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The Rediff Special

The Son-in-Law Also Rises

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As soon as the Jet Airways flight from Delhi landed at Madras airport on the evening of July 2, there was an announcement on the loudspeaker asking for a Mr Ranjan Bhattacharya. A short, curly-haired man dressed in a kurta pyjama, accompanied by a woman dressed in a salwar kameez responded to the announcement.

'That must be Ranjan Bhattacharya,' said a reporter who immediately ran up to the man in question. The kurta-pyjama clad man admitted that yes, his name was R Bhattacharya.

'So.... Um....what is your brief? What are you going to promise Jayalalitha this time?' he was asked.

While Bhattacharya stared in amazement, the cameras flashed. Later, it was discovered that his name was Rajat and not Ranjan. 'But, is Ranjan on this flight?' asked Rajat who seemed to know Ranjan. When he was told that the journalists in Madras (and for the most part of India) did not have a clue as to what Ranjan looked like, he proceeded to describe Atal Bihari Vajpayee's son-in-law.

'Rajan has a moustache, wears spectacles and looks a bit like Kamal Hasan,' he said. Rajat could have added one more line: If Rajan had indeed been on that flight to Madras he would definitely not have been so gauche as to have worn a kurta pyjama -- or any outfit that made him look the least bit like a politician. On the contrary, he prefers dressing like a hotel lobby manager: formal suits and sober ties, lots of aftershave and lots of charm.

As for the confusion at Madras airport -- this followed a report in The Hindu claiming that the prime minister would be sending his son-in-law over to Poes Garden to placate a sulking Jayalalitha. Bhattacharya insists the report was not true. The Prime Minister's Office issued an official denial soon after. Only this fell a bit flat, after Madan Lal Khurana took the concerned newspaper's reporter aside and asked in his usual subtle manner: 'How did you get to know?'

The point here is not whether Ranjan was indeed planning to go to Madras or not. But that his name should come up in this context at all. After all, he's supposed to be the prime minister's foster son-in-law -- and not the party's political fixer. Or is he?

When the Bharatiya Janata Party formed the government the last time round, Vajpayee became prime minister for 13 days. And his daughter Namita's husband was made the officer on special duty. At that time the party was too busy trying to manage the required numbers to worry about 'the right image'; but once it was out of power and had time to make a list of things not to do the next time round -- Bhattacharya's appointment was among the first five.

But if The Hindu report is true, then Bhattacharya is still carrying on regardless. There was also the little matter of a trip to Hyderabad that he is supposed to have made at the time when Chandrababu Naidu was deciding which side was more equidistant than the other. Bhattacharya denies both trips and puts it all down to rumour-mongering aimed to embarrass Baapji -- his father-in-law -- through him. Bhattacharya's friends say he is not the Sanjay Gandhi of the family nor is he Chandrababu Naidu.

So, If Bhattacharya has no other role to play at Race Course Road other than that to be a dutiful son-in-law, what does he do when he's not being such a role model? According to his business card (which incidentally does not list a residence phone number or address), he is the president of Country Development & Management Services Pvt Ltd. This is a joint venture between Carlson's Country Inns & Suites (in layman's terms the group which also has Thank God It's Friday and Radisson Hotels as its brand names) and Chanakya Hotels Ltd. And Chanakya Hotels is owned jointly by Bhattacharya and Shiv Jatia, the well connected owner of the Hyatt Regency. Which explains frequent visits to the Hyatt. The trick here is to see which floor Bhattacharya is heading towards: if it's the first, then he's there on work visiting Jatia at his office. Any other floor, and you can ask him what he is doing there. Or even better, call up his critics at the BJP headquarters at Ashoka Road.

His appointment as OSD was not the first time that Bhattacharya stirred up a controversy within the Sangh Parivar. Remember the ominous references to a hotel deal in Manali? Bhattacharya began this project in 1989. At that time the allegation was that he had 'managed to procure' the land at a throwaway price. And three years later, when he sold the project in 1992, it was said he had made a killing on the deal.

