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Between the adulation and sycophancy of Congressmen on the one hand and the ridicule and contempt of the Opposition on the other, Rahul Gandhi has managed to remain an enigma. The reclusive, reluctant politician, who avoids the media spotlight like the plague, is difficult to decipher. A forthcoming book seeks to unravel the man behind the mask.
The Importance Of Compromise
Rahul Gandhi rarely gives interviews. In 2010, he sat down to take questions from Merrow Golden and Ashleigh Lamming from his alma mater, Cambridge University, on education. The interview appeared in the campus publication, Varsity.
Looking back on his time at Trinity College in Cambridge, Rahul Gandhi would tell Varsity magazine, “My time at Cambridge was immensely influential in shaping the person I am today.” When his interviewers asked him why, he said it was mainly so in terms of what he learned on the course, in particular the economic theory he covered. He didn’t, however, mention any specific theories. Development economics is one of the “core papers” that students of the MPhil in development studies at Cambridge have to take.
Though Rahul spoke of how he had been influenced by the economic theory he studied at Cambridge, he qualified this by talking of how he had “changed a lot” since then. He said he now disagreed with a lot of what he was taught at Cambridge. “I’m a lot less left-wing now than I was, for one thing,” he said.
Rahul also described his Cambridge year as a “very strange time” from the point of view of a student living away from home. “My father had just died, and I went from being at the centre of all that to being completely on my own and being in a place where no one knew who I was,” he said. He didn’t do much at Cambridge outside of his course, he said. “I did boxing, and played squash, but I spent most of my time studying, and I only really got to know people in my course.”
When he was asked what was the most important thing he learned at Cambridge, Rahul said it was “the importance of compromise”. Ashleigh Lamming said he elaborated on this comment, saying the Cambridge teaching system had helped him learn how not just to argue his own opinion, but to find a solution that takes all points of view into account.
The interviewers had also asked him where he would like to see Indian education going in the future. He replied with a candour that is usually missing in his public utterances: “The Indian education system is about 800 years behind the British one. We still teach as if we were living in medieval times, as if universities had a monopoly on knowledge and books were the only source of information. The role of the teacher should be about helping children to manage all the different sources of information, and make decisions for themselves about what they believe based on critical evaluation of the competing sources of information.”
Ashleigh Lamming described her impressions of Rahul during her interview with him in an e-mail. She said she remembered thinking that he expressed himself like an “economist”. She said: “He tended to talk about things using economic language—he talked about affirmative action (for Dalits and women, which he supported) as being a problem of ‘supply and demand’, and...talked about teachers no longer having a ‘monopoly’ over information, but being one of many ‘competing’ sources of it. At this point in the interview, he reached for a pen and paper and drew an elaborate economic diagram to illustrate a teacher as being one competing source of information.” She said he appeared “very fond of Cambridge as a town, and of Trinity College in particular”.
Rahul has zealously guarded his private life and his decision to remain single, though he is on the wrong side of 40, has fuelled endless speculation over his marital status.
It is at Cambridge that he also met his girlfriend, Veronique. The gossip circuit in Delhi had known of Rahul’s Colombian love interest back in London when he came down to help his mother with her maiden campaign tour in 1998. Then he was spotted and photographed watching an India-England World Cup cricket match in Edgbaston, Birmingham, in 1999, with a leggy young woman, rumoured to be his girlfriend.
This was about the same time that the political campaign against Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins was gaining steam in India. The photograph of Rahul and his friend fuelled speculation about the status of their relationship. It raised the politically-laden prospect of another foreigner coming into the Nehru-Gandhi family. At that time, it was believed that Sonia did not particularly approve of the relationship, given its politically uncomfortable connotations.
The rumours were given a fresh lease of life when Rahul was spotted holidaying with her in the Andamans at the end of 1999. By then, her identity in the press had crystallised as Rahul’s mysterious Colombian girlfriend.
At a year-end family vacation in Kerala and Lakshadweep in 2003, Rahul and his friend were accompanied by his sister Priyanka and her family during that trip. By this time, the press had presumed her name to be Juanita.
