Rahul Gandhi did not return to India immediately after passing out of Trinity College. Instead, he took up a job in London with the Monitor Group, a global management and strategy consultancy firm co-founded by Michael Eugene Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, and considered to be a leading authority on brand strategy. Rahul worked there for three years, but under an assumed name. His colleagues had little idea that they had the grandson of Indira in their midst. Speaking of the need for privacy that had always eluded him, Rahul [later] said, ‘After studies in the US, I risked my life to do away with my guards to lead a regular life in England.’ His father had felt the same need to get away. After Rajiv became prime minister, when time for himself and his family became a luxury and his passion for flying got pushed back by the momentum of politics, he said, ‘I sometimes get into the cockpit, all alone, and close the door. Even if I cannot fly, at least I can temporarily shut myself off from the outside world.’
While Rahul tried to lead a regular life in England, back in India, his mother Sonia was getting deeply involved in politics. Having agreed to enter politics in 1997, she was now leading the Congress from the front. Through it all, Priyanka stood by her side, becoming her pillar of support. Within the Congress, the clamour for Priyanka to join the Party was growing. Rahul had been away from the country for over ten years now. But the political atmosphere back home indicated that it was time to return. And he did, in 2002.
India was witnessing a boom in the outsourcing industry. Western multinational corporations were turning to India to get jobs done faster and more cheaply. Rahul set up an engineering and technology outsourcing firm, Backops Services Private Ltd, in the country’s commercial nerve centre, Mumbai. The BPO venture employed just eight people and, according to its application to the Registrar of Companies, its business objectives included providing advisory support to domestic and international clients; acting as a consultant and adviser in the field of information technology; and offering web solutions. Rahul was one of its directors, along with family friend Manoj Muttu. The other two directors—Anil Thakur, the son of Congress leader and former Union Minister Rameshwar Thakur, and Delhi resident Ranvir Sinha—resigned in March 2006, citing ‘personal reasons’. According to his affidavit to the Election Commission of India before the 2004 general elections, Rahul held 83 per cent of the shares in Backops Services Private Ltd. The company’s balance sheet indicated that it was a modest business venture.
Soon after Rahul entered politics in 2004, his company advertised that it was looking for a CEO. ‘We are searching for a CEO, though I hold periodic meetings with the employees and look at the larger issues,’ Rahul told Business Standard in June 2004. At that time, the company had three overseas clients and by Rahul’s admission, it did not have any revenues in the first year of operation. In 2009, shortly before the Lok Sabha elections, Rahul opted out of this business venture. According to Congressmen, the demands of politics left him with little time to run the business.
There were breaks in Rahul’s career trajectory as there had been in his education. But the one thing that remained consistent was his obsession with physical fitness and adventure sports. No matter how packed the day, he would find time to exercise. The year Rahul did a crash course in boxing, he also took lessons in paragliding.
Putting his management training to use, he took along his team of seven to eight people from Amethi to Nirvana Adventures, a flying club at Kamshet in Maharashtra. The three-day long paragliding course that lasted from 28 to 30 January 2008, also served as a team-building exercise. Situated in the Western Ghats, 85 km from Pune, Kamshet was not the usual setting where a politician and his party workers would get together to discuss work.
But, with Rahul’s track record of not doing what you would expect politicians to do, it wasn’t that unusual. In the midst of sunflower fields, quiet lakes and hills dotted with ancient Buddhist cave temples, the Amethi team spent the mornings taking paragliding lessons and the evenings brainstorming. Those who watched them at Kamshet said the discussions took place one-on-one. The hierarchy was visible only when the team addressed Rahul: they all called him Rahul bhaiyya.
Before Rahul and his men landed at Kamshet, his host Astrid Rao had been very apprehensive about the high-profile politician visiting her quiet hamlet. Astrid, who founded Nirvana Adventures along with her husband Sanjay Rao, was certain the visit would disturb the peace of the area. ‘I was sure the area would be cordoned off by the tight security that would accompany Rahul,’ she said. None of that happened. ‘Without our mentioning it, Rahul ensured that nobody in uniform or with guns was seen in or around the guest house. Not once was our routine disrupted by his presence,’ Astrid said.
It was like having any other guest. The first night, the Raos cooked lamb for their visitors. A buffet was laid. ‘I was surprised to see Rahul offering plates to the others with him. He also made it a point to leave his plate in the kitchen himself,’ said Astrid. The next day, mealtime found Rahul going up to the cook to ask him if there was any lamb left over from the previous night.
Coach Bhardwaj, too, described Rahul as a man with no airs. ‘When I started training him, I addressed him as “Sir” or “Rahulji”.’ But two days into the training, Rahul made a request to his coach, ‘Please don’t call me “Sir”. Call me Rahul, I’m your student.’ On another occasion, Bhardwaj said he told Rahul that he wanted to have some water. ‘There were attendants standing nearby, but instead of calling one of them, Rahul went running into the kitchen and got me a glass of water.’ And after the lessons, Rahul would escort his teacher to the gate.
