India has not Heard the Last from Suresh Prabhu

Suresh Prabhu, who celebrates his birthday on 11th July, is the incumbent SHERPA to G-7 and G-20. He represents Andhra Pradesh in the Rajya Sabha since 2016 as his second term in the Upper House. Before that, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Rajapur in Maharashtra for four consecutive terms beginning in 1996. 

The switching from an evergreen professional career including the role of chairman in one of the largest cooperative banking organizations in the country and first-ever chairman of state finance commission in Maharashtra to join mainstream politics at the national level may have been a mixed experience. Yet, India’s top leadership saw incredible potential in him. His joining the Vajpayee cabinet to head the Ministry of Industry is a testament to this assertion.

Since then, there has been no looking back. Prabhu has held 10 cabinet positions apart from several quasi-government assignments in Vajpayee and Modi periods. During his tenure as Minister for Environment and Forest, he introduced the comprehensive National Environment Action Plan. He also had an instrumental role in drafting the Biological Diversity Act for conservation. Further mandatory environmental impact assessment for 29 developmental activities, formulation of an action plan for 33% forest cover in India and constitution of a national committee for identification of co-sensitive zones occurred during his period.  

Moving on to his next role as Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers, he enhanced the automatic approval limit for FDI in the pharmaceutical sector, drafted a bill on Chemical Weapons Conventions, and most significantly rolled out a long-term fertilizer policy. Notably, he was pivotal in setting up joint ventures with countries having potash, marking a new chapter in India’s quest for self-sufficiency. 

He had an immense role in the early commissioning of critical infrastructure to improve the country’s self-reliance in petrochemical needs.   

In 2000, Vajpayee made him the Minister for Power. In that role, he introduced Electricity (Amendment) Bill, which provided non-discriminatory open access in the transmission segment and mandated State Electricity Regulatory Commissions to introduce open-access distribution. It was a game-changer. Apart from several measures aiming towards capacity building to meet the power demand in the country, he executed the Accelerated Power Development Program (APDP) to improve the operational efficiency of old generating stations through renovation/modernization.

Prabhu prepared the seven-year action plan for rural electrification and set up credit support from Rural Electrification Corporation to State Electricity Boards. He encouraged FDI in transmission through two routes viz. Joint Ventures and through Independent Power Transmission Corporation. He ensured tamper-proof meters on the commercial front, operationalized energy accounting, and implemented a decentralized computerized billing system. He set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to take up afforestation and stipulated environmental measures. Also, He took steps to enhance the use of fly ash products in Government infrastructure projects.

Then comes a little-known territory. PM Vajpayee appointed him as the head of the River Linking Task Force by announcing on the floor of the parliament. This is the clinching testimony of his image as an Ace Administrator who is excellent at executing even untested programs of massive scale. More importantly, the Honorable Supreme Court of India supervised this.

As part of this responsibility, he chaired the comprehensive program of the Government of India to ensure the country against water stress through linkage of significant rivers in the Himalayan and Peninsular regions of the country. He demonstrated exemplary actions in achieving the cherished national dream, which had a powerful emotional connotation.  

His role-play under PM Modi has been no less significant. He became the official emissary of the Prime Minister of India in the G-20 forum. The responsibility includes shaping the official agenda of the Government of India on critical issues for summit-level talks. He has engaged effectively with global leaders and thinkers in a short span, which enabled him to lead delegations across the globe. 

In a progressively globalized age, its inevitable India plays a defining role in specific ways and being an active part of such global alliances are essential ingredients to that recipe. Whether it’s Trade and Commerce, Security, Intelligence-Sharing, Technology-Collaboration, Innovation through Research & Development, Educational & Cultural exchanges, the need for interdependency among individual and group of countries forming blocs can seldom be overrated. 

Organically his versatile experiences are beneficial to further the national interest through various global forums. Entirely natural, he has represented India on multiple occasions at several trans-national conferences, including the World Economic Forum, Davos to represent India’s views on global affairs.