Finally, during the 2004 Amethi election campaign, Rahul shed some light on his relationship with this mystery woman while speaking to journalist Vrinda Gopinath of The Indian Express. “My girlfriend’s name is Veronique, not Juanita... she is Spanish and not Venezuelan or Colombian. She is an architect, not a waitress, though I wouldn’t have had a problem with that. She is also my best friend.”
After he won from Amethi, he held a rare informal interaction with journalists in his constituency. They asked about his girlfriend’s nationality, to which he replied she had been living in Venezuela for a long time although her parents were Spanish. He also said that he was not planning on getting married anytime soon.
That was the last time he openly spoke about his romantic relationship to the press. He continues to be a bachelor and not much has been heard of Veronique since Rahul’s revelations in 2004.
Long before he entered politics, Rahul Gandhi had worked in London for the better part of three years, under an assumed name.
He was back in London working for Michael Porter’s management consultancy firm, Monitor. Many years ago, Rahul was asked during a ragging session by senior students at St Stephen’s College, what he would do after completing his graduation. He had replied that, in most probability, he would get a Masters in Business Administration (mba). Though he did not get an MBA degree, the career he chose for himself in management consultancy was what an MBA-holder would have aspired to.
Monitor describes itself as a “strategy consulting firm that focuses on top management issues most critical to long-term competitiveness”. It works with large multinational corporations, governments and non-profit organisations and is known to be notoriously guarded about its clients. Michael Porter, a management guru from Harvard Business School, was one of the co-founders of Monitor.
Monitor refused a request for an interview with Rahul’s colleagues at the firm. It also declined information on Rahul’s role within the organisation, his key result areas or the industry sectors that Rahul had specialised in during his stint at the company. Monitor’s Michael Goldberg, however, confirmed in an e-mail that Rahul Gandhi had worked for the company “starting late June 1996 through early March 1999”.
According to sources, who have known Rahul from his time at Monitor, there were no problems with his performance at the firm. He worked there under an assumed name and his colleagues did not know of his real identity, said a Monitor employee who was at the firm around the same time as Rahul. “His looks gave it away to those of us who knew who he could be,” the source said.
‘I have never had a relaxed lifestyle. The culture of working hard is in my blood. That is what I need in politics too.’
Rahul has spoken of the long hours he used to put in while at the firm, during his first election campaign from Amethi. An interviewer had asked him how he would adapt to a life in politics, which is not as easy compared to the “relaxed life” he had led. Rahul responded. “I never had any relaxed lifestyle. When I worked in London, I used to work long hours daily. If anyone did not deliver at Monitor, he would be told to go. So I worked hard, and the culture of working hard is in my blood.That is what I need in politics too, I believe,” he said.
Rahul’s performance on the job at Monitor was to a large extent determined by his own talent and skills. This was an important formative experience for him. His entire politics has been marked by an engagement with issues that are long-term in character, whether it pertains to his working on reviving the Congress’s organisational structure in states where it has weakened or developing new leadership by bringing young people into the organisation. These concerns have dominated his politics rather than an emphasis on issues of immediate political concern.
While this may make sense from a professional management or strategy consultant’s point of view, Rahul’s role was never meant to be that of an organisational consultant to the Congress party. This has become a problem area with his politics and went against him in the way he was perceived in the Congress and outside.
It is telling that on his resume on the Parliament website, Rahul Gandhi still continues to call himself a “strategy consultant” in the column under “profession”.
On his return from London, he set up a start-up company, triggering reports which were unflattering. He withdrew from the company, however, in the face of hostile reports in the media.
Rahul made the transition from consultancy to entrepreneurship in 2002 by setting up a firm called Backops. The new firm’s name left no one in doubt about its nature of work. Rahul himself described the company as an engineering design outsourcing firm.
In 2002, when he forayed into this business, India was emerging as one of the hottest destinations for bpos. The domestic economy was booming. The ecosystem for entrepreneurs in sunrise industry sectors had developed in India. For a globally networked 32-year-old, it was a time as good as any to jump on to the outsourcing bandwagon and put to test the business ideas he dispensed as a consultant.