At the paragliding school in Kamshet, Rahul’s first day was spent with flight trainer Sanjay Rao who gave him ground training. Actual flight lessons were carried out on the last two days. ‘Rahul’s performance was very good. He just picked up the glider and was off,’ said Sanjay, rating Rahul among the top 10 per cent of his students. ‘He is a very attentive listener which is why he learns fast.’ Those who have observed him describe him as a man ‘who always keeps his antennae up’. During the stay, Rahul also wanted to go for a swim in the nearby lake, but his security guards advised him against it. He heeded their advice. ‘It was a pity, considering that he’s a very athletic person and likes to jog up to 10 km a day,’ said Astrid. As word got out that the young Gandhi was training at Kamshet, several local villagers turned up to meet him. Among them was an old farmer, a familiar face in the Kamshet area. The Raos introduced him to Rahul as ‘Shelar mama’. The farmer did a big namaskar and then, with hands that shook with age, he poured Rahul tea in a dirty cup which he had brought along. Everybody flinched. ‘But without hesitating for a second, Rahul took the cup from Shelar mama’s hands, drank the tea and then asked for another cup,’ said Astrid. That’s another trait he has inherited from his father. While campaigning in the heat of Amethi, Rajiv would willingly, and gratefully, reach out for a glass of water or sherbet offered by women waiting at the doors of their ramshackle huts for the visiting leader.
The farmer from Kamshet, who is said to have been a pearl diver once, went on to tell an attentive Rahul one story after the other about his life and travels. Other elderly men also came to meet him. They would walk up to him with hands folded in a greeting and Rahul would promptly stand up. He wouldn’t sit until they did. Those who know the young Gandhi say this is normal behaviour for him. Like his father and sister, Rahul is not comfortable being treated like a demi-god. He doesn’t like people touching his feet or standing in attendance around him. He would rather sit on the floor with them.
He is also not a man to forget a promise. Astrid discovered this a month after Rahul and his team left Kamshet. When she had taken him on a tour of her garden, Rahul had told her that his mother was also fond of gardening. He said Sonia had a particular book to which she often referred, but he could not recall its title. He promised to send it to her after he got back to Delhi. A month later, Astrid received an unexpected parcel. It was the gardening book Rahul had talked about.
Rahul doesn’t forget. Nor does he forgive. A group of journalists learnt this the hard way. On 22 January 2009, the NSUI filed a police complaint at Rahul’s behest after the notes made for his speech and presentation went missing from the venue of a convention during the lunch break. The incident took place at the Constitution Club in Delhi where a party workshop was being held. It was suspected that the papers were picked up by members of a TV crew who had entered the hall when all the others had gone for lunch. About 25 journalists were present at the venue. NSUI chief Hibi Eden filed a complaint at the Parliament Street police station. It is said the step was taken after Rahul insisted that the matter be reported to the police. Journalists will often go the extra mile for more information but, to him, picking up someone’s papers to get information that had not been shared constituted theft. For two days, the police called and questioned three television journalists from different channels over Rahul’s missing papers. Though members of Rahul’s team also tried to reason with him that, at the end of the day, the papers only pertained to a presentation that he was making and did not contain any secrets, he insisted on taking the journalists to task.
Within the Party, too, he is known to frown upon mistakes. ‘He will not suffer fools,’ Priyanka said in a TV interview in 2009 during the Lok Sabha elections. In December 2009, the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi created a flutter when she said that Rahul had forced his helicopter to land in conditions of zero visibility on an airstrip in UP’s Sitapur district. Rahul was on a two-day visit to UP to add steam to the Youth Congress membership drive. ‘He had promised to meet backward class people in Sitapur,’ said Joshi. ‘Rahulji is so deeply committed about keeping his promise that, despite the delay, he persuaded the pilot to land in total darkness and zero-visibility conditions, without paying any heed to the risk to his own life,’ she announced.
Joshi’s intention was to praise Rahul and perhaps win brownie points from a leader who projects himself as a representative of the poor and the backward. But the move boomeranged. Such a declaration coming barely three months after Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy had died in a helicopter crash in the Nallamala forests of Andhra Pradesh was not the kind of controversy the Congress wanted. An inquiry committee was already looking into what had caused the crash that cost the Party a popular chief minister.
As an embarrassed Congress rushed to carry out damage control, Rahul told the media, ‘I am a pilot myself and am well aware of the dangers of landing in poor visibility. I am absolutely the last person to even suggest a thing like that.’ With a sheepish Joshi standing behind him, he said, ‘The UP Congress chief is neither a pilot nor a weather expert. She does not know.’