Prabhu held Railways ministry between 2014-17. During this period, he almost changed Indian Railways (IR) perception, often not in positive notes. Several policy decisions were taken and implemented to improve operational efficiency and addressing future challenges. Remarkably he affected a complete overhaul in Railways project financing by leveraging extra-budgetary resources, including several other innovative means. To meet its demand, he formulated an attractive deal from LIC for a whopping 1.5 lakh crore. It was unprecedented in IR history. Of course, it was followed up by multiple such reform measures which were undertaken under his supervision.

The single most perception change he drove is by converting IR from being passengers focused to customers focused. It was a paradigm shift by many standards. 

It was an uphill task. As part of change management, he institutionalized specific ways of working to secure increased customers’ satisfaction. 

Apart from customer focus, he also contributed to several streams across the spectrum within Railway’s ecosystem, such as planning & investment, infrastructure augmentation, sustainability, governance & transparency etc. Two references are drawn here. Successful introduction of real-time customer complaint resolution mechanism through social media was another forte. Introduction of customer-friendly measures such as E-catering, Water vending machines, Clean my Coach service, Automatic Ticket Vending Machines and significantly improved coach designs.

In 2017, he was India’s minister for Civil Aviation. Here he was instrumental in bringing specific first of its kind changes both in terms of policymaking and sectorial promotion, such as the release of India’s first-ever National Air Cargo Policy, Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) Policy, National Green Aviation Policy, and Drone Policy leading to a higher level of discipline and efficiency. More than 12 lakh passengers flew under UDAN till 31st Jan 2019. In 28 months of UDAN, 69 un-served airports, 31 helicopters, and 6 water drones were awarded. 

PM Modi made him the minister for Commerce and Industry. Though assuming this office was sudden, Prabhu changed the perception through his brilliant ideas and deliveries. Highlights of achievements include formulation of specific groundbreaking reform policies and measures in areas like boosting domestic manufacturing, trade promotion, pivoting multilateralism, investment promotion, technology & innovation, the impetus to the startup ecosystem, streamlining E-Commerce and IPR, etc.  

A few special measures during his office are listed. Initiation of pilot District Level Development plan in six districts across five states, focusing on interventions critical to boosting manufacturing at the district level. Besides, organizing a mini ministerial WTO meet in India to make India a focal point under new power dynamics in trade multilateralism. Reinforcing efforts towards the ranking of EODB leading to India’s 1st rank among South Asian countries as against 6th in 2014 and 77th position in World Bank’s EODB ranking, leaping up by 23 ranks. 

In four years, India received an FDI of USD 263 billion, representing an almost 100% increase compared to the preceding annual average inflow, which is clear evidence of winning the trust of global investing communities. Facilitation in setting up Government e-Marketplace (GeM) as National Public Procurement Portal in August 2017 to enable wholly online and transparent system for procurement of goods and services. GeM platform saw transactions worth Rs 17500 crores in the initial 2 years, resulting in an average saving of 25-28%. 

Startup India is one of the flagship initiatives. Multiple measures are taken to ensure renewed commitment to building a robust ecosystem conducive to the growth of that segment. The outcome was count of recognized startups crossed 15,000 with an employment generation of 1,30,000.Initiation in development of India’s first-ever National e-Commerce Policy. Front line role in implementing a new age IPR Policy to strengthen the IPR regime in India. 

In 2019, Prabhu’s absence in the 1st cabinet of Modi’s 2nd term was conspicuous; however, his omission from the latest cabinet overhauling, as against widely expected of his inclusion, is nothing sort of mystery among the larger circuit of political analysts and observers. Two days ahead of the D-day, when there was a lot of hype about professionals& technocrats joining the government, it almost became certain even on seasoned political pundits that he is joining the government. Alas, they all got their supposition wrong; be that as it may. Significantly, his actions all through his public service trajectory has immensely contributed to the persuasive and inspirational currency in his possession. Regardless of calling, people across spectrum, continue to draw inspiration from the social capital he has been able to create.

Given the current economic transitions, important ministries should be manned by leaders commanding demonstrated history of outlining visions and perfect executions. However, political expediency dictates otherwise. Prabhu continues with his current SHERPA role and may not have been part of the recent reshuffle, but his role in reimagining India cannot be over-emphasized.