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Rahul Gandhi - Who are his pals?

Nistula Hebbar  |  New Delhi 

Far from being a nerdy geek, the fifth generation scion of The Dynasty is an extrovert biker and keen model planes enthusiast. He's also choosier than his dad when it comes to making friends. Business Standard lifts the veil off the Gandhi breaks bread with

For a person who has had one of the most public childhoods in the world, there is precious little that is known about Gandhi and his life. In fact, some basic facts of his life still remain shrouded in mystery, like whether or not he got a degree in finance from Harvard (some say that he got an MPhil degree in development economics), or which firm in London he worked for in those indeterminate years between his degree and his return to India in 2002.

Mystery also surrounds his wedding plans to the leggy Veronique, a Spaniard (still referred to as Juanita from Colombia), prompting some bold constituents from Amethi demanding bhaiya should "wed soon" when he went there after his 36th birthday in June.

So much mystery leads one to conclude that the enigma is self-created. Not surprising if one lives under a media microscope, perhaps a private joke at the "watchers" expense. What it also reflects is the mind of a man determined not to let the various airtight compartments in his life collide with each other.

When Gandhi returned to India, it was with the understanding that his "time out" abroad, for studies and an attempt at a professional career as a financial consultant, was at an end.

The Congress party had claimed yet another Gandhi, and Gandhi became a model member of Parliament from Amethi, concerned about the party's dismal prospects in the Hindi heartland, raising issues of public concern.

Most of Gandhi's reticence, according to those close to his family, stems from the fact that when his father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, entered politics, much was made of his circle of friends, which consisted almost entirely of Doon School buddies.

The fact that many of them also found their way into the government was something Rajiv Gandhi had to face flak for. "As a child, he (Rahul) had to see not just the fallout of involving close friends in professional situations, but also the fact that friends too become a target for the opposition," said a close aide of the Gandhi family.

"In private, Gandhi is an extrovert, has strong opinions and is very warm, quite unlike the quiet brooding public persona he has cultivated," said the aide.

In Gandhi's circle, therefore, there is very little overlap, except in certain exceptional cases like that of Milind Deora, the guitar playing, savvy member of Parliament from south Mumbai, who is both a party colleague and a social friend. Or even Anil Thakur, son of senior Congress leader Rameshwar Thakur and a chartered accountant by profession.

Thakur, therefore, is an old family loyalist as well as one of those involved in Rahul's company BackOps Engineering, which is headquartered in Mumbai.

Old Friends, New Generation
There are some friends that Gandhi has "inherited" as a member of the Gandhi family. These friends' loyalty has been tried and trusted and they have passed the Gandhi test of acceptability. This group keeps expanding and contracting as and when members of this inner circle find themselves in the country.

Sameer Sharma, son of Rajya Sabha MP Satish Sharma, is a close friend of Rahul's, sometimes accompanying him on his trips to Amethi.

In fact, on one of these trips, a rumour started making the rounds that Sameer Sharma and his fiancee were accompanying Gandhi and the mysterious Veronique to Amethi. Needless to say, half of Amethi, including the local MLA of the Samajwadi Party, turned up for the mooh dikhayee, to the complete bewilderment of Gandhi. He reportedly turned to his entourage and asked, "Why would they think that I would do this?"

Other hereditary friendships have come to light in less painful ways. Suman Dubey's daughter Mandakini Dubey, an Ivy League scholar and a familiar byline in travel magazines and activist blog sites, is also a childhood friend, but likes to keep away from the limelight.

Her jholawala instincts seem to have an influence on at least some of the work that Gandhi is doing in Amethi. Anil Thakur, Rameshwar Thakur's son, is also a close associate, and has a hand in Gandhi's now neglected business enterprise.

"He came into contact with Gandhi not just because of his father, but because he handles most of the accounting work at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation," said a person close to the family. Right now an associate with Thakur and Vaidyanathan, an accounting firm, his father's office used to be in Connaught Place, called Thakur and Thakur Associates.

The "A" team
For those willing to trudge through the central UP countryside, Gandhi's Amethi trips always make good copy.

And this time round, the prescence of Kanishka Singh, son of former foreign secretary and Arunachal Pradesh governor S K Singh, surprised many

Kanishka Singh has been given the job of coordinating all civil society projects (four in all) initiated in Amethi, including an eye clinic on the lines of one run in Tamil Nadu.

