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July 8, 1998


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The Secret Seven: Find out who are on the shortlist for the VSNL crown. The Secret Seven: Find out who are on the shortlist for the VSNL crown.

Priya Ganapati in Bombay

Email this story to a friend. The Public Enterprise Selection Board may not yet be willing to publish it, but yes, it is here.

A seven-candidate shortlist for deciding on the next chairman and managing director of the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited has been cast in stone and the interviews are slated for July 17.

Those competing for the 14th floor office of the imposing VSNL high-rise in downtown Bombay include:
Lakshmi Menon, Hindustan Teleprinters chairman;
A S Bansal, Telecom Consultants India chief;
Narinder Sharma; Telecom Regulatory Authority of India secretary;
B R Khurana, Department of Telecommunications' nominee on the VSNL board;
Ramesh Chandra, a senior DoT officer;
B D Khurana, Bharti Telenet executive director and former Optel chairman
and Ashok Kumar, CGM, DoT, Ahmedabad.

On June 30, former chairman B K Syngal was refused an extension and had to step down. Amitabh Kumar, who is the senior most director on the board is now officiating till a successor is appointed.

Though there was rampant speculation that Kumar, with 24 years of service at VSNL behind him, would be nudged into the chairman's office for good, it is surprising that he is not in the reckoning.

Interestingly, a Rediff investigation stumbled on the fact that though Kumar had applied for the post his application fell a victim to a quaint technicality.

It comes to pass that the rules require an employee to have put in at least two years of service at a salary level equivalent to the post of a 'senior deputy director general' if he is to be considered for the top job.

Though Kumar was appointed to the VSNL board in September 1995 and it is well over two years since then, tragedy struck for the aspiring officer when it was pointed out that he did not qualify because of the rules.

VSNL, which was a Schedule 'B' public sector unit was pushed on to the Schedule 'A' list only a few months ago. If supporters of Kumar feel he has been wronged, it arises from the fact that while VSNL was a Schedule 'B' corporation, not even the most senior official there could have passed the rules.

"The only VSNL employee who is on the shortlist is B R Khurana. He is just a part-time director and may have figured on the shortlist more because of his position in DoT," a government official elaborated for Rediff.

When contacted, N Vittal, the upright and no-nonsense chairman of PESB, refused to comment on such "nitty-gritty". He, however, explained the process as clinically as possible:

"Our selection is a two-stage process. In the first stage, we shortlist candidates taking into account their qualifications. Whether the candidate is from the public sector or not, or whether he is from the same company we are considering, are some other factors that we look at. Once a shortlist is drawn, we interview the candidates and decide.

"Only when we find that none of the candidates are suitable do we advertise in the papers. And that depends on how successful we are on July 17," he elaborated.

When asked what the touchstone in the July 17 interviews could be, he would only say, "we are just looking for a competent person who can lead VSNL".

When probed whether a technocrat would be preferred over a bureaucrat, he was equally non-committal. "We don't have any such prejudice. We are just looking for a competent man. For example, in the case of Air-India, after interviewing three candidates, we ultimately selected Mr Saxena who is a technocrat. But in many other situations bureaucrats have been selected for the top job."

Kumar, in an earlier interview with Rediff, had said "I would be happy if somebody from VSNL, who knows the company well, is appointed." When this was brought to Vittal's notice, he said, "That suits him. Para 7 of a circular issued on March 1987 by the Department of Personnel says that we are to prefer internal candidates wherever possible. But we are not bound by it." He reiterated "We are just looking for a competent person."

Because towards the end, the tenure of B K Syngal degenerated into a quagmire of criticism and counter-criticism around the chairman's style of functioning, the view that the top post should be split into two offices each of 'chairman' and 'managing director' is gaining currency.

Vittal, however, threw this straight out of the window. He told Rediff "We will not favour that. Usually, in such cases a conflict of personalities and related problems occur. You saw what happened in the case of Air-India. The post was split and there were a lot of problems there. You can see another parallel at TISCO. It is better to have the two posts together. It is the present government's view also."


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