Suresh Kumar, a retired IAS officer, is now the Chief Principal Secretary to CM, a move that political pundits say is a sign that Chief Minister Amarinder Singh wants an efficiently run CMO on which no mud sticks.
With the bespectacled razor-sharp man who ran the CMO during the second half of Amarinder Singh's last term – the one half that most have good memories about – back on the second floor of Punjab Civil Secretariat, next door to the chief minister's office, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has sent a clear message across the entire political spectrum that he means business and he understands his long term reputation will now depend on how well his office runs.
Suresh Kumar's acceptability is clear from the fact that while most people expected him to be appointed as Chief Secretary during Prakash Singh Badal's tenure, many said if AAP won, he could be a possible candidate for one of the topmost jobs and now Amarinder Singh has put him in his office to run the state as it ought to be run.
If political turf had reality TV style contests built around honesty and efficiency, Suresh Kumar, the just-appointed Chief Principal Secretary to Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, would win hands down everytime, with extra marks for not tolerating any non-sense.
Kumar’s will be an ex-cadre post created under Section 56 of All India Service Rules that allow for the appointment of a super-annuated officer. Kumar's appointment has set a new precedent in Punjab.
Few bureaucrats have reputations so impeccable by the end of their careers. A 1983 batch officer, Suresh Kumar earned accolades for his efficiency and no-nonsense approach to decision making fairly early in his career. Whether it was as Deputy Commissioner of the border district of Ferozepur, or in sundry other positions, Suresh Kumar kept solidifying his reputation. As Registrar of Cooperative Societies (RCS), he infused a new vigour in the domain, and just when it seemed that stint will be the high point of his career, he saw himself being catapulted to the post of PS to CM.
These were difficult circumstances. Amarinder Singh was grappling with a full blown rebellion in his ranks. His arch rival Rajinder Kaur Bhattal had taken her loyalist MLAs and parked herself in Delhi while Amarinder loyalist MLAs were at Kapurthala House in the national capital. It took all the conciliation powers of Sonia Gandhi to bring about a compromise. How the CMO was being run was at the centre of the entire dirty no-holds-barred squabble.
This was the moment when Amarinder Singh brought in Suresh Kumar as his Principal Secretary to CM.
All of a sudden, it was an accessible, functional CMO. Kumar's doors were always open to anyone who wanted to meet him. Allegations of favouritism stopped, journalists had easy access to information and officers across the state felt there was again room to breathe, act imaginatively, pitch their ideas and execute these.
Deputy Commissioners in districts across Punjab would no more receive calls to grant favours to xyz in the name of the CM. "It was a pleasure to work with someone who would go through a file, grasp the point, give the exact clear direction and appreciate the work. The culture of gossip and backbiting had gone," said an officer who had worked in close proximity to Suresh Kumar during his earlier stint at the CMO.
Many senior journalists fondly recall Kumar's habit of calling them a 'Ganda Bachha' (bad boy), an epithet he reserved only for scribes he particularly respected. When a journalist would do a story critical of him, but one that was factually correct, he would merely say, "I know he had a point, but we will make amends very soon."
While Amarinder Singh earned a lot of accolades with his Termination of Agreements Act 2004, the SYL-blocker bill, the efficiency with which his confidante officers, K R Lakhanpal (who later became the Chief Secretary in early 2006) and Suresh Kumar, pulled it off without making much noise is the kind of stuff that bureaucratic folklore is made of.
With a varied experience that also covers his stints as Secretary, Irrigation, Power, Local Government, Financial Commissioner Cooperatives, Financial Commissioner - Development besides his sterling work during stints while on central deputations, the man is equipped to deal with the smorgasbord of issues that a CMO is confronted with on a day to day basis.
But then each position brings its own challenges. Suresh Kumar has built a reputation for himself that is too formidable for someone to follow, but now that it is he himself who has to set new standards of excellence, many in Punjab will be watching closely.
"I have little doubt that this might turn out to be Amarinder Singh's winning strategy - the choice of Karan Avtar Singh as Chief Secretary, pulling out Suresh Kumar from his retirement and making him Chief PS to CM, having Tejveer Singh, also known for his Teflon persona and efficiency as PS to CM, and picking up MP Singh as his confidante and problem-handler, besides retaining Suresh Arora as DGP of the state. This is the classic ‘keep-the-steelframe-intact-and-nothing-much-can-go-wrong’ approach. Besides, it will free Amarinder Singh for providing some real tough political direction and decision making, the actual task that a CM should be doing instead of running routine administration," said a senior BJP MLA who has good memories of dealing with the CMO in 2004.
In the little interregnum between his retirement in April 2016 and his new appointment, Kumar had a few months that he spent attending seminars, planning to write a book, and writing articles on the crisis in agriculture. For someone who lives by work, retirement really is an alien notion.
At a recent seminar in Chandigarh on electoral reforms, where Suresh Kumar was among the speakers, senior journalist SP Singh, while introducing him, jokingly suggested that blood samples, tissue samples, brain cell samples and ramrod spine samples of Suresh Kumar should be collected and preserved for posterity since cloning technologies may progress further and it may become possible to clone great administrators. As the audience laughed, one thing was clear: They don't make officers like him too frequently. "But whatever you say, I will always wonder why he was not made the Chief Secretary when every sane person expected him to become one?" asked a senior officer. Well, there should always be something to wonder about.
The only thing people need not wonder is if he will speak his mind to the top political executive. The man has a spine that is too ramrod to bend, and the CM Royale knows it better than anyone.