media report
Subir Raha was ONGC's zest
2/2/2010  |  Business Standard

It couldn't have been more apt. The most generous tribute to former ONGC chairman Subir Raha comes from somebody with whom he had a hugely uneasy relationship. After Raha lost more-than-a-year-long battle with cancer on Monday, former petroleum minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, said he found in Raha "a man worthy of my steel, particularly when we disagreed".

Aiyar said Raha was a "truly outstanding public sector executive" with an independent mind. Aiyar should know as he got a taste of this independent mind while dealing with Raha - something that led to the latter's exit in 2006 after just three years at the helm of ONGC. No one knows the exact reasons for the denial of extension, but it was apparently because of negative remarks on Raha's performance by the then petroleum secretary, S C Tripathi. The final straw, of course, was the TNR Rao Committee report that held the management responsible for the Bombay High fire in 2005.

What Raha brought to ONGC is the "josh, nayi umange jagane ka (the zest to light new ambitions)" - the oil exploration giant's theme song - and, perhaps, the best turnaround success story of a public sector undertaking.

Raha's admirers remember him as a man who detested sycophancy - something rare for a PSU boss. He would often recount an amusing experience of one of his seniors at Indian Oil Corporation, where he worked before joining ONGC. This particular gentleman, who was fond of fishing, was on an official trip to Haldia. At 5:30 one morning, the general manager and his deputy - both based in Haldia - arrived at the chairman's official quarters to accompany him on his fishing venture. All three got their catch within a couple of minutes, but the result was quite curious. The chairman netted the biggest fish, the general manager caught the second-biggest and his deputy the smallest.

Raha, who was posted in Haldia at the time, thought it was impossible that the fish were also aware of the hierarchy of their captors, and soon discovered how the administrative manager of the Haldia office had made a perfect arrangement. He had positioned three of his lieutenants in water who did their job as instructed.

A heavy smoker - something that was responsible for cutting short his life at just 61 - Raha was known to avoid long flights even on international tours. He used to plan them in such a way that no flight time was more than four to five hours (that's the maximum he was willing to stay without smoking).

The man, who attracted extreme views during his lifetime - people either loved him or hated him - is fondly remembered by his successor R S Sharma as "a man with fire in his belly".

"Even after his exit from the company, I have been influenced by him in any decision I have taken for the company. His dynamism and aggressiveness inspire us," Sharma says.

R S Butola, who was Raha's choice for ONGC Videsh Ltd's managing director, remembers his aggression. "I remember, about seven years back, he called me up one day from the petroleum ministry and asked me to work out a proposal for the acquisition of MRPL (Mangalore Refinery), when we had no inkling of it. We collected a lot of information from the internet and our banking sources, and within a week, a proposal got materialised. I could not imagine things could move so fast." Butola was then a general manager in ONGC.

Raha's ideal vision of a corporate leader was somebody who may not be uniformly liked, but nobody should be able to point an accusing finger at his moral and professional integrity. That is certainly how he would like to be remembered.
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