Aweek before Pranab Mukherjee quit as finance minister to become the United Progressive Alliance's Presidential candidate, I spoke with a bureaucrat in New Delhi said to be close to Union Minister for Home Affairs Palaniappan Chidambaram
. With a grin, he revealed he had been getting an unusual number of lunch invitations lately from his colleagues, including many who were indifferent to him earlier. The implication was clear. Many in the bureaucracy expected Chidambaram to take Mukherjee's place, and were thus hurriedly renewing ties with someone they believed had access to him.
As it happened, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to take additional charge of the finance portfolio. But Chidambaram is flourishing too, having been chosen to head the empowered group of ministers
(EGoM) on telecom. Ironic indeed as the investigation into the telecom spectrum allocation threatened to consume Chidambaram on account of the role he played as finance minister in 2007/08, the period under investigation. There are also renewed rumours that the prime minister had only taken over temporarily and may soon hand over finance to him.
It is widely known that Chidambaram is far from being a frontrunner in any popularity contest among ministers. So how is it that the government finds him indispensable?
During a conversation two years ago, a former Cabinet minister and ex-colleague of Chidambaram's provided an answer. He admitted he disliked the man's "arrogance", but added in the same breath that every government needed people like Chidambaram, who frequently ask questions at Cabinet meetings that simply do not occur to the others.
Prime Minister Singh probably feels the same way. In late 2008, after Chidambaram was shifted from finance to the home ministry, and Singh - as he has done this time too - briefly took over finance, he ordered that key departments would continue to route their files through Chidambaram. He also ensured Chidambaram was included in the crisis management team formed following the recent troubles in Western financial markets.
A number of officials who have worked with Chidambaram are in awe of him. They say his work ethic is unmatched. He is also disdainful of protocol and hierarchy. He is ready to interact directly with anyone - even the juniormost officer - once he is convinced the person understands the issue and can provide insights.
Politicians are usually at their most obsequious on the campaign trail, when they seek votes. Not Chidambaram. On a scorching day in a village in Tamil Nadu's Sivaganga district in May 2009, for instance, Chidambaram was addressing a group of 30 to 40 people, primarily women.
When a couple of presumably bored women began chatting among themselves, he interrupted his speech to rebuke them from the dais, urging them to pay attention. Chidambaram is indeed a riddle wrapped in an enigma.-Sanjiv Shankaran
Barring the Buddha
Franck Fortet (R) Vice President, George V Eatertainment Tarja Visan Co-founder, Buddha-Bar
Buddha-Bar, the global luxury dining and bar chain, will shortly open in Delhi, but its outlet here will not bear its name. It will be called simply 'B-Bar' so as not to hurt anybody's feelings, especially those of the Buddhists. "A few people in some countries had issues with the name," says Franck Fortet, Vice President, Development, George V Eatertainment, the Paris-based group that owns the Buddha-Bar brand. The Delhi outlet will occupy a sprawling 20,000 sq. ft., of which 12,000 sq. ft. will be the restaurant. Again, so as not to give offence, instead of the iconic Buddha statue it has elsewhere, the restaurant in India will feature a peaceful Samurai, sitting in a similar position. "We will have a special menu for India as we respect the countries we go to," says Tarja Visan, cofounder of the chain. B-Bar plans to open 10 more restaurants in the country in the next decade.-Dearton Thomas Hector
Displaying her skills
Pia Singh, Whole-time Director, DLF Ltd
Her business savvy is already proven. It was she who spearheaded real estate giant DLF Ltd's foray into entertainment and retail. Now, Pia Singh, 41, daughter of DLF founder and chief K.P. Singh, is moving into the skills development business. She has teamed up with business process outsourcing
(BPO) industry veteran and former Genpact chief Pramod Bhasin. While the business model and financial arrangements are yet to be finalised, Pia and Bhasin are already in talks with the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) to explore the possibility of a public-private partnership. The sector offers vast opportunities, considering that, according to NSDC, the skills gap in 22 sectors will be close to 347 million by 2022. Singh studied at Wharton School in the United States and worked in the risk-underwriting department at GE Capital before joining DLF.
-Manu KaushikWith renewed energy
He has spent 25 years in the telecom business, having worked with the likes of Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications, where he was CEO of the Mobility division. Now Syed Safawi has taken over as CEO of the tower company Viom Networks, a joint venture between Tata Teleservices and Quippo, a SREI Group enterprise. Safawi himself also holds some shares in Viom. He wants the company, which owns 40,000 towers, to start using renewable energy, as he believes this will reduce the expenses of telecom operators in the long run. "Alternative energy will become extremely important. It is the future," he says. "Our aim is to have 12,000 towers using green energy by next year." He is also keen Viom launches an initial public offering, and is negotiating with global operators to take the company overseas.