According to Ranjan's friends this is not true. The reason why he had to abandon the Holiday Inn was that he had actually run shot of funds. 'He started the project with his own savings, and then fell short of Rs 50 lakh,' said a close friend of the family. 'So, if he supposed to be the wheeler-dealer he is made out to be, then that is not such a large sum for him to arrange,' he added.

The hotel business however, is not new to the 38-year-old Bhattacharya. After graduating with economics honours from Delhi's Shri Ram College of Commerce, he joined the Oberoi Group as a management trainee and became the youngest general manager at the Oberoi Palace in Srinagar when he was just 24. Which just goes to show that he began his career as a smooth-talker very young.

It was while he was at college that Bhattacharya met Namita who was also studying at Delhi University. 'One evening when Ranjan and his friends were just hanging around and doing masti, Namita walked up to them and asked him what the hell he was doing,' recalled a friend. And Ranjan has been accountable to Namita ever since.

In fact, one reason why he is so close to Vajpayee is that Ranjan lost his father when he was just 22, a mere three years after his mother's death. And with his brother living abroad, the only family that Bhattacharya has is his wife's. So when he calls Vajpayee 'Baapji', it is not just a term of endearment. For him, that is a very real and special relationship.

Which is the reason when Ved Prakash Goel, the party treasurer, asked a family member to accompany Vajpayee on his election tours in 1996, it was Ranjan who volunteered. (In any case, he is also the only male member of Vajpayee's extended family). However, once he heard a BJP functionary make a snide reference to the party footing Bhattacharya's travel bills, he made it a point to pay for his tickets himself. And even wore the mandatory kurta pyjama for the occasion.

But there is this strong desire to avoid controversy -- as is obvious from the fact that Bhattacharya avoids using a government car. There was chaos when Vajpayee and family moved into 3 Race Course Road and discovered that there was no parking place for private cars; since earlier prime ministers did not bother with such inconveniences. A make-shift shed had to be hurriedly installed.

Again, there are no Black Cats following Bhattacharya as he drives around in his white Opel Astra. As the prime minister's son-in-law, he is not entitled to security; but equally no one would refuse him if he'd ask for it. Of course, there is also the very valid point that uniformed security guards would only serve as a calling card every night he goes out partying.

But Bhattacharya insists all that is at a standstill ever since he moved to Race Course Road, since it would only give Vajpayee's detractors another excuse to embarrass his father-in-law. 'Not that I had suddenly started living it up after Baapji became prime minister,' insists Bhattacharya. His family owns a major chunk of land in Patna; so Bhattacharya is right when he says that he didn't exactly slum it out in school and college.

He is not apologetic of his lifestyle. He says he is not interested in politics or politicians -- except at a basic social level. This includes dining with Jayalalitha when she comes to call on Vajpayee and partying with Pramod Mahajan and Co later on in the night. And if his close friends and acquaintances include those that are part of Vajpayee's inner circle such as Mahajan, Shakti Sinha, Jaswant Singh and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, then that is only natural.

His detractors complain he has a hand in every deal that goes through these days; from the Maruti settlement to Surjeet Singh Barnala's decision to not import sugar. But most concede that such allegations are part of a smear campaign against his father-in-law. Ranjan is more practical. Tell him this and he'll laugh and come up with three more allegations against him: 'There's also a rumour about me in some telecom scandal as well. How come you haven't heard that one?' he'll ask; and offer you some more coffee at his office in Delhi's Greater Kailash.

So he's smooth. The Sangh Parivar would probably have been easier on Vajpayee if his son-in-law had been a low profile Sangh Pracharak who had climbed atop the Babri Masjid and shouted Ek dhakka aur do; the BJP would have been delighted if Bhattacharya's best friends were Govindacharya and Sushma Swaraj. And it would have been perfect if he slept on a charpai in a small room at Ashoka Road, made his calls through the switchboard instead of a cellular and travelled on a Vespa scooter instead of his Opel.

But that is not the way Bhattacharya plays the game, for a very simple reason: he is not a member of the BJP. He's merely married into the family of a BJP worker. And if that BJP worker gets to be prime minister of India, then why should he suddenly forsake old friends and adopt a new persona?

Especially if he wasn't doing anything wrong in the first place.

Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

'If I have been staying with Baapji for so long, why should I suddenly shift out when he becomes PM?'

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