The secrecy that surrounds almost every affair of the Gandhi family accompanied Backops as well. Although Rahul did declare his 83 per cent ownership of Backops (three other friends—Anil Thakur, Ranvir Sinha and Manoj Muttu—owned the rest) in his mandatory affidavit filed with the Election Commission while contesting from Amethi, the country first heard of the details of the venture when the Mumbai daily Mid-Day carried a story soon after the Congress’s surprise victory in the 2004 elections.
The paper made some sensational claims about this little-known Rahul-owned firm. The story said that Backops, a company not many had heard of, had secured plum projects like the city’s (Mumbai’s) international airport terminal building, the commercial complex at Phoenix Mills, Belapur railway station, the Wockhardt Hospital in Mulund, and buildings at the Osho Commune, Pune.
It was improbable that a start-up would bag parts of such key projects whose value ran into crores of rupees. The Backops office was a nondescript rabbit warren in south Mumbai’s Colaba. Did he use his family’s newfound political clout to grab these projects? Why and how did he get into this business in the first place? Was Backops a front for some other larger political design? These were some troubling questions that began to surround Backops. Matters weren’t helped by the usual stonewalling and silence from Rahul and his associates. It was somewhat surprising that Rahul chose to provide engineering design services. His educational background suggests he had no expertise whatsoever in the subject.
A Business Standard story a month later provided some answers. According to the incorporation documents filed with the roc, Rahul was the company’s majority owner. There was no other financial information about the company. No income statement was filed since its incorporation.
The company’s registered office was in central Delhi’s Deen Dayal Upadhyay Road. When a Business Standard correspondent visited the address, he found not Backops, but a chartered accountancy firm called Thakur Vaidyanath Aiyer and Company. Employees there hadn’t heard of Backops, and some became a little nervous when queried further.
When the paper contacted Rahul directly for information on his company, he was livid. Not in India when the correspondent called, he accused him of breaching his privacy and claimed he wasn’t obliged to speak to the media about his private affairs before hanging up. Surprisingly, he called back a few minutes later and, in a perceptibly calmer state of mind, offered to answer some queries, provided the questions were short. Rubbishing the claims Mid-Day had made about Backops bagging a dozen big-ticket infrastructure projects, Rahul explained that Backops was a fairly “small” company whose revenue was less than $100,000 or Rs 45 lakh back then. “It is a start-up that employs just eight people. I can’t talk about Backops’ exact revenue at this point of time, but it is in the sub-$100,000 region,” Rahul said.
He seemed fairly keen to grow the business despite his full-time involvement with politics. He was looking for a CEO who would look after Backops’s day-to-day affairs. But politics had taken a toll. He quit as a director of the company in 2009 with Priyanka replacing him. Backops isn’t a going concern today.
A Scion Of Things To Come
Speaking to young children at the opening of a science fair at a Delhi school in November 2010, he told them how he was scared of darkness when he was young, as he felt it held “ghosts” and “bad things”. Then, he went on, one day his grandmother had asked him why he didn’t go and see for himself what was inside darkness. So, he had walked into the garden in the dark and he had kept walking and then realised suddenly that “there was nothing there in the darkness to be scared of”.
Sonia writes in Rajiv that Rahul would telephone from America, “consumed with anxiety” about his father’s security arrangements. She says Rajiv’s specialised security cover was withdrawn after he became leader of the opposition and it was replaced with a force not trained for this specific task. Rahul, who had gone to the US in June 1990 to start his undergraduate studies at Harvard University, insisted on coming back to India at the end of March 1991 for his Easter break. He accompanied his father on a tour of Bihar and was “appalled to witness the lack of elementary security around his father”. Sonia says that before going back to the US, Rahul had told her that if something was not done about it, he knew he would soon come home for his father’s funeral.
Someone had once asked him what his religion was. He had thought about it for a while and replied: “The Indian flag is my religion.” He concluded that after his father had died, he had promised himself that he would “serve the people this flag represents”. It would be a “disservice” to both his “religion and his party” if he took up “a job” before he knew what “our workers and people feel and need”. His “place right now was to learn and understand”. He thanked the party for its “feelings and support” and promised he would “not let them down”.