RASPUTIN would have envied the clout supposedly enjoyed by Vincent George, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary. All but a few Congress men have always regarded him as an "extra-constitutional authority", and believe that the party would be best served if he were to be dislodged.
As the faceless secretary to Rajiv and then Sonia Gandhi, George steered clear of controversy but was perceived to have assumed a political role after Sonia became Congress president. With his single-window access to Sonia, he not only decided who was to see her, but— having built up a formidable network among politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen over the years— provided feedback and advice.
It was prior to the 1998 assembly elections that his alleged interference in the distribution of tickets in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi fuelled resentment. This mounted and reached boiling point after the party’s decimation in the recently- concluded elections to the 13th Lok Sabha. Sonia’s coterie was held responsible for the disaster and the principal offender, in Congressmen’s perception, was George.
For these Congressmen, Abhishek Verma comes like manna from heaven. For the enterprising young businessman and con artist, busted by the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate in cases relating to hawala transactions and cheating, began to sing. One of the people he named as coconspirator was Vincent George.
In a statement to the CBI (subsequently recorded before a magistrate), Verma— son of Congress MP Veena Verma— alleged that he had parked money for George with the chairman of the Overseas Congress, Kamal Dhondhona. Subsequently, under an amnesty scheme on foreign remittances, the money amounting to US $50,000 was returned to George’s wife Lily.
Contacted by Outlook, Verma said he had "absolutely nothing against George. I’ve only told the truth". The "truth", according to Verma, is that George is closely linked with former ED deputy director Ashok Aggarwal and that the two had invested in various benami properties together, along with two other partners— one a politician from Punjab and another from Rajasthan. But given Verma’s current credibility problem, all his charges need to be approached with cautious scepticism.
CBI sources say they are not investigating George at the moment and, significantly, that they have not even received a formal complaint against him. Officially, how-ever, the CBI neither confirms nor denies the veracity of Verma’s statement.
Coinciding with Verma’s bombshell were two pamphlets, allegedly written by Congressmen for "private circulation only", which began doing the rounds of the party offices. They made a series of allegations, including those of corruption. But that wasn’t what touched the right chord with party members— it was the articulation of the oft-expressed anger of party leaders over having to "play second fiddle to a clerk". Elaborating on the well-known fact that it is George, rather than the Congress president, who interacts with party leaders and that he treats them shabbily.
Time was when district Congress leaders were given the short shrift by George. Now, he is said to treat senior party leaders in the same fashion. Only those deferential to him and willing to accept his cavalier treatment are at the core of his coterie.
An MP recounts how she sat before George for 10 minutes, trying to catch his attention. He didn’t so much as acknowledge her presence after which she left in a huff. A group of MPs from Karnataka had a similar experience. Having arrived all the way from Bangalore on the strength of an appointment with the Congress president, they were fobbed off by George. Similar examples abound.
GEORGE’s friends say the campaign is a result of an intraparty feud. Among his enemies is a prominent businessman, said to have been behind the media reports against Sonia’s secretary. George’s perceived proximity to a former Union minister opposed to the businessman is believed to have caused the rift. Last week, efforts were made by party spokesperson Ajit Jogi to broker a truce between the two at a meeting held in the house of senior party leader M.L. Fotedar and matters were ironed out.
Jogi, along with party MP Mabel Rebello, also made strenuous efforts to persuade Verma’s mother Veena, to prevail on her son to withdraw his statement to the CBI. Rebello was tipped off by party chief whip in the Lok Sabha, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, that the allegations against George would be raised in Parliament. Dasmunshi, in turn, reportedly received his information from parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan.
Veena Verma, under pressure from 10, Janpath, eventually issued a letter dissociating herself from her son’s allegations. Since this did not quite serve the purpose, it was never released to the Press. Among those despatched to bring Verma around was Seva Dal chief Suresh Pachauri, another figure said to be close to George . The boy refused to see him.
Sources close to George say the Verma family is using Abhishek to pressurise 10, Janpath into renewing his mother’s Rajya Sabha membership. They also maintained that Verma’s statement recorded before a magistrate— and subsequently sealed— made no mention of George. Verma insists he has no political axe to grind. Having turned approver, he claims his only interest is to assist the investigating agencies to the fullest.
George has troubles closer home as well. A member of the Gandhi family is said to be rather disenchanted with his style of functioning and is deeply disturbed over the recent allegations which have been levelled against him. Party sources say this means George’s wings will have to be clipped.
Sonia is expected to expand her secretariat, installing either an IAS officer or a dynamic young Congressman to handle her affairs in Parliament. Previous efforts to dilute George’s role have come a cropper, with both party general secretary Oscar Fernandes and MP Margaret Alva— inducted into the AICC for just that purpose— virtually ceding their authority to George. Even her political secretary, Congress Working Committee member Ahmed Patel, hasn’t been successful in making a dent in the George bastion.
From a cursory reading of the allegations made by Verma, George comes across as a minor player. It’s evident that a full investigation of even half the charges could embarrass politicians of various hues, in the uppermost echelons of power. Not to mention several media personalities. Ashok Aggarwal, currently underground but recently spotted at the home of a Delhi politician, is a key figure in these investigations, having used the clout of the Enforcement Directorate to assist his associates.
Already on the defensive on Bofors and on the IGNCA trust, the latest salvo against her trusted aide— this time from within her own party— is one the Congress president can ill afford.