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The Self-Confessed Nehruvian-Socialist

July 1, 2010

The man is irrepressible. Born in Lahore in 1941, he lost his father to a plane crash at the age of 12. The eldest of his three siblings he went to Welhams, Doon School and later to St. Stephens and Trinity College, Cambridge. His courageous mother brought her kids up alone, moved from Delhi to Dehra Doon so that her sons could continue their education. She taught at Doon School so that fees of her kids could be reduced. She then sent her sons abroad for higher education. Her sons did not let her down. I am talking about Mani Shankar Aiyar, diplomat turned politician who is also an avid writer and has penned three books.

The biographic details of Mani Shankar Aiyar are available easily. This left-of center Congressman was rejected by the Indian Foreign Service till Nehru intervened with the remark that he had ‘heard of the lad Aiyar – take him in’. I guess that benevolence on part of Panditji turned Mani Shankar Aiyer conclusively to the Nehruvian-Socialist brigade – a loyalist of the Gandhi-Nehru family. It may be added here that Rajiv Gandhi was his junior both at Doon School and at Cambridge and supported Aiyar at Trinity when he stood for the student union election. Later Rajiv made Mani his special assistant when Aiyar resigned from IFS in 1989. His closeness to Rajiv was such that he became his speech writer and their thoughts jelled so much that it was difficult to guess as to what part was inspired by whom.

Mani Shankar Aiyar has represented the Mayiladuthurai constituency. A strong proponent of the Panchayati Raj, he was the minister of Panchayati Raj and Sports and Culture till he publicly denounced the Commonwealth Games as a wastage of resources. But for me, the period of glory for Mani Shankar Aiyar started when he was made the minister of Petroleum in May 2004 as a stop gap arrangement. Mani Shankar Aiyar worked tirelessly and his efforts were to make the public sector Indian oil companies into giant behemoths – merging them so that there is no conflict of interest between their top bureaucrats and no inter-company rivalry.

Mani Shankar Aiyar realized that with an exploding economy, India will fall far short of the energy requirements in the coming decades. He therefore tried to create sources of oil and gas from various continents feeding the Indian market in such a way that India would not fall short of this critical resource.

Mani Shankar Aiyar

He tried hard to get to the African oil fields in Nigeria and Angola where there is sweet crude. His efforts were to rope in gas resources from Qatar and Iraq. He also tried to ensure that the Caspian oil was within India’s reach. He used his diplomatic experience such that countries he wanted to do business with saw reason and benefit in dealing with India.

In the 1980s India was 50 per cent self-sufficient in crude and 100 per cent self-sufficient in natural gas. Aiyar worked out that if India sustains 7-8 per cent economic growth over the next 15 years, the oil self-sufficiency ratio will dip to 15 per cent and gas to 50 per cent. He assiduously combined political diplomacy with oil diplomacy. He brought in Tabriz Ahmed who was then in Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia  and started a mammoth exercise whose aim was to ensure energy security for the country.

As Business Standard reported: His first stop was Vienna for a meeting of OPEC. He launched a diplomatic blitzkrieg to help Indian PSUs get a platform that served their hard-nosed economic interests, sweetened by some diplomacy. Northern and Western Africa have sweet crude. Preliminary talks began on transporting this by linking a new pipeline between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Aiyar then visited Moscow to suggest an oil pipeline from Keyhan on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey through the Sinai peninsula to reach Caspian sea oil.

Such was the effectiveness of Mani Shankar Aiyar that had he remained at the helm of the Petroleum ministry, India would have with its giant PSU’s Indian Oil Corporation, GAIL and others become one of the leading players in the international oil market. Aiyar wanted the Paradip refining capacity to be expanded. He planned to increase Indian footprint in the international market and realized that with government backing this was not impossible, though China with its massive multi-trillion foreign exchange reserve was out-bidding India frequently.

Aiyar’s lack of political savvy and his strong socialistic moorings were also the reason for his downfall. What he was doing was surely beneficial to the Indian interests and a big boost to Indian energy needs. What came in the way of his ambitious plans was his obduracy on the issue of Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Mani Shankar Aiyar saw Iran as vital source of cheap gas as India’s passport to future development and a relative reliable source of energy. He did not realize that regional geo-political realities had changed and that India was firmly in the western bloc. The IPI was not going to happen. Aiyar felt that Tran-Afghanistan Pipeline was a tad ambitious and while the IPI could be a harbinger of peace in the region, TAP was a pipedream that one could never be sure of. He had a point.

The other reason for Aiyar’s exit was that he saw PSU’s as the vehicle for Indian energy security. The other oil and gas companies in the private sector felt marginalized and short changed. His plans to expand the refining capacity of the Paradip refinery did not go down well with the private players.

Manmohan Singh had no choice but to shift Mani Shankar Aiyar to Panchayati Raj with Sports and Culture thrown in as a sweetener. Mani Shankar Aiyar had worked very hard at Shastri Bhavan. He had turned the whole problem of energy security as one big opportunity that the nation could not afford to miss. I guess he enjoyed his stint at the Shastri Bhavan. His unceremonious exit saw a sulking Aiyar get down to his other passion – Panchayati Raj. He convened a conference of Sarpanch’s from across the country in Delhi and the meet was a resounding success. But he again shot himself in the foot when he denounced the Commonwealth Games as a waste – a jamboree that India did not need. MS Gill replaced him as the Sports Minister and was entrusted with the task of making the Games happen.

My hunch is that when Mani Shankar Aiyar was shifted from the Petroleum Ministry he took it rather badly and has since been edgy and not at peace with himself. The secular-fundamentalist (he has written a book with the title) has frequent bouts of unfettered tirades against all and sundry and his lack of patience can be attributed to his feeling of having been wronged by those he thought of as ones on his side. His loud berating of the rightists (the much discussed Savarkar episode is a case in point) has only increased in pitch and volume and the self-confessed Nehruvian Socialist, though in the upper house of the Parliament now, finds himself sidelined from the real action.  That is eating him away and a man of many talents rots wasted on the fringes of Indian political landscape.

Update 27.07.2010: The depth of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s angst against the Commonwealth games can be gauged from the fact that he is hoping that the Games are a disaster and that for India it is a no show. One of the papers has reported what he has had to say about the Games as follows:

‘Personally, I will be unhappy if the Commonwealth Games are successful,’ Aiyar, a nominated Rajya Sabha member, told reporters outside parliament.

‘I am very happy with the rains, firstly because it will ensure a good agriculture for the country and secondly because it will ensure that the Commonwealth Games are spoilt,’ Aiyar said.

‘If the Commonwealth Games are successful, they will further organise Asian Games and other events… I will be happy if the Games are spoilt,’ he said.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2010 9:21 pm

    I bet you wish george bush was still president now

    • sharma24 permalink*
      August 16, 2010 8:33 am

      I don’t know. What I do know is, he was grossly underestimated. Besides his world view was more realistic and less jingoistic. His straight thinking was his strength.

  2. August 26, 2010 4:14 pm

    A+ would read again

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