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Rediff.com  » Election » Sam Pitroda: The Rahul Gandhi I know

Sam Pitroda: The Rahul Gandhi I know

May 22, 2009 16:16 IST

'He has a vision of India like his dad'

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Sam Pitroda, who is credited for revolutionising India's telecommunications system during then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's tenure, is among a select few who has known Rahul Gandhi since his childhood and continues to be close to him and the rest of his family -- both as a friend and confidante.

In an exclusive interview with rediff.com India Abroad's Aziz Haniffa, Pitroda talks about the young political leader who is expected to lead a young India into the future.

"He has a vision of India like his dad," says Pitroda. "You can see in Rahul's eyes -- at least I see -- his father's unfinished agenda."

When did you first meet Rahul?

I met him in 1985, when I was meeting Rajiv after Mrs Gandhi died. He was a little boy and I met him at their house, and he was playing with his dad -- a nice, young kid. And, since then, I've known him all along.

He was, during these early days, learning computers, and so, I would send some stuff to him because Rajiv would tell me, 'Sam, can you send some stuff for Rahul' and so, I would do that. So, I have known him as a child and seen him grow up, and I've always been very fond of him. He's a really nice fellow, as a person.

And you've watched his progress, seen him growing up to...

Absolutely! Seen him growing up with great confidence, and he is very analytical, humble and is very considerate of other people. He is grounded in reality. He is definitely not a flashy guy. And I think people don't quite understand him that well because they expect someone like him to be very flashy.

And perhaps to be a little aloof and a trifle arrogant...

He is not that at all. He'll open doors for you, like his dad did. He's extremely personable, and very caring.

His heart is in the right place and he's committed to working in India because he said, 'Look, my grandmother gave her life, my father gave his life, and if I don't do what I am supposed to do, it's just not fair to me and my family'.

He's genuinely committed to a larger cause.


Image: Rahul arrives to attend a rally in Allahabad
Photographs: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters
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'His destiny is written'

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Ironically, like Rajiv, in some sense, I guess circumstances sort of co-opted him to be what he is today. Rajiv would have gladly gone along being the pilot he was, but circumstances forced him to take on the leadership in the wake of his mother's assassination.

I suppose Rahul in some sense also believes circumstances have led him to be a youth leader and work at developing the grass-roots of the party...

Exactly! His destiny is written. He is his own man. He naturally listens to many and does his own thing. He has a vision of India, like his dad. You can see in Rahul's eyes -- at least I see -- his father's unfinished agenda. I see in his eyes directly saying my father's unfinished agenda, I must carry forward.

And what's that unfinished agenda?

It's building a modern India -- building an India that we talked about in his (Rajiv's) time. About 21st century India that Indians will be proud of. An India where everybody will have dignity, where poor people have the same kind of access to education, health, like everybody else would have.

When you meet him and chat with him, are these some of the things that permeate your conversations?

Absolutely! His constant concern is about what do we do for the poor, what do we do for the youth, and he is very hard-working -- I would get e-mails from him at 3 o'clock in the morning and I would say, are you still up, and he would say, Of course!


Image: Rahul during a rally in Ahmedabad
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters
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'He's really trying to build the Congress'

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He travelled extensively, covering virtually the length and breath of the country, campaigning, and I heard he had absolutely no qualms whatsoever of meeting with and hugging -- even the so-called low caste people, etc. Does this show the measure of his character?

You bet, it sure does. In that heat and dust of India, he was everywhere. I sent him an e-mail saying, Look, it must be so tiring. He said, 'No, Sam, it's great to meet so many different people in India. I get my energy from them.'

What are his interests?

Right now, he is really laser-focussed on building the party. He wants to build the Youth Congress and bring some systems and institutional processes. In other words, his main concern has been to bring democracy into the party. India's political parties don't have democracy. So he had (party) elections in Punjab, in Gujarat, which has been a big thing to open up.

A lot of people thought it would be like opening a Pandora's Box because the party positions and seats are based on personal contacts. But, he said no, we must bring democracy to the party.

So, he is using IT to register members, increasing the number of members, so that the party should be structured with membership. No bogus membership, real membership -- a little bit of an organised information system, discipline -- and, he has been trying to do all that.

He's really trying to build the party for the 21st century. Rajiv Gandhi talked about this in Mumbai in 1985 at the 100th anniversary of the Congress party. But we couldn't finish that task of building the party. And Rahul is taking on that as his main task.


Image: Rahul eats at a community kitchen after paying homage at the Golden Temple in Amritsar
Photographs: Munish Sharma/Reuters
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'Our beauty is our diversity'

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After his stints in the US and the UK, why did he return to India?

