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September 7, 1999
Shailendra Kumar Gupta is the new chairman and managing director of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited.
The 1964 batch Indian Telecom Service officer was already at the 14th floor Bombay headquarters of VSNL at 9 am... Sharp.
His ascension to the throne of India's overseas telecommunication monopoly comes after B K Syngal was refused an extension in office on June 30, 1998. Over one year and two months ago!
Since then several senior suitors to the post plucked daisy leaves while the government dithered over a decision.
Only the government can explain the delay but in the meanwhile VSNL Director Amitabh Kumar officiated as the 'acting chairman and managing director'.
Today's appointment of S K Gupta brings to a climatic end several bureaucratic battles and political intrigue that played between New Delhi and Bombay as the nation's power brokers pitted and plotted for the big job.
SK, (as he likes to call himself), was earlier posted at Ahmedabad as the chief general manager, telecom, Gujarat Circle.
Though he was a frontrunner for the job, almost everyone expected a decision to come after the new government took charge.
"I am taking this philosophically. In fact, I was to come to Bombay for a meeting on September 7. The arrangements and the tickets were already booked sometime ago. But I was expecting something to come through."
Today's announcement, in the midst of the general elections, caught the industry off guard too.
SK told Rediff over the phone: "Like any common person, I received the news with lot of happiness and a prayer to God to be successful in whatever I do."
No. He did not jump over the desk or punch the air. "Actually, the interview for the post took place on June 6 or 7. Later I knew that I had been placed at the number one position. Finally, on September 4, I was informed that I had got the post."
SK revealed, "One of my friends who is working in the communications ministry saw the appointment letter and called me up. The formal intimation will arrive in two or three days."
SK is a hardened technocrat with nearly 34 years of experience in telecommunications. All of those years were with the government's Department of Telecommunications, the organisation that single-handedly runs India's telecom networks that until recently were a state monopoly.
SK claims he was not really keen on the VSNL post. But it cannot be denied that he has won the job against one of the stiffest competitions in Indian bureaucracy. In fact, the VSNL crown was up for grabs for some names from the private sector too.
At one point of time sections within the government argued that because of the rising importance of telecommunications younger candidates from the private sector must be considered.
Some suspected that those who feared DoT's pervasive stranglehold on the nation's telecom infrastructure were suggesting such proposals.
But many pointed out that telecom's convergence with computing and entertainment technologies dictated that somebody younger and from a less restrictive background should take over. Someone from the private sector.
These arguments led to the shooting down of a candidate list prepared by the Public Enterprise Selection Board. That led to controversies and inexplicable delays.
That is why it is a trifle surprising that SK got the job despite his bureaucratic background and only few years to go before retirement. However, this cannot belittle his immense qualification for the job.
Amitabh Kumar, who has been running the show at VSNL for over an year now, will continue, company sources said to quell rumours that he might quit.
Actually, SK himself assured Rediff that Kumar is staying on and is actually busy overseeing VSNL's road show for the upcoming GDR issue. SK said "Kumar is handling the road show in a very good manner. I may be present in some of them. But he has prepared for it and he will continue with it."
When asked what would be his immediate concern, SK explained: "One is to ensure that all the objectives are achieved. The second is to look after the welfare of the staff."
Because SK is completely new to VSNL, he spent the whole of today meeting the brass to discuss the corporation's international commitments.
He, however, declined to answer any questions on VSNL's strategies or plans: "Let me gain more information about the organisation first. I will need a grooving-in period before I can say anything."
In the first round of interviews held in November, Gupta was only second in the list of the top candidates. Narinder Sharma, secretary, Telecom Authority of India, was the hot favourite.
Then came the government decision that private sector candidates should also be considered and the first interview was nullified.
Seventeen candidates were listed for the second round of interviews on June 3. Amitabh Kumar and some private sector applicants were on the list too.
Gupta was once again not very hot.
Actually, Gupta seemed an unlikely candidate at the time because his more flamboyant contemporary Amitabh Kumar was frequently on the front pages for the deals that were being signed with the PowerGrid Corporation, British Telecom and a potential satellite alliance with Zee TV's Subash Chandra.
However, luck favoured Gupta and Kumar was out of the race on a mere technicality.
A very senior former bureaucrat from the government's telecommunications establishment told Rediff that till a few days ago there were rumours that Gupta's candidate had been scrapped as the cabinet subcommittee had rejected it.
Even Gupta believes that his appointment has come through only because of divine intervention: "I was very happy in my previous position as I was the GM of a state telecommunication circle. Only by the grace of God have I got the post of the CMD. When I heard about it I reacted in a very sober manner and felt that God must have thought that I will do a good job."
- With inputs from Neena Haridas at the ringside in New Delhi
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