New Delhi: Former IAS officer Ashwini Vaishnaw has created a flutter in bureaucratic circles after political rivals — Bharatiya Janata Party and Biju Janata Dal — closed ranks to nominate him as the BJP’s Rajya Sabha candidate from Odisha, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling up Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to get his support.
Patnaik also agreed to give up his party’s claim on one of the three Rajya Sabha seats from the state to ensure Vaishnaw’s entry into the Upper House.
The Rajya Sabha bypolls are scheduled for 5 July.
Who is Ashwini Vaishnaw?
A former IAS officer of the 1994-batch Odisha cadre, Vaishnaw was private secretary to prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004.
“But that was way back. And we do not buy the story that he was rewarded for his loyalty to the first BJP PM. We were flummoxed by how not only the BJP but even Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, which has 112 members in the Odisha assembly and could have easily nominated three leaders from its own party for the Rajya Sabha, was supporting Vaishnaw,” said a leader of the BJP’s Odisha unit on condition of anonymity.
Soon after Vaishnaw’s nomination, Patnaik told reporters at a press conference that his party is supporting his candidature after both Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah spoke to him.
‘He was an able administrator’
A native of Rajasthan, Vaishnaw, is an IIT-Kanpur alumnus. He had first proved his mettle as an administrator when he was posted as the Collector of Balasore district in 1999.
That year, Odisha was hit by a super cyclone that killed thousands of people. His colleagues said Vaishnaw’s efficient handling of the situation brought him to the notice of his political masters.
“It is said that impressed with his work in Balasore, Naveen Patnaik’s then confidante and political adviser Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, who later fell out with him, recommended his name for (the post of) Cuttack Collector, considered a prized post,” said a serving Odisha cadre IAS officer, who was Vaishnaw’s senior.
His former colleagues in the bureaucracy also vouch for Vaishnaw’s efficiency.
“He was known to be a good administrator and was well spoken of by his superiors and colleagues. He always maintained an extremely low profile,” said the IAS officer.
His PMO link
The IAS officer quoted above said Patnaik’s former adviser Mohapatra had recommended Vaishnaw’s name to the Prime Minister’s Office for the post of deputy secretary in 2002 when Vajpayee was PM. The BJD had an alliance with the BJP at that time.
“It helped that Ashok Saikia, who was then the joint secretary in the Vajpayee PMO and had coordinated cyclone relief operations in Odisha, had seen Vaishnaw’s work and was impressed,” said an official who had worked in the Vajpayee PMO.
The official said that Vaishnaw was a quintessential bureaucrat — efficient, low-key and affable. “He was liked by his seniors, including Saikia,” he said.
After his brief stint in the PMO where he pushed for the public-private-partnership model in infrastructure projects, Vaishnaw was appointed as Vajpayee’s private secretary after the BJP-led NDA lost election in 2004.
“He had an office in Vajpayee’s Krishna Menon Marg. He was good at his work, but we could sense that he was not satisfied with what he was doing,” the official added.
Vaishnaw soon left Krishna Menon Marg to take up his next assignment as deputy chairman of Goa’s Mormugoa Port Trust in 2006. But he did not continue there for long. In July 2008, Vaishnaw went to study business management in Wharton School of Business, US. The next year, he sought voluntary retirement from IAS.
“I asked him the reason and he said he had funded his own study in Wharton and was under huge financial burden. He wanted to join the private sector to pay off the loan,” a retired Odisha-cadre bureaucrat told ThePrint.
Worked in ‘controversial’ mining company
After quitting civil services, Vaishnaw worked in the private sector in different capacities, dealing mainly with infrastructure. He was the managing director (commercial) in Gurgaon-based GE Transportation.
“In between, he was also one of the three directors in Thriveni Pellets Private Limited, a unit of Thriveni Earth Movers Private Limited, one of the country’s largest mine developers. The two companies are owned by the controversial mining baron B. Prabhakaran,” said an Odisha unit BJP leader.
Thriveni Pellets Private Limited is involved in mining non-ferrous metal ores.
“In the run up to the 2019 elections, the Congress had raked up the issue of alleged link between Prabhakaran and the BJD,” the BJP leader said.
The by-election to the six Rajya Sabha seats, including the three from Odisha, will be held on 5 July. With the BJD backing Vaishnaw’s candidature, his win is a foregone conclusion.
But BJP leaders from Odisha said it would be interesting to see what happens next.
“Will he be made a minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet as is being widely speculated?” said a BJP leader.