He had to go back to get into politics. He said, 'Look, I am going to study, I'm going to get a couple of years of international experience, then I'll go back and do my job that I am supposed to do.'

So, his going back to India and getting into politics was wholly of his own volition -- not prompted by anyone?

Absolutely, on his own!

Are you saying that after his father died, there was this burning desire that he's got to go back to India and complete his father's unfinished agenda?

Absolutely! He's from a different mould in terms of education. He's young, he has ideas on economic liberalisation, economic reform. He's committed to programmes like the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which is for the poor. He has been pushing that. He strongly believes that India has to focus on communal harmony because that's India's foundation.

The quintessential secularist?

Absolutely! He always says, 'our beauty is our diversity'. We are such a diverse country and that's what makes India that much more beautiful. How could you not take that as a strength and move on?


Image: Rahul wears a japi -- a traditional bamboo sun shade -- during a rally in Kharupetia, near Guwahati
Photographs: Utpal Baruah/Reuters
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'Mahatma Gandhi is his greatest inspiration'

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Has he got a stubborn streak?

He is not stubborn at all, but he is firm in his views. He's got very strong views like any leader would have and he knows that he wants to get done and he listens to a lot of people. He takes all inputs, but then decides that this is what makes sense.

Does he have a temper?

I have not seen his temper at all. I have spent a lot of time with him and I have never seen him lose his temper. But we have a very different relationship -- a personal relationship. So, he's very calm, very accommodating.

If he was 10 minutes late, he would apologise, say he's sorry to keep you waiting, say I'm 10 minutes late, how about a cup of coffee, or can I get you something to drink? And, it's very normal.

There's nothing superficial. He doesn't have to make an effort for me. It just comes from within.

You were very close to his dad. So, does he see you as a sort of lovable uncle -- and also, a sort of mentor?

Even before he got into politics, he used to come and see me in Delhi. We would talk generally about life and all that, because we have a different equation. But I want to treat him like an equal. I don't want to treat him like a kid.

To me he an equal. Just because I am older, just because he's younger, there is no hierarchy. I am Sam to him -- that's it.

Also, one interesting thing is he keeps quotes from Mahatma Gandhi with him at all times -- on his desk, all the time. Mahatma Gandhi is his greatest inspiration. He always talks about the Mahatma's tremendous insights into Indian life.


Image: Rahul at an event in Raipur Phulwari village in his Amethi constituency
Photographs: Pawan Kumar/Reuters
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Power later, Party first

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He has not made any pro-active or aggressive moves to jump on the leadership bandwagon or indicated any interest in any cabinet portfolio, etc. Does that show the personality of the man, in that he is biding his time -- he wants to pay his dues before he takes on the mantle of leadership?

There are two ways to look at it. One, he is always looking at long-term issues and not short-term.

Secondly, he wants to look at the foundation of the party first. So, he's saying look, there's enough time.

We got to fix and build the foundation of the party. We got to look at long-term interests and that's his strength.

And would you say this strength lends credence to his legitimacy when indeed it's time to lead?

Yes, but he's not really into media things -- about what would the media say, how would the media look at it and that sort of thing. He is not like that. He says, Look, I got to do what I got to do, and the media has to do what the media has to do. So, I am not doing it for the media. It doesn't matter to him.


Image: Rahul with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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'Rahul and Priyanka are absolutely great buddies'

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What are his likes and dislikes?

He likes new technology. So he has his Blackberry, computers and all that, and he knows technology. To him technology is such a useful tool.

Is he a connoisseur of fine wines?

No, no. He doesn't drink wine at all. No wine, no beer, nothing. He's a teetotaller.

What about food? When you guys get together, are there any special cuisine you'll seek out?

He'll eat anything. He would prefer Indian food or whatever. But food is not an issue for him. It's like all of us who are world travellers -- food is never an issue. You eat Japanese, you eat Chinese, you eat Indian -- food is not a big issue.

He's not a vegetarian, is he?

No.

Can you speak about his relationship with his sister Priyanka?

He has an extremely interesting relationship with his sister -- very personal, very friendly. They both get along so well and they really click. They talk 10 times a day -- very frequently. They are absolutely great buddies -- just great chemistry. I have seen them both together, and they are just great together.

Does he look to her for counselling, advice, moral support and that sort of thing?

It's a friendship -- not look up to, but it's a sharing thing.


Image: Rahul and younger sister Priyanka in Rae Bareli, their mother's constituency
Photographs: Pawan Kumar/Reuters
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