Meet the real CM

He maintains a low profile and lets his work do the talking. But as Malavika Sangghvi meets Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, a die-hard fan of Bob Dylan who worships Steve Jobs and loves to tuck into Sushi, we discover he is the perfect epitome of the adage still waters run deep

What have we done to deserve a CM who did his masters from University of California, Berkeley, reads Rene Descartes, enjoys sushi and listens to the Doors and Bob Dylan?

CM Chavan at his office

Must have been something very good, says Malavika Sangghvi after she met Prithviraj Chavan on the last day of electioneering at his residence late in the night for an insightful interview, free from grandstanding and hollow promises.

With an enviable reputation for honesty and efficiency, Chavan came across as a breath of fresh air at Varsha, free of hangers on.

Excerpts from the interview:

How did a boy from a municipal school in Karad land up as a Minister of State in the PMO and then as Chief Minister of Maharashtra?
It's all (the) accidents of birth, for which I'm very grateful to my parents. There have been many adjustments in my life, many breakthroughs.

I was born in Indore as my mother Premilabai Chavan's family was close to the princely family of the state. My father who had been in politics earlier was practising law after losing an election and had became a successful district lawyer in our hometown Karad. When I had moved to Karad from Indore, I recall that for my first day at school my mother had dressed me up in good clothes and given me a pair of socks and canvas shoes to wear. But I'd become an object of ridicule, so from then on I'd go to school barefoot!

Then in 1957 my father contested the Lok Sabha elections successfully and my family shifted to Delhi. I must have been around 10. When we arrived in Delhi no schools were willing to admit me, as I'd been educated in a Marathi medium. Finally I got through at one school and slowly learned Hindi. But fortunately I'd always been a good student and on graduating, I managed to get into BITS Pilani as a student of Mechanical Engineering. Later I got a scholarship to study in Germany and then I did my masters at Berkeley in the US.

From a Municipal school in Karad to one of the world's best universities...
Actually it's been my biggest regret that I didn't get in to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which I had also applied to. Because even though Berkeley was very renowned and there were 12 Nobel Laureates on the faculty while I was there - MIT had the edge in engineering.

But yes, it was a huge change. Remember America was going through a lot of turmoil - the Anti-Vietnam peace movement, the popularity of rock music, the Black Panther movement, the hippie movement etc.

And even though it was a very tough academic schedule, I was in the crucible of that progressive change. I recall seeing two protesters shot right in front of my eyes on campus. In many ways it was a huge culture shock, but also very stimulating to be at the centre of liberal thought and progressive movements. I remember we had a very eminent professor on the faculty - a Black Panther activist who had a death sentence on his head - but the college allowed him to teach us, such were the liberal values it upheld.

CM Chavan at his office; and with Malavika Sangghvi.
Pics courtesy Sudharak Olwe

That is why I say I'm so grateful to my upbringing because it has exposed me to such different worlds. The world of my village, the world of Delhi politics where my father was a Union Minister in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet and my mother a close friend of Indira Gandhi.  And of course the world of American universities and later of working in the aerospace industry in USA.

What was it like working as a professional engineer in America?
After university I worked as an engineer in the aerospace industry in Palo Alto, which was the birthplace of the IT industry. I was designing hardcore military equipment that required defense and aircraft certification.
One of the first things I remember designing was a video recorder for anti-submarine warfare, long before the Japanese had done it. Around me Silicone Valley was taking shape, and I remember how excited we were when the first microprocessor was developed, and we heard about people like Steve Jobs and what they were doing. There was a lot of cross-pollinating in the engineering world and we were caught up in the excitement.
But after four years, due to my father's ailing health, I returned to Delhi and set up a small business in defense engineering with a partner.

How did you enter politics?
(Laughs) In my case, strangely, it's always been a 3 am phone call! After I returned to India, my father passed away the next year and my mother contested from his seat and won unopposed but in 1991 as she was getting old she told Rajiv Gandhi that she would like to hand over the seat to him or to me. Rajiv had heard about me as I had also worked in the field of computing for Indian regional languages.

I had wanted to do something to develop interfaces for regional languages so that Indians would not miss out on the computer revolution.  So he came and met me as he was looking to induct technocrats and people with international training and exposure in to his party. It was a great honour for me. I remember him telling me, "There may be better engineers or scientists - but how many of them can win an election?"

It was the time when people like Kumaramangalam and Chidambaram were also joining the party. But I explained to Rajiv that there might be resentments, as I had not come up the usual way through the Youth Congress and Zilla Parishad.

However, soon after I was on my way to my hometown, my mother received a phone call at 3 am. It was Rajivji informing her that he'd decided that I would contest from her seat. And I stood and won with a majority of a lakh, winning the next two elections with even bigger majorities!