Singh, a graduate from St Stephen's college in Delhi, and Stanford University, worked on several water conservation projects for the World Bank and was reportedly roped in to "coordinate development works for Amethi-Rae Bareilly" by none other National Advisory Council (NAC) member Jairam Ramesh. "Kanishka speaks the same language as Rahul, and shares some of the vision for development," says a senior member of the government.

Singh's presence added a youthful touch to a team populated almost entirely by old family loyalists. In fact, former air force officer Manoj Mattu also handles both Amethi and Rae Bareilly constituencies apart from being listed as Gandhi's partner in BackOps Engineering.

The Gandhi family has always been known to have very powerful personal staff. And in this long tradition has been added the name of Namik Sherpa as somebody who handles appointments as Gandhi's personal assistant.

"Namik is the son of an old time staffer at 10 Janpath, Mrs Sonia Gandhi's house, and has recently been appointed to look after appointments at 12 Tughlak Road, Gandhi's residence," says a close friend of the family and Congress MP.

Very little is known about Gandhi's interests, and the way Congressmen go on about his "tech savvyness" and his "political economy thinking" one comes away thinking of him as a kind of a computer worshipping geek. Until the lid was blown off his speed demon ways.

Speed Kings
Gurgaon sees Gandhi every other weekend when he is in Delhi, burning the racing tracks there with his speed biking, heavily diguised under jackets and helmets. While he is R1, in code, his brother-in-law Robert Vadra, is R2 and the third wheel in this is Club One Air managing director Manav Singh.

The affable Manav Singh who is jokingly referred to as the "second flying Sikh", has just launched his own company based on fractional ownership of aircraft. A savvy businessman, and always well turned out, Manav Singh has so far ducked the media radar.

Something to do with the fact that the helmets get in the way. His fractional ownership concept would enable to be able to fly privately without completely owning an aircraft.

His interests also run to another one of Gandhi's passions "" flying, real aircraft as well as small model planes flown by remote control. All this does make Gandhi tech-savvy, but thankfully much less of a geek than presumed.

In the House
The third row from the back in the treasury benches of the Lok Sabha has become the fulcrum of interest for the entire Congress party, and some parts of the opposition as well. For this is the row occupied by Gandhi.

When he, along with several first time MPs, all scions of various political families, made it to the 14th Lok Sabha, it was seen as a grand revival for the party, and several romantic notions of a young team taking on the geriatrics in Parliament started making the rounds.

This was, of course, short-lived, and Gandhi has shown himself to be choosy when it comes to making friends among the young guns. Topping this list by a far margin is Milind Deora, who seems to have inherited his father's legendary networking skills, organising interactions with senior members of the government for the rest of the younger lot, as well as making a mark while accompanying President A P J Abdul Kalam on his trip to Iceland.

Gandhi's frequent trips to Mumbai see him in Milind and his DJ brother Mukund Deora's company, and he also appears impressed by the range of business contacts that only a Mumbai politician can enjoy.

Another quiet mover in the circle is Jitin Prasada, son of former Congress leader Jitendra Prasada. Jitin Prasada is a management graduate and worked at a bank before becoming an MP. His greatest asset is his discretion.

Among the opposition, Gandhi's budding friendship with Omar Abdullah is being greatly encouraged by the rest of the Congress inner circle. "Omar Abdullah is a young, educated, and sensitive person.

Besides, the fact that he also comes from two different cultural influences and decided to make his mark in Indian politics, is well appreciated by the Gandhi family," says a close aide. Surprisingly, Omar Abdullah's brother-in-law, Sachin Pilot, is not so in.

This group usually hangs around the Central Hall when Parliament is in session, and one of the first instances of Gandhi's outspokenness and his underestimated political understanding occurred when Uma Bharati resigned as Madhya Pradesh chief minister, after a non-bailable warrant was issued in a case being pursued by a Congress government.

Gandhi reportedly said that the move was being engineered by the BJP itself. "We are helping them get rid of a now unpopular chief minister, we are making her a martyr for nothing," he reportedly said. He then went on to discuss some new software he had come across.

A man is known by the company he keeps, and for Gandhi that means finding a very private space within a public life.

While his party members are self-confessedly becoming irritated at his late blooming, his friends say that like his entry into politics, his assumption of more responsibility will happen only when he is ready.

First Published: Sat, November 26 2005. 00:00 IST