AK Singh confirmed as ONGC Chm but not MD

Vol 26, PW 1 (15 Dec 22) People & Policy

After weeks of suspense, the Indian cabinet has finally confirmed retired BPCL chairman AK Singh as ONGC's new chairman - but, crucially, not as its managing director.

On December 7 (2022), department of personnel and training under-secretary Subir Kumar confirmed that the cabinet's appointments committee had approved an oil ministry proposal to appoint Singh as ONGC chairman for three years on a salary of between Rs2 and Rs3.7 lakhs/mth. On the same day, ONGC's company secretary Rajni Kant said Singh had assumed charge the same day (December 7).

Neither Kumar nor Kant mentions Singh holding the parallel responsibility of managing director, introduced in 1994 when ONGC transitioned from a 'Commission' to a 'Corporation'. As before 1994, Singh will preside over a board of working directors that sing to his tune.

Another first was the selection of a retired PSU chairman: Singh leads ONGC after the government bent the rules to facilitate his appointment. In fairness, the government could justifiably claim it is following "voluntary" SEBI guidelines announced in February 2022 that the largest 500 companies in India by market cap should split the CMD role between a "non-exec" chairman and a "working" managing director.

But ONGC insiders suspect a darker motive - privatisation. On internal WhatsApp groups, ONGC staff draw parallels with Singh's role in the BPCL disinvestment and (since abandoned) privatisation process that began in 2019 when he was marketing director before becoming BPCL chairman in October 2021.

"Immediately after (Singh's appointment as BPCL chairman), the government started the disinvestment/privatisation of BPCL," reads one internal message. "Why, after his retirement as BPCL chairman, is he given the post of ONGC chairman - why?!" asks another message.

Singh is known to be politically well-connected and widely perceived as someone ready to do the government's bidding. He hinted as much in remarks to colleagues on taking charge.

"One of my first steps is to align the operational direction of the national oil company (ONGC) with the nation's energy strategy," he reportedly said. Singh's unorthodox working style is already attracting attention.

"The government order came out at noon on December 7," says a source. "By 12.30, he'd taken charge in Mumbai - not Delhi."

The next day (December 8), Singh eventually landed in the national capital, but instead of heading to ONGC's lush environment-friendly corporate HQ in posh Vasant Kunj, he made a beeline for ONGC's less salubrious office at Scope Minar in east Delhi's Lakshmi Nagar with other board directors scrambling to join him. "On December 9, he was again in Mumbai and spoke to L-1 rank managers," says another source.

"But he dispensed with the usual rubbish of bouquets and speeches." Welcome informality, perhaps, but Singh's reputation among BPCL employees is less than charitable.

"During employee disputes, he was ruthless," says one BPCL employee. "He'll be the same at ONGC."