From MP to minister with over five portfolios and Congress General Secretary handling key states - how did that happen?
In 1999, I lost the election as the party had split by then, (the seat went to the Nationalist Congress Party). Sonia  (Gandhi) asked me to stay on in Delhi and do party work. Two years later I got a Rajya Sabha seat and became Minister for State in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) assisting the PM.  Then I was given additional Charge of Personnel, and handling of Space and Atomic Energy. Besides this, I was made a general secretary of the party with responsibility to oversee Karnataka, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. It was a huge responsibility, and when I finally became the CM of Maharashtra, they had to find many people to shoulder the various responsibilities.

How did the move to Maharashtra take place?
After five years in the PMO I was looking for a promotion, as I was still Minister of State. But the PM was reluctant to let me go so he made me Cabinet Minister with independent charge of Science and Technology. I also carried on my party work.

But I was always interested in what was going on in Maharashtra, and I knew that the Maharashtra CM's role was an elevation career-wise. However, I also knew that they would never shift me there because both the PM and the Congress President did not want to let me go due to my work in the PMO, the party and the various ministries that I held.

Then the Adarsh Scam happened, and I received the second of the 3 am phone calls! This was from Soniaji. She didn't have to say much as I knew the seriousness of the matter. She asked me to see her at 7 am that morning, and when I did, we spoke for 20 minutes. She gave me a mandate to 'clean up the mess, put systems in place and create a transparent and efficient government'.

She asked me to tender my resignation to the PM right away as he was due to leave in an hour for an overseas visit.

I remember going home at 7.30 am that day - the office staff hadn't come in - and I cracked out my resignation letter on my iMAC and drove to the PM's residence, where we discussed hand-over modalities. And that was it!

Why is it said that you're a stopgap arrangement and that you'll be recalled to Delhi soon?
These are canards spread by various interest groups and rivals within my own party.  The post of Maharashtra CM is one of the most important jobs in the country. There are as many as five ex-CMs who are very happy to come back but wondering how did I jump the queue?

Plus there are interest groups like the builder lobby who are resistant to change, transparency and a level-playing field being brought in.

At first they said I would not be able to handle the job, I'd be a failure and will eventually be sacked. When that didn't happen, and I consolidated my position, they said I was indispensable to Delhi and that I would be recalled soon.

Not to mention the Pawar factor and the uneasy alliance with the NCP?
Yes, of course. But it is to Sharad Pawar's credit that he agreed to our alliance for the municipal elections. Your critics say that you've been too laid back and low key and have little to show for this one year you've been in office.

It's been deliberate. The CM has too much executive power, often more than the PM himself! One signature and major projects come through. I wanted to slow down the process, study it deeply, understand where the resistance comes in, who are the interest groups, what is their modus operandi, before I began my work.

It would have been easy to come in and announce a whole lot of flashy schemes, but that is not my style. I wanted to proceed with a very sure hand and deep understanding. I am ready now.

So what are you going to focus on?
I'm focussing on transportation, water and housing. Of course, the rest is going on: education, waste management, the Dharavi project has been kick started, the mill land housing has been cleared and a hi-tech statewide land survey is under process (the last was carried out in 1920!) that will go a long way in reforming property rights and titles.

But transportation is a key focus and the coastal ring road will go a long way in solving the city's traffic problems. Every city needs an outer ring road. London has five, Delhi has two. It's an iconic project, which will connect Cuffe Parade to Kandivli by reclaiming land. An eminent panel of experts under Subodh Kumar has submitted its report, which I'm taking to Delhi. Also the metro and monorail and the Trans Harbour link that will connect the hinterland are underway.

Any city that wants to plan for the future must ensure sustainable water supply. And for that we are proposing an interstate river linking project between the Daman-Ganga and Pinjar rivers, a 5,000 crore project which will provide Mumbai with huge water supplies for future growth.

Of course, what I am doing in the housing sector is quite well known. Schemes to bring in good governance, regulation and transparency in the real estate industry have already brought prices down, brought relief to home owners and sent out a message that we have zero tolerance for corruption and rule bending.

The message is out that I am not interested in personal loyalties or crony capitalism or personal gain and that I am willing to even allow vacancies to exist in key positions if the correct people are not found to fill them. Merit, expertise, transparency and building systems are what my exposure, education and experiences have taught me to value, and that is what I am interested in.

Your well-wishers feel you should be more vocal about who you are and what you stand for. Very little is known about you.
I do not like to talk about myself personally, interviews like these are rare, but I am ready to engage with the city, its intellectuals, its professionals and its activists in a more substantial way.
I refuse to make grandiose statements because Maharashtra deserves better. But I am determined to improve things.

What do you like to do on your day off?
They're very rare, but I'm fond of western classical music. I also like softer rock bands like the Doors, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. I was a fan of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle earlier. I like to read Ren � Descartes and other rationalists. I am a fan of Japanese and North Frontier cuisines, and am a calligraphist. But I hardly ever get a day off. I haven't had the time to read Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs - a personal hero of mine - and regret that as CM I can't go for a quiet meal with my family to a Mumbai restaurant.

Too much fuss is made, and I'd be a nuisance to other diners!

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  • Amol26-Mar-2014

    He is honest person. Straightforward administrator ,his style of work is different campare to others.Prograssive Maharashtra got true person as a CM.

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