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BW Businessworld

Big Decision, Little Time

Ghyanendra Nath Bajpai on the events preceding his appointment as Sebi's Chairman

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It was late evening on Friday, 14 February 2002. I was relaxing, almost half asleep in a hut in a game park in Kenya, when I was awakened by a knock at the door. Trying to shake off my slumber and almost stumbling to the door, I walked up and saw the managing director (MD) and chief executive officer (CEO) of Ken India Assurance Company Ltd (Ken India) R.S. Bedi standing before me. Unlike me, he didn’t look relaxed at all. He told me that the secretary, economic affairs (SEA), C.M. Vasudev, Government of India (GoI) had called up my office in Mumbai and wanted to speak to me urgently.

This was enough to make me fully awake. I wondered what it could be about. I looked at my watch and realized it was already past ten in the night in India, which is two-and-a-half hours ahead of Kenya. I felt it was not an appropriate time to call the secretary. Thanking Mr Bedi, I went back to my bed to rest a little before going to dinner. However, I could not relax. I began wondering what it was that the SEA wanted to speak to me about. I was then the chairman of Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) and could not visualize the reason why he should want to connect with me urgently…

The place being remote, mobile phones were not working. I tried calling the SEA on Saturday from the hotel line, but India could not be connected. I gave up and decided to contact him once I was back at my desk in Mumbai. The moment I entered my office on Monday morning, my executive assistant announced to me that the SEA had called up on Friday and had wanted me to speak to him urgently. And, even before I could settle down fully, the SEA was on the line again. He announced that GoI was considering appointing me as chairman of Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). 

Even though the media had been speculating for a while as to who would be the next SEBI chairman, and even though my name had been mentioned in some of the newspapers as a prospective candidate, I was still surprised by the news. I still had 30 per cent of unfinished tenure as chairman of LIC and hadn’t even begun thinking of my life post-LIC. However, from the phone conversation I had, I realized I had no choice. And I had very little time too. It was 17 February 2002, and my predecessor was retiring on 20 February. By evening things had pretty much been settled.

However, after the conversation with the SEA that day I got busy with business as usual and almost forgot about it till the morning of 19 February, when I again got a call from the SEA. He asked me to stay put in my office as he had deputed the additional secretary (insurance) to personally get the necessary clearances from various authorities, like Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), etc., for my appointment as SEBI chairman. He said the gazette notification appointing me as SEBI chairman was likely to be issued that day itself. In the evening, at around 7 p.m., while I was still in office, I got a call from the joint secretary, capital market division, department of economic affairs, to inform me that the notification was being issued and that I would have to hand over charge as chairman of LIC that very day. Indeed, in a few minutes a copy of the notification was received in my office.

I was by now mentally prepared to move into the new role, but there were many things I needed to do before I left, so I requested the SEA to relieve me on 21 February instead of on

19 February. There was a pre-scheduled board meeting of the LIC, and five strategic propositions, where I felt my presence was critical for the projects to be taken forward. This was not a big request and should have been easy to fulfil but for one small caveat—the post of SEBI chairman could not be left vacant. I was disappointed, as these projects had been close to my heart. In my absence, I felt they wouldn’t get the kind of boost needed, and might go off the LIC radar. However, the SEA was a kind gentleman; he understood my dilemma and assured me that he would take care of those agenda items. GoI has a representative on the board of LIC, usually the secretary-in-charge of the insurance division (which, along with banking division, now forms the Department of Financial Services). Thus I was made to handover charge at LIC on 19 February itself.

On 20 February, I had a commitment to inaugurate a seminar on pension at the National Insurance Academy (NIA), Pune, where international delegates were also participating. I had requested the GoI to allow me to at least fulfil that commitment, which was reluctantly agreed to, on the condition that I join SEBI latest by 5 p.m. that day. I left Pune in good time to be in the SEBI office well before 4 p.m., but the Mumbai traffic was bad and there were several delays along the way. Eager to reach on time, I asked the driver to rush, and we met with a minor accident on the way. However, I was able to take charge at SEBI on 20 February at 5.00 p.m., as its fourth chairman.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House

A Game Changer's Memoir: Ex-SEBI Chief Recounts Defining Moments of His Tenure by G N Bajpai;Penguin Portfolio; Pages: 304; Price: Rs 599

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