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Reviewing Rahul

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The Economist turns a review of Aarthi Ramachandran’s book on Rahul Gandhi into a review of the subject himself:

[Rahul Gandhi] has long refused to take on a responsible position, preferring to work on reorganising Congress’s youth wing, and leading regional election efforts, both with generally poor results. The problem is that Mr Gandhi has so far shown no particular aptitude as a politician, nor even sufficient hunger for the job. He is shy, reluctant to speak to journalists, biographers, potential allies or foes, nor even to raise his voice in parliament. Nobody really knows what he is capable of, nor what he wishes to do should he ever attain power and responsibility. The suspicion is growing that Mr Gandhi himself does not know.

Opportunities have presented themselves to Mr Gandhi in the past couple of years. One was the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement, of last year and this, when young, urban, middle-class voters, in the main, expressed rage at huge scandals overseen by the elderly folk who run Congress and their coalition allies. Mr Hazare’s campaign successfully drew on their anger, yet it was a halting, confused movement. Mr Gandhi might have intervened at some point, and tried himself to tap into public anger over corruption and inequality, and drawn some of the sting of the Hazare camp’s efforts.

Or, when Mrs Gandhi was absent, being treated abroad for a serious illness (rumoured to have been cervical cancer), he might have taken charge and confronted the anti-graft campaigners. He could at least have set out evidence for how the government was tackling graft, claimed credit for the government’s introduction of a right-to-information act, and lauded the fact that suspect politicians had been arrested and (temporarily) put in jail. Instead he flunked the test in hiding, not daring to speak out, other than in one ill-advised intervention in parliament.

Another opportunity of sorts was to energise Congress in state elections. The failure of the campaign led by Mr Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh (UP) early in 2012 is briefly but convincingly assessed in the biography. Congress did worse in the state during the assembly elections than it had in the 2009 general election. Mr Gandhi led the party to a humiliating fourth place, even doing dismally in constituencies where the Gandhis have long been local MPs.

Perhaps he was doomed to fail from the start (voters did not think Congress could win in the assembly elections, so did not see a reason to “waste” their votes). But his methods—poor public speaking, a failure to understand how particular castes and religious groups would act, weak connections to local organisers—did not help. The main mistake, in retrospect, may have been that he invested so much of himself in that particular poll. But similar efforts, in Bihar and Kerala, in recent years, brought similar results.

Since the poll in UP Mr Gandhi has made little impact on Indian politics. That would change quickly if he is indeed promoted to a higher position and takes on a bigger role. But the growing impression of the man—certainly the one promoted by Mrs Ramachandran’s “Decoding Rahul Gandhi”—is of a figure so far ill-prepared to be a leading politician in India.

Whatever the Economist’s take, the book which barely gets reviewed is probably worth a look. Outlook does the book less of a disservice, by quoting from it instead of editorializing:

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.

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.

It would be hard to accept a prime ministerial candidate about whom nothing is known.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

September 11, 2012 at 10:52 am

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