesperson in a government known for its aggressive communication strategies, Agarwal is said to be a reticent civil servant. And that reticence comes across even when ThePrint gets in touch with him and seeks his comments for this profile.
“I would insist that please don’t write about me. I don’t want to come in any news at all,” he replied through a text message. “I am only doing my job and come to news briefing as part of my job. If you wish to write, please write about health staff working on field who are taking all the risks and doing yeoman service.”
But a colleague in the health ministry says “every crisis has a hero”, and “Covid has made Lav one”.
Agarwal’s daily briefings on television evoke anticipation of the sort that Col Bikram Singh (who rose to be Chief of Army Staff) evoked with his briefings during the Kargil war, and Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Nirupama Rao (later foreign secretary) evoked with her stinging responses and humour during the India-Pakistan stand-off in 2001-02, when the rivals were feared to be on the brink of nuclear war.
Agarwal, a 1996-batch officer of the Andhra Pradesh cadre, though, keeps playing it down, even telling his father, K.G. Agarwal, that a hero is not what he wants to be.
“He keeps telling me that he is just doing his duty…That so much media attention is unwarranted,” said the senior Agarwal, a chartered accountant in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where his son has attained celebrity status. Local media reports call him the pride of the town, and his father’s phone rings incessantly with congratulatory messages and calls.
“I have always been known in Saharanpur because I have practiced here as a CA for 45 years… But now I am known as Lav’s father,” K.G. Agarwal said proudly.
Nerdy IITian who was ‘always fun’
The civil services weren’t Lav Agarwal’s first choice for a career, his father said.
“When he was in Class 12, I wanted him to become a CA like me. He would often come and sit in my office…But one day, he told me ‘Papa, I don’t find this interesting… I want to go to IIT, instead,” the senior Agarwal recalled.
When his father told him that cracking the IIT exam wasn’t easy, Lav had said: “Don’t underestimate me… Let me try, if I don’t crack it, I will come become a CA.”
And crack the exam he did, in his first attempt, and joined IIT-Delhi to study mechanical engineering. His batchmates say he was “nerdy” — always attending classes and performing well in his exams — but also “always fun”.
“Lav was always a very interesting character,” said V.D. Singh Kochar, who studied and lived with him at the IIT-D hostel. “He had come from a small town to this prestigious institution in south Delhi, but he went from being a slightly shy guy to opening up to people from big cities in no time… A lot of people from small towns get overwhelmed with exposure; Lav took to it very naturally.”
He was never competitive, even though he was ambitious, Kochar said. “Back in the day, he had a blue motorbike, a Kawasaki… Almost the whole batch had used it once at least,” he said. “He was equally generous with his notes and stuff… Never the competitive kind.”
Civil service career
After IIT, Agarwal wanted to study abroad, but his father asked him to take the civil services exam. “If I take the exam, I’ll crack it,” he had told his father.
He finally made it through in 1996 on his third attempt, with an all-India rank of 21. “Even in earlier attempts, he cleared the written exams, but didn’t make it past the interview stage. When he got in, he got the 21st rank,” Agarwal senior said.
Allotted the Andhra Pradesh cadre, Agarwal spent several years in Hyderabad and other districts of the state, serving in different capacities, especially in the health and education department, before he came to Delhi in 2016 as joint secretary in the health ministry — a post he will hold until 2021.
While at the Centre, he has handled crucial portfolios like global health, mental health, technology and public health. Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Agarwal was one of the 10 joint secretaries in the ministry, a colleague of his in the ministry said. “Now, he is the most popular IAS officer in the country today,” the colleague said.
IAS officers seldom become public faces, but when the country is grappling with its biggest health crisis in more than a century, Agarwal is constantly in the public glare, more so than the Union health minister. This has given rise to much curiosity and some degree of envy.
“Being made the spokesperson of the government is a corollary to the portfolios he handles…They are directly connected,” the colleague said. “He is also from the same cadre as the secretary (Preeti Sudan).”
Given the portfolio of global health, Agarwal has travelled extensively across the world — probably the most in his ministry. He was involved in dealing with the World Health Organization (WHO), and was the one supervising checks at airports, quarantining, etc. during the initial days of Covid in India, making him suitable for the job of spokesperson, the colleague added.
“He has done whatever job he has gotten very well so far, during and before Covid… So to a lot of us, him becoming the face of things is not surprising — he has always been very good at his job.”
Another colleague from the ministry described Agarwal as extremely measured and diplomatic, yet very ambitious.
“He was known to never speak out of turn, and be very measured in his conduct even before this outbreak,” the second ministry official said. “All these qualities help when the country is dealing with such a huge crisis.”
‘Main itna hi bol sakta hoon’
Among journalists who have been covering his press conferences, the perception is that Agarwal is extremely adept at not giving specific answers to questions, even as he makes it a point to respond to each question after patiently listening to the reporter.
During each press conference, Agarwal promises to share more details or information the next day, but reporters say the next day never quite comes. After a recent press conference in a different context, when faced with a series of questions, Agarwal told reporters with folded hands: “Iss gareeb ko maaf karo, main itna hi bol sakta hoon” (Forgive this poor man, I can only say this much).
The second colleague agreed with reporters’ perceptions, explaining: “During a time like this, the government needs someone who will be very cautious in parting with information… You cannot have someone who wants to talk about everything he knows. In that sense, he is the ideal government spokesperson during a crisis situation.”
With inputs from Himani Chandna and Swagata Yadavar