March 27, 2001


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Madam's Man Friday
His name is George. Vincent George

Of course, we all know of him. He has been around too long, is too powerful for us not to have come across his name.

Last week, we saw another side of his: George, the all-powerful secretary of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, tottering on the brink of notoriety, pushed there by a Central Bureau of Investigation first information report accusing him of amassing wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income.

George has spent enough time around politics to know the danger of talking to the press. So he keeps his counsel, even more tightly than his boss.

Expectedly, media and political circles are abuzz with the hottest news after the Tehelka tapes. In fact, George's friends -- and mind you, they are legion -- claim that the 'witch hunt' against him is to divert attention from the defence scandal.

George, for his part, now avoids phone calls, but continues to push files at one of India's most famous addresses -- 10 Janpath.

George's influence in the Congress is no secret. And the man is powerful. Such is the respect he commands that at 10 Janpath even the most irreverent of Congressmen stand politely before George. It is he who decides whether they meet the Congress chief.

Though not a Congress worker, George has been around the party since the late 1970s. After Sitaram Kesri was unceremoniously removed from the post of Congress president and Sonia Gandhi took over, there was one thing that united even the disunited Congress leaders -- their grouse against George.

There were many who wanted him out of Madam's favour. They accused him of promoting favourites and sabotaging their careers.

Is George all that powerful?

"Yes, he is. He is the eyes and ears of the party president. Of the entire lot in her secretariat, no one enjoys the kind of trust that George does," says a recently appointed All-India Congress Committee secretary.

He pointed out that despite the appointments of Ambika Soni and Margaret Alva to Sonia Gandhi's secretariat, George continues to be in the driving seat.

"It takes years of persistence to win over the complete trust of a family. George has managed that," the Congress leader says.

George's work is to manage Sonia Gandhi's private affairs, but he remains the most visible face in the Congress president's office. So what is it that makes him so powerful? Years of silent service to the Gandhi family? Or shrewdness that finds no parallel even among shrewd politicians?

GEORGE'S story is not unique. Like the thousands of Indians from all over, this Keralite, born in a lower middle class family in Pathanamthitta district, came to Delhi in search of a job in 1974. He was then in his 20s.

Delhi was an angry city then, a teeming mass of population that wanted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi out. An Emergency was to follow shortly. Jayaprakash Narayan was the hero those days. The majority of the youth were with him.

Within months, George landed a job at the Congress office as a typist. Some say it was Margaret Alva who got him there. In any case, George proved to be a silent, hard worker.

"He can work for days on end without any rest. He hardly complains," says a Congressman who has known him for years.

George spent the next few years behind a typewriter. Then he was moved to Indira Gandhi's office in the early '80s. He, however, had no opportunity to impress his boss with his stenographic ability, in which he holds a government certificate, because R K Dhawan, with astonishing typing skills and a commitment even greater than that of George, was already in place.

Sometime later, Kamlapathi Tripathi, then working president of the Congress, replaced his secretary Raghu with George. It was when he was working for Tripathi that George grabbed Sanjay Gandhi's attention.

George worked with Sanjay for a short period, before he was killed in an air crash. That event pushed his brother Rajiv into politics. And George joined him. That was the beginning of his rise.

When Rajiv Gandhi swept to power in 1984, George was made his private secretary, a government appointment that entitled him to the rank of a middle-level bureaucrat. He continued to be silent and efficient, accompanying the young PM everywhere he went.

Along came Bofors. It was then that George tried his hand at politics. In 1987, he tried, in vain, for a Rajya Sabha nomination from Karnataka. But a coterie led by K Karunakaran, the Kerala leader who could never stand this 'Malayalee clerk', sabotaged the move.

Despite electoral setbacks and the Congress party's failing fortunes, George stuck with Rajiv. After his death, George continued to work with the family, even as Sonia Gandhi kept away from politics.

When Arjun Singh and N D Tiwari led an abortive political coup against P V Narasimha Rao, it was common knowledge in Delhi that George had a role in it. And for that reason, it was said that the revolt was with 10 Janpath's blessings.

During Narasimha Rao's tenure, George faced several problems. Once the urban development ministry served him a notice, asking him to vacate the government house he was occupying in Chanakyapuri. But he did not. Even now he continues to live in the same house, which he first moved into during Rajiv Gandhi's time.

In the early '90s, George's brother-in-law Sabu Chacko was arrested in a TADA case along with the late Congressman Kalpnath Rai. Chacko was then a senior executive with East West Airlines owned by a Kerala Muslim who was gunned down by the underworld.

Chacko and Rai were accused of sheltering underworld gunmen in Delhi. Chacko spent a couple of years in jail. George remained silent, but was under relentless attack from political foes.

After his release, Chacko migrated to the US. Interestingly, one of the benami properties that the CBI accuses George of owning is a flat in Vasant Vihar in Chacko's name.

George again had trouble with the law when former Enforcement Directorate deputy director Ashok Agarwal and businessman Abhishek Verma claimed over a year ago that he was their co-conspirator in some cases.

DESPITE the continuing investigations by the ED and now the CBI, Congress leaders say that George will not be shown the door. "He enjoys the family's trust, and that is reason enough for them to keep him," says a Congress leader.

The list of accusations levelled by the CBI is long. The agency says that since 1990, when George ceased to be a public servant, there has been a quantum jump in the assets of his wife Lilly and two children. Lilly, a nurse in Kuwait who returned to Delhi when the Gulf War broke out, owns two firms. The CBI says these ceased operations in 1992.

Another allegation is that cash gifts have poured in for George's family since June 1991. The CBI says that even during his tenure as secretary to Rajiv Gandhi, in 1984-90, George received cash from foreign countries, especially the US.

The biggest chunk George is said to have received is Rs 12.5 million in November 1991. He is also said to have got Rs 4.1 million in December 1991, Rs 7 million in December 1992 and Rs 2 million in March 1995.

George paid Rs 8.5 million by cheque for a house in Anand Niketan, and owns two shops in the World Trade Centre at Connaught Place, the CBI says.

His family is alleged to own properties worth Rs 15.8 million at the time of purchase. "Now these would be valued at over Rs 1 billion," says a CBI official.

George claims that he bought everything with the earnings from the two firms his wife owns. But the CBI says the firms -- Lilliens Exports and Diana Agencies -- were active only in 1991-92.

A Congress leader who has known George for the last two decades defends him thus: "His brothers-in-law are well-off businessmen in the US. They own a hotel chain there. Most of the money came from them."

Many of this Congressman's ilk are certain that George will weather out the CBI case. And there are enough examples to support their belief.
Design: Dominic Xavier

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