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Priyanka is chief of staff in Rahul's office, says Pitroda

By Sheela Bhatt
March 25, 2014 22:01 IST
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Rahul Gandhi with Priyanka Vadra

"The mood in the country is the challenge. Everything is going well, but nobody is feeling good. Why? I don't know. Maybe aspirations are too high."

"Rahul is a wonderful person. He is a thinking man. He has convictions and is passionate about his work."

Sam Pitroda, Gandhi family loyalist, discusses the Congress party and its new leader with's Sheela Bhatt.

Surely, these are hard times for Congressmen and those who support the Congress party and its leaders.

The party's Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion)-plus advertisement campaign -- all over India; hoardings, sleek videos, neat artworks in the print media, centred solely around party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi -- seems to have failed to raise voters' emotions in favour of either the Congress or Rahul Gandhi.

Many Congress leaders, particularly from the Hindi heartland, look gloomy, but not Sam Pitroda. His enthusiasm is infectious. asked Pitroda, a close friend of Rahul Gandhi's father, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, about the decline of the Congress party and why Rahul is unable to make an impact. Pitroda didn't budge from his stance of looking at the positive picture.

At one point, on hearing a negative question, he said angrily, "Indians like to bitch."

"The jury is still out," he insisted. "I don't believe these surveys. Remember, in 2004 and 2009 too, you guys were talking the same things."

When asked for his take on Rahul Gandhi and his election campaign. Pitroda, ever the family loyalist, praised Rahul. His main argument was that Rahul is still learning and so can't be compared to any of his contemporaries with more than three to four decades of political experience.

"I know RG reasonably well. I like him. I may be biased. I think he is well read. He thinks well. He is analytical and has a long-term view of Indian democracy and empowering people. He is worried about people at the bottom of the pyramid."

"He has read history, he has a sense of history. If you are born into that family, you are bound to have a sense of history. Even when you are four years old, you meet with global leaders. You can't look at him in the light of an average person. It has advantages, and it has disadvantages."

"Since he has grown up with the constraints of security, he may not have the kind of wherewithal that you and I have on the streets. He is energetic, he works long hours. He is committed to his work and he knows that his destiny is sealed."

"He can't take a three week vacation on a boat as we can. He works sincerely and hard. He sends me e-mails even at 2 in the morning."

"You must also recognise that he is not a flashy guy. He is not trying to prove anything to anybody. He doesn't say I will change this and I will change that. People tend to compare him with leaders who are in politics for 30 years and 40 years. He is just entering politics. He is just 40 odd years old."

"Give him a chance, give him time. You have to give Rahul Gandhi a chance to grow."

Pitroda, who holds a Cabinet rank position in the Prime Minister's Office, lives in Lutyens' Delhi on Safdarjang Road. In 2005, he was made chairman of the National Knowledge Commission which made some 300 recommendations to the government to implement in 27 sectors.

Most of his recommendations were not implemented by the concerned ministries, but he is still not ready to blame the prime minister for it.

He also prepared a huge document to reform the Indian Railways. Currently, he heads the National Innovation Council. He enjoys painting and playing the tabla, and now wants to learn the piano. Currently, an exhibition of his paintings is being held at the Navneetha Art House in Paris.

His family-owned company was recently sold to MasterCard. He lives in comfort, but doesn't lead a flashy life.

For the last few years he has been trying to help the Gandhi family, the Congress and the government if and when he is asked. Discussing the coming election and the Congress's destiny, he repeatedly said, "All is not lost."

"Why did Rahul not take up any responsibility (in the government)?" asked.

"Look at it from his perspective. If he entered the government it would have been alleged that he was interfering with the prime minister. It is better he stayed out, gave the PM a free hand. Rahul has been talking to the PM regularly. He had many meetings on many issues. He didn't go to the press and say I have told the PM so and so. That's not fair."

"People want him to be flashy. People wanted him to take charge before actually taking charge. People wanted him to act like the prime minister right now. I think that is not fair. Let him grow in his job. I see in him a great young leader of India. Our job is to love him, care for him. I am very confident that if Rahul Gandhi went to a G-20 meeting he will impress people with his knowledge."

Pitroda then cited an example of how Rahul impressed the president of Cargill, the world's biggest agro-foods company.

"Rahul spoke to the president of Cargill. Later, I talked to the president and asked him, 'What was your impression?' He said, 'Sam, I have never met a young leader like him in my life.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Rahul started asking me questions I had never thought of. He asked me why China has built a telecom company but not a big agriculture company? It requires deep understanding to ask questions like that. I was very impressed by him,' the Cargill president said."

When asked Pitroda why, in that case, was Rahul unable to impress the youth of India as the Bharatiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi apparently has, Pitroda responded with a complaint.

"The youth of India is not paying attention to substance. Indian youth is used to Bollywood, cricket and gossip. We are comparing oranges and apples. Rahul will learn. The most important thing in life is to be a good person. Rahul is a wonderful person."

"He is a thinking man. He is a concerned person. He has convictions and is passionate about his work."

While comparing Rahul to his father, Pitroda says while Rajiv would jump into new ideas, Rahul is a thinker and is cautious.

"I also talk to (Rahul's sister) Priyanka (Vadra). She is a good manager. She is like the chief of staff in Rahul's office. Both work very well. They are complementary to each other."

"In that case, what is not working out well for them in this election?" asked.

"The mood in the country is the challenge," Pitroda noted poignantly. "Everything is going well, but nobody is feeling good. Why? I don't know. Maybe aspirations are too high. People want to solve their problems today."

"One boy was complaining about his connectivity and calls dropping. I said your father had to wait for 15 years to get a phone connection. Now you get a phone in 15 minutes. But, see, he is still complaining!"

You may agree or not, but most Congressmen, including Pitroda, seriously believe the Congress is unable to publicise its achievements of the last 10 years well enough. As if that is their only problem.

"I agree this is one of the most critical elections in the history of India. We are at the tipping point because the technology that we have in our hand today, we can expedite the modernisation process. On the other hand, we are at the crossroads."

"We are at the tipping point because for the first time in our 5,000 years of history, we are a nation of one billion connected people. We have around 900 million cell phones. How do we use the connectivity to go forward and redefine India?"

"We are at the crossroads because when I see the (political) debates on television which are rubbish -- about cricket, Bollywood and gossip. I worry really. The conversation in the country today has degenerated to the point that the basic idea of India that our founding fathers had is being questioned."

"The Gandhian idea of India that is secular, non-violent, focused on rural development, concerned for the minorities and poor is being questioned."

While debunking talk of Modi, GDP and growth, Pitroda says, "Today India is showing it is no longer inclusive. Today's India is for the rich. It is more about GDP, per capita income and not about the welfare of the people."

"Today, people want 10 percent growth and they want markets going up and up. But that is one piece of the puzzle. Sometimes, when you have a country of so many poor, you have to let go of two percent growth to distribute food to the hungry."

While talking about corruption in the United Progressive Alliance, he says, "China, Brazil, the US or Europe, corruption is in every country. When a government is elected, nobody talks about it for the first three years. They want to use corruption because lies sell better."

Sam Pitroda is ready to vacate his government bungalow if the UPA loses power. "I have to collect my paintings and give away my carpets," he says, "I have no other stake in my home in New Delhi."

Image: Rahul Gandhi with his sister Priyanka Vadra.

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Sheela Bhatt