After Samajwadi Party’s landslide victory and BSP’s defeat in 2012, as journalists jostled for the best vantage point to cover the first press conference of Akhilesh Yadav, the newly sworn-in chief minister at his official residence of 5, Kalidas Marg in Lucknow, their attention was suddenly drawn towards the most unexpected entry of senior bureaucrat Navneet Sehgal. Easily spotted among the crowd because of his towering height, Sehgal, the man Friday of out gone CM Mayawati, was there with a bouquet to wish the new chief minister.
Unfazed by curious glances and contemptuous looks by fellow officers, Sehgal reminded a few scribes that he is still the secretary to chief minister. He had cleverly made across his point. His commitment is to the chair and not to the person occupying it. Sehgal had been the Secretary to Chief Minister Mayawati for full five years of her tenure from 2007 to 2012. Just a day in power, Akhilesh had not yet reshuffled the bureaucracy and hence Sehgal still held the portfolio that was all certain to be snatched away.
And snatched it was. The very same day in evening, Sehgal was transferred out from the prized postings that also included secretary of energy, power, MD of UP Power Corporation and also the UPSIDC. For the young chief minister who had come to power with a promise of change and a crusade against alleged corruption under his predecessor, those considered close to Maywati were a taboo, at least for the moment. A few days later, Sehgal was sent to a non-descript post of secretary, religious affairs and forgotten.
From Anonymity to Akhilesh’s Blue Eyed Bureaucrat
Two years down the line, as initial euphoria of idealism and goodwill for the government slowly withered away and it was faced with a major blow in the backdrop of the infamous Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, Akhilesh was again in search for the person who could help steer through rough weather. Sehgal, with his experience and bureaucratic ability to speed up the projects, emerged as the man to go.
Thus started the new innings at the centre of power for him. The IAS officer of 1988 batch was, for the first time, brought in as principal secretary, Information. Sehgal soon grew up in prominence as Akhilesh increasingly relied on him and his skills. Soon, he was also heading the ambitious project of the Lucknow-Agra expressway — the 301-km long access controlled highway that was the most ambitious development project of the Samjawadi Party government. Tourism and department of youth welfare was also soon under his command.
For the bright officer who had first shot to prominence and cultivated good relations with the politicians and the Lucknow-based state media during his two tenures as DM of Lucknow during 2002 and 2004, there was now no looking back. From management of good publicity for Akhilesh government to speeding up chief minister’s favoured projects, Sehgal got the clock ticking.
The man who as secretary to Mayawati had played a crucial role in delivering key construction projects basically comprising of grand monuments and parks in Lucknow and Noida, now ensured that the biggest expressway in India was ready and operational in record 24 months. The reverse digital clock on the wall at Sehgal’s UPEIDA (UP Expressway Industrial Development Authority) office in Lucknow had kept reminding his staff of the days and hours left to deadline for the expressway project.
As Sehgal went ahead, being the Man Friday for the government on twin fronts of managing good publicity for Akhilesh and delivering on the development projects, he was also often under Opposition’s attack because of his position in the scheme of governance. As construction of the expressway was shrouded by Opposition’s allegations of corruption and uselessness, a lot of dirt was also flung on the man himself.
Yogi Raj: From Insignificance to Prominence Once Again
In March 2017, it was again a change of political power in Uttar Pradesh. As BJP came to power and Yogi Aditanath became the Chief Minister, the bureaucracy went under a massive reshuffle. Committed to new ways of functioning, Yogi decided to have a new team of officers around him. Sehgal was shunted out and put in waiting. There was then a move to unearth the corruption and poor quality of construction in the expressway.
As attempts to dig out the dirt in expressway failed, Sehgal was given the charge of Khadi and village industries. Since then, for next two years till he also got the charge of MSME department, Sehgal continued to work from the fringes. Charge of the MSME slightly brought him back to the big table. Post March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the state, Sehgal by virtue of being the principal secretary of the MSME department, got to be the part of the coveted team 11 of the CM, which was entrusted with fighting the virus and salvaging the state’s economy.
The good work done in the MSME sector is said to have won him the chief minister’s appreciation. Senior Journalist Bishvajeet Banerjee says, “Sehgal’s capacity to deliver and synchronise with the vision and desire of the government is something that makes him stand apart from his compatriots.”
Another senior Journalist Sharat Pradhan adds that “Sehgal’s competency to work and his success at getting the government a good word comes from his ability to have good relations with all sections of society ranging from industry to journalists. ‘Personal relations do matter’, is the mantra that guides him.”
It is probably this ability to steer through troubled waters that has now led Yogi Adityanath to bet on Sehgal once again. At a time when BJP government is going through its worst phase of criticism in the backdrop of Hathras gang rape and murder of a Dalit girl, Sehgal’s appointment as Additional Chief Secretary, Information, replacing Avneesh Awasthi, is proof of CM’s newfound faith in the officer who has been tried and tested by his predecessors.
With year and a half remaining to assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and amid mounting attacks from the Opposition, how Sehgal will wade through the expectations and realities remains to be seen.