The Charioteer

sam pitroda

Sam Pitroda is doing the same that Ram Madhav did for Narendra Modi from 2014-16

By Asit Manohar

“Democracy does not mean that the winner takes it all. There ought to be collective leadership and that is not being seen in democracies. Now it is all about personality cults,” said technocrat Sam Pitroda after the poll outcome of Gujarat Assembly. Pitroda, who says that it is his moral responsibility to assist the Congress Party as late Rajiv Gandhi was a dear friend, had traveled various major cities of Gujarat and sat with people from various walks of life before submitting his inputs that got incorporated in the Congress party’s election manifesto of Gujarat Assembly Polls. The way Congress succeeded in containing the ‘party with difference’ within 100 is being seen as morale booster for the party workers and is expected to pay dividends in coming Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan assembly polls this year.  

The Chicago-based Chairman of the Overseas Congress Department of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) believes big projects-driven model of development — “the American model” — had failed, and the world was now looking at the Gandhian approach as an alternative model. “Where the focus is on rural development, farmers, small projects,” he says adding that America’s route of consumption-driven economic development could be ruinous for India. “A person owning several cars and hundreds of ties was possible in America because it could suck the resources from all over the world. India cannot try to imitate that,” Has Telecom entrepreneur and development thinker’s ‘Idea for India’ has become Congress President’s Idea?

After becoming Congress President, Rahul Gandhi made his first foreign trip to the Middle East. The trip, timed after parliament wrapped on the 5th January, is part of the newly-minted initiative by Gandhi’s strategist Sam Pitroda, who conceived his successful Berkeley trip in September which showcased a more confident and assertive Gandhi talking to students ahead of his big Gujarat campaign. The Berkeley event is credited with helping alter the perception of Gandhi as a temperamental politician prone to foreign holidays in between unimpressive appearances at parliament.

Sources say that the Berkeley visit established a prototype that Pitroda will use for a foreign outreach by Gandhi every four months and will see the Congress president interacting with foreign leaders and students.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also expected to travel to the UAE and Palestine early this year though the dates have not been announced yet.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Rahul Gandhi addressed town hall meetings and interacted with global CEOs, said sources. He even talked to local businessesmen who employ Indians as well.

Gandhi, 48, was accompanied by Pitroda and younger Congress leaders such as Milind Deora and Jitendra Singh. Gandhi seems to be taking a leaf out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book who as Gujarat Chief Minister and then in the first two years of his premiership made a concerted effort to court NRIs including with his famous Madison Square Garden event.

Pitroda is playing the same role for Gandhi as Ram Madhav does for Modi in terms of arranging the trips and conceiving the best way to showcase his leader.

This new avatar of Gandhi as a 24/7, engaged politician who for the first time in years did not leave India for an extended new year will help build his credibility in public, Pitroda believes, while the fact that Gandhi campaigned in Gujarat for the long haul and did not vanish after the results has helped reassure jittery Congress leaders.

“The real change is that he did not go abroad for New Year. When I saw Gandhi taking a holiday in Goa (she was seen riding a cycle in a photo that went viral), I really felt that a change had happened. Earlier it was the other way around,” shared a relieved senior Congressman who don’t want to be identified.

Pitroda is among the clutch of new advisors Gandhi acquired just before he became president last month. The new team reportedly helped keep him on script in Gujarat, focusing on the issues of unemployment, GST, demonetization and agrarian distress.

In the past, his mother often intervened to soothe allies who he could not manage. But in Gujarat, Gandhi handed his three new acquisitions — the trio of Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor — largely with poise. His decision to suspend veteran Mani Shankar Aiyar for his “neech” remark about Modi demonstrated he will not defer tough decisions.

The fact that the Congress was able to contain the BJP to 99 seats in Gujarat showed that Gandhi has grown as a politician, an evolution also acknowledged by the BJP’s relentless attacks on him.

Post the Middle East trip, a party reshuffle is on the cards as internal analysts prepare for the upcoming elections in states including Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. A micro constituency-wise analysis is being done by professionals.

Ensuring Karnataka is not lost is also on the top of Team RG’s new agenda. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is likely to get a completely free hand (Karnataka CM has requested repeatedly for this) as Captain Amrinder Singh was given ahead of the Punjab Assembly Polls.

All this has reportedly been facilitated by his mother’s retirement. Gandhi’s decisions are no longer second-guessed as they once were, nor is the old guard constantly clashing with his aides.

The changes may seem impressive only to the Congress. The party is reduced to holding only four states now. But it believes that with Gandhi now in party mode, it stands a chance at giving the BJP a run as the largest opposition party.