A Chanakya for Team Nitish - Top envoy Pavan Varma quits IFS for politics

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  • Published 1.11.12

New Delhi, Oct. 31: Frenetic preparations for Sunday’s “Bihar Adhikar Rally” in Patna might make it seem otherwise, but diplomacy is flavour of the season for chief minister Nitish Kumar.

A week-long trip to Pakistan mid-November is in the works, and not long after he returns, he plans to welcome one of India’s top mandarins into his ranks.

Pavan K. Varma, currently ambassador to Bhutan, has put in his papers and will join Team Nitish soon after quitting the IFS at the start of the New Year.

“I have been thinking deeply about the India story and I believe clean politics and good governance need to be top of the agenda. Nitish Kumar seemed to me the natural choice to push that effort,” Varma, 59, told The Telegraph today. He said he had been in touch with Nitish for a while and recently spent three days in Patna discussing the chief minister’s future plans and outlook and Varma’s part in it.

Asked if he would formally join the Janata Dal (United) and had come to an understanding about the nature of his role in the party, Varma only said: “There is time yet, all these arrangements will be worked out as per the guidance of Nitishji.”

Sources in the JD(U) indicated, though, that Nitish is keen to entrust Varma with a “prominent advisory role” that will “tap into his experience and understanding as a diplomat, writer and social commentator”.

Varma, an officer of the 1976 batch, has held several key jobs during his career. He was part of India’s permanent mission to the UN in New York, head of the Nehru Cultural Centre in Moscow and the Nehru Centre in London, spokesperson for the ministry of external affairs and press secretary to Presidents R. Venkataraman and Shankar Dayal Sharma. That last job he pioneered because he was the first foreign service officer to be commissioned into Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Lateral entries from the bureaucracy are rare in the JD(U) — former union finance secretary and Planning Commission member N.K. Singh is probably the only other prominent partyman to have been picked by Nitish and handed a Rajya Sabha term — and Varma’s impending induction to the ranks may appear even odder. Unlike N.K. Singh, Varma does not belong to Bihar and has no known background with the state’s affairs.

But thereby might hang a future tale — Varma’s arrival could well be part of Nitish Kumar’s slow but steady and very noticeable effort to expand the frontiers of his politics and worldview. Varma’s utilities lie not in run-of-the-mill politicking but in broad-spectrum socio-politics.

He has a profile that far exceeds the contours of a senior diplomat. As well as serving the IFS, Varma is a prolific and widely read author whose work has received critical notice. Two of his books on contemporary India have hit bestseller lists: The Great Indian Middle Class and Being Indian: The Truth About Why the 21st Century Will Be India’s.

He has also written a biography of Mirza Ghalib, a fiction on Krishna, a coffee-table title on the “havelis” of Delhi and translations of works of Gulzar. For a good while, Varma was an intrinsic part of Delhi’s glamour set, the Page Three People (P3P). But that’s a life he famously kicked sometime back, saying, “P3P now is RIP, I was part of it when it was alive.” The decision probably created more time for him at the writing desk.

Varma plans to dovetail his career-shift from diplomacy to politics with another book, this time a prescriptive tome on India titled Chanakya’s New Manifesto, scheduled for release in early January. Varma described it as a “hard-knuckled” work on challenges confronting India and how to deal with them. “It is a blunt and tough accounting of the problems we are faced with and what we should do about sorting them out,” Varma said. “Not the kind of book I could have written as a serving officer.”

It’s probably fair to wonder if the choice of Chanakya as central inspiration for the book presaged Varma’s political drift or is mere coincidence. Chanakya’s legendary counsel to kings was proffered in the same ancient capital that Nitish Kumar now rules. It is probably equally fair to speculate if Pavan Varma’s new job under Nitish will be to live out the title of his forthcoming book — a new manifesto for Bihar spelt out by a latter day Chanakya.