He was not the only bureaucrat from Gujarat to have followedto the Centre. Or the most high-profile. But AK Sharma alone made that next leap: from the backstage to the front. Twenty years after he emerged as one of Modi’s most trusted men, Arvind Kumar Sharma took voluntary retirement from the IAS last year and became a MLC. On Friday, the 59-year-old took oath as a minister in the Yogi Adityanath government.
According to a senior Central government official, while it is not unusual for a PM to have a core group of trusted officials, Sharma stood out among the charmed circle. “It was understood that any directions from Sharma had the PM’s seal of approval. It helped that Sharma never threw his weight around.”
Sharma earned that confidence steering some of Modi’s pet projects as CM. According to retired IAS officer Harsh Brahmbhatt, who was the Officer on Special Duty in Modi’s CMO, as someone totally “new to government and bureaucracy”, Modi wanted officers he could trust. Brahmbhatt said he had suggested Sharma, PK Mishra, and Anil Mukim.
Sharma came into the job in 2001 with praise for his work in districts and experience in the industry department. This put him at the heart of the Vibrant Gujarat Summits. “Sharma went with Modi abroad to get investments,” said a former bureaucrat.
Younger to Mishra and Mukim, Sharma stayed the longest in the CMO, never even going on deputations to the Centre, said Brahmbhatt. “When he went for a year for training, we kept the position vacant.”
In Modi’s move to Delhi too, Sharma was key, said a bureaucrat. The CM, seeking to contest from Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, tapped Sharma for “inputs” on “UP matters”. Sharma is originally from Mau in Uttar Pradesh. His father retired as a Senior In-charge of Mau Roadways Bus Station.
In the PMO, Sharma was given the charge of infrastructure. In May 2020, as Covid hit the economy, Sharma was named Secretary, MSME.
An official said, “When Sharma was given an MLC ticket from UP, it was clear that Modi wanted his own man in the state before the elections.”
In April 2021, as Varanasi struggled during the second Covid surge, Sharma was named “Covid prabhari” for the district. Sharma chaired meetings of district and police officials, oversaw the setting up of a DRDO hospital and a tele-consultancy app, and got the Command and Control Centre up and running.
At the time, a senior Varanasi official had said, “It is not like this centre wasn’t operational in the first phase. But when Sharma arrived, it was clear that the PM was unhappy.” According to another officer, the PMO helped with issues of oxygen, crucial drugs, and equipment. Later, the PM urged states to follow the “Varanasi Model of Covid Management”.
As a Bhumihar Brahmin, Sharma belongs to a caste that is dominant in eastern UP and has been a BJP supporter. The region already has several strong Bhumihar Brahmin faces such as Ghosi Lok Sabha MP Atul Singh Rai of the BSP, and former BJP leader and current J&K Lieutenant Governor.
Though at the time he was made an MLC there were some doubts about his political skills, those will have disappeared following his promotion to the top echelon of power in UP. As an insider put it during Sharma’s elevation to the legislative council last year, “Obviously he is there for some role… but no one knows the PM’s mind.