New Delhi: There is a badly kept secret in Gujarat that is also a proverb in the state’s power corridors — “The Gujarat government can’t run without K.K. and the BJP’s organisation can’t run without kaka.”
While kaka refers to Surendrabhai Patel, the BJP treasurer seen as the party’s moneybag, a la Murli Deora, K.K. is a tribute to Kuniyil Kailashnathan, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most trusted civil servants.
There is a notion that Kailashnathan is Modi’s eyes and ears in Gujarat, and it only got strengthened last week, when the state government put out a notification that with effect from 13 September, the retired IAS officer would continue as the chief principal secretary — a post specially created for him in 2013 — to newly-appointed Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel.
It is the seventh extension for the 1979-batch IAS officer since 2013, when he retired from service as the additional chief secretary to the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
It also marks 15 years of Kailashnathan’s tenure in the Gujarat Chief Minister’s Office (CMO). Since 2006, when he was first posted at the CMO, the retired IAS officer has served four chief ministers — Modi, Anandiben Patel, Vijay Rupani and Bhupendra Patel.
Sources say that Modi trusts the officer so much that in 2014, when he became PM, he moved all his trusted civil servants — A.K. Sharma, Hasmukh Adhia, G.C. Murmu, Sanjay Bhavsar and P.K. Mishra — to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) but left Kailashnathan back in Gujarat.
Gujarat’s most powerful man
Kailashnathan has served as collector of Surat and Surendranagar, and was the municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad from 1991 to 2001.
A number of sources also told ThePrint that as CEO of the Gujarat Maritime Board, he had overseen the privatisation of ports, bringing him in touch with Gautam Adani, who then recommended him to Modi.
A Malayali by birth but groomed in Tamil Nadu as his father was posted with the postal department in Ooty, Kailashnathan graduated from Madras University and has a postgraduate degree from the University of Wales.
Sources said that it was during his tenure as principal secretary of the urban development department that Ahmedabad’s rapid bus transit project was developed.
They also said that two projects played a crucial role in establishing the IAS officer as an able civil servant in the eyes of Modi.
One was the water pipeline grid around the Narmada Basin, which now caters to 70 per cent of the state’s population, and the other is the state government’s flagship Sauni Yojana, which takes the Narmada’s waters to water-deficient Saurashtra.
“Before 2000, Saurashtra and Kutch regions were water deficient; droughts were a normal feature but Modi’s vision and K.K’s implementation has changed the dynamics of this region,” a former civil servant who served with KK told ThePrint. “The pipeline they laid covers 361 km and now there is no such scarcity of water in the area.”
At present, the retired civil servant is overseeing another of Modi’s pet works, the Sabarmati Ashram Development Project, in which he heads the executive council. The Rs 1,246 crore project, to be spread across 55 acres of land, is a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and was announced by the prime minister in 2019.
Apart from his administrative work, KK is also seen as Modi’s political strategist in Gujarat, who regularly engages with officials in the PMO on issues concerning the state.
“His acumen is astounding; his experience, and political perspective is more astute than many of the politicians,” said a second civil servant who had worked with KK.
“Not only does he handle administration, the bureaucracy and policy decisions of the government, he also handles political operations, whether it’s the Patidar movement or to provide arrangements for campaigning.”
The retired civil servant also said that Kailashnathan helped with image building, when Modi moved to Delhi.
For instance, Kailashnathan facilitated the meeting between Modi and retired Supreme Court judge, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who headed the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal that probed the Gujarat riots of 2002. Following the meeting in 2013, Iyer endorsed Modi’s bid for Prime Ministership.
“In the creation of the Modi image, his contribution can’t be ignored,” the retired officer said. “He understands politics and the PM takes his suggestions very seriously. But he speaks very little and to the point, without any introduction.”
Such is his importance in Gujarat that after Bhupendra Patel, a first-time MLA, was sworn in as chief minister, a senior BJP leader and seven-time Lok Sabha MP remarked, “It does not matter who becomes the chief minister of Gujarat; ultimately, KK is here, he will rule the administration.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)