| Singh with Sonia after taking oath
May 28: A bureaucrat — not a political person — Pulak Chatterjee, a low-key IAS officer of the 1969 batch, is going to act as the interface between Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Chatterjee, now private secretary to the Prime Minister, was private secretary to Sonia between 1999 and 2004 when she was leader of the Opposition.
Prior to that, his services were “loaned” to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF), a private trust headed by Sonia in memory of the late Prime Minister.
Chatterjee’s choice is a reflection of Sonia’s and Manmohan’s reluctance to draft a career politician for the crucial assignment. Both are reticent and hate media glare. Given Chatterjee’s style of functioning and experience, he is tailor-made to surmount difficulties and avert any controversy between the two power centres at 10 Janpath and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
While Chatterjee has consciously kept himself away from politics, he is a familiar figure even for district Congress workers across the country. In room number 44, Parliament House, that served as the office of the leader of the Opposition, he could always be seen, working on his laptop or taking a small break to light his pipe.
Congress workers and MPs calling on Sonia through S.V. Pillai and Vincent George never lost sight of Chatterjee. Ever in search of “persons close to Madam”, they made it a point to exchange pleasantries with him and slip their cards.
He never disappointed them, getting up from his chair to shake hands with the high and mighty as well as the lower-rung workers. But if any leader tried to get “over-familiar”, Chatterjee could act the stern bureaucrat.
Sonia and Manmohan appear to have been influenced by past experience when the office of the political secretary to the Prime Minister got highly politicised and, in fact, served as a trouble spot. Between 1991 and 1996, P.V. Narasimha Rao drafted Jitendra Prasada as his political secretary with the objective of carrying the party along.
At the administrative level, Ramu Damodaran and Wajahat Habibullah worked in tandem as representatives of Rao and Sonia, respectively. Ramu was private secretary to Rao while Habibullah was “CEO” of RGF under Sonia’s chairmanship. Together, they avoided several skirmishes.
In June 1991, when RGF’s first meeting was to be held, Sonia was reluctant to visit Rao’s residential office at 7 Race Course Road. She dreaded going back to the place occupied by Rajiv Gandhi till he was assassinated barely a month ago. She asked Habibullah to let the Prime Minister know about her feelings. Rao readily agreed to hold the meeting at 10 Janpath instead.
But after Ramu left for the US and Habibullah was sent as divisional commissioner of Srinagar, relations between Rao and Sonia took a nosedive.
Prasada, who was meant to be the troubleshooter, proved a disaster. His office became a nerve centre where vested interests played games of palace intrigue, one-upmanship and divide and rule, resulting in a split in the Congress in 1995 and the subsequent defeat of the party in the 1996 general elections.
Informed sources said the choice fell on Chatterjee after Ambika Soni, Ahmed Patel and Jairam Ramesh were ruled out, fearing that a political office could create more problems than solve them.