New Delhi: The early, voluntary retirement of top IAS officer Arvind Kumar Sharma — a close aide of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for two decades — may have come as a bit of a surprise to senior civil servants, but those in the know expect Sharma to play a larger role in the government outside the civil service.
A 1988 batch IAS officer, Sharma, who hails from Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh, has been associated with Modi since he first became the chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. But Monday, the Modi government accepted his plea for voluntary retirement.
Sharma, along with P.K. Mishra, now principal secretary to the PM, had joined the Gujarat CMO when Modi took charge of the state in 2001. At the time, Mishra was Modi’s principal secretary, while Sharma served as his secretary. Sharma remained in the CMO until Modi left for the national stage in 2014, and then joined the PMO.
According to a Gujarat-cadre IAS officer currently in the central government, who didn’t wish to be identified, Sharma was one of the only officers from Gujarat to be present when Modi came to Delhi to present his claim to form the government to then-President Pranab Mukherjee.
“Along with Nripendra Misra, Sharma was one of the first officers picked to be part of the PMO in 2014,” the officer said. “It is expected that he will get a bigger role in the government outside of the IAS. The exact nature will be known in due course.”
At least three other senior officers who spoke to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity agreed that Sharma’s sudden resignation from the IAS does not mean the end of his innings in government.
Other Gujarat-cadre officers appointed to key posts under the Modi administration include P.D. Vaghela (1986 batch), chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI); G.C. Murmu (1985 batch), head of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), who was formerly the inaugural Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir; P.K. Pujari, a retired officer of the 1981 batch who now heads the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC); and Rita Teaotia (also 1981 batch), chairperson of the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
ThePrint reached Sharma via phone calls and a text message for a comment, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.
Modi’s key man in Gujarat
Sharma was known to be a quiet, low-profile officer, but one who wielded significant influence. During his years in Gujarat, he also held the position of CEO, Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board (GIDB), a position that earned him the reputation of an infrastructure expert.
“He interacted directly with the industry back in Gujarat. His role in organising Vibrant Gujarat summits, which started in 2003, is very well known,” said another Gujarat cadre officer who’s serving in the state.
Vibrant Gujarat is a biennial investor summit that played a significant role in bringing in foreign investment.
Officers also say that Sharma played a key role in getting the Tata Nano plant moved from Singur in West Bengal to Sanand in Gujarat in 2008.
“He was the key player in getting the plant to Gujarat at the time, because several other states were trying as well,” the Gujarat-based officer said. “From identifying the land for the project to all other minute details, it was all him.”
Sharma, who regularly interacted with foreign dignitaries through Modi’s tenure as CM, also played a role in bringing then-US ambassador Nancy Powell to Gandhinagar in 2014. The meeting was significant, given the US government’s cold shoulder to Modi for over 10 years before 2014.
From CMO to PMO
In the last six years, Sharma’s elevation within the central government has been quite rapid. While he joined the PMO as a joint secretary in 2014, he was elevated to the additional secretary rank in 2017. As part of the PMO, Sharma replicated his role from Gujarat and handled key infrastructure and investment projects, often staying in touch with ministers and the industry directly, officers said.
“He would often call up ministers directly in a bid to get projects fast-tracked… He was very closely involved with rolling out the PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance And Timely Implementation) platform as well,” said an officer posted in one of the infrastructure ministries.
“It was rare for a joint secretary-level officer to call up ministers directly, but this was when the PMO was focused on shaking things up after the policy paralysis that marked the previous government’s term,” this officer said.
It was only when Covid-19 struck that Sharma was moved out of the PMO, and elevated as a secretary-rank officer with the crucial charge of the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) in May 2020, weeks before the Modi government announced a slew of reforms targeted at the MSME sector in the wake of the pandemic.
The ministry, headed by Nitin Gadkari, has been seen as crucial for India’s economic revival in the aftermath of the pandemic-induced lockdown.