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From Harvard to Hazaribagh, Jayant Sinha comes a full circle

Jayant Sinha, the Harvard-educated investor, has returned to invest time in the poor of India; despite an enviable profile, he fights the image of an outsider and differences within the party

Sahil Makkar  |  Patratu, Ramgarh 

In the US, Jayant Sinha is better known for his upper-class social circle and his capacity to make money for blue-chip companies. Back in India, he is fighting to be known as more than just the son of former finance minister Yashwant Sinha; and someone who has parachuted to step into his father’s shoes.

After spending nearly 25 years in Boston and Philadelphia, Jayant, 51, has returned to fight his maiden battle from Hazaribagh parliamentary constituency, which encompasses industrial towns and hamlets of the Santhal tribe, scattered across Chota Nagpur. The inhabitants and outsiders, mostly industrialists, thrive on its soil enriched with coal and mica.

“All my life, I have lived the character of Russell Crowe of Gladiator (the Hollywood movie). But after coming here, I realised I needed to be Amitabh Bachchan of Bollywood,” Jayant tries to explain how he sees the two worlds, separated by thousands of miles, culture and problems.

He invites me for a detailed conversation to his house, barely 200 metres from the recently tarred four-lane National Highway 33, connecting the state’s capital, Ranchi, to Hazaribagh.

While I am made to sit for two hours in the open compound of the family’s five-acre bungalow, boasting trees, gardens and a small cow stable, at 8 in the morning, I run into many party workers.

The number of visitors, mostly volunteers, swells with every passing minute but Jayant could not be spotted. “His (Jayant) phone is switched off, so we had to come early morning to catch his attention and plan his canvassing in our areas,” complains one of the party workers, as irritated with Jayant’s non-appearance as with the fine particles of coal dust descending incessantly upon visitors and the empty chairs. The air is contaminated because of a coal processing factory close by.

The cadre of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, is more worried about the last-minute announcement of Jayant’s candidature from Hazaribagh, given that hardly anyone knows him.

“In Hazaribagh, despite a seeming BJP wave across the state, the Congress candidate and sitting MLA, Saurabh Narain Singh,is better placed,” a BJP worker says worriedly. He, too, is western-educated and comes from the political family of an erstwhile king — a feudal lord with vast land holdings. Singh had lost to Jayant’s father by a narrow margin of 40,000 votes in 2009.

To complicate matters for Jayant, senior BJP legislator Loknath Mahto has switched sides and decided to jump into the poll fray. He controls 450,000 Koeri (middle caste) voters. The seat has around 1. 4 million voters and most live in rural areas, never a stronghold of the BJP.

Sinha senior turns down the request for an interaction and sent back the messenger to inform us Jayant would be along shortly. After a while, Jayant, who perhaps is as tall as Amitabh Bachchan, ambles in, clad in a light saffron kurta and white pajama, the BJP’s trademark scarf loosely hung around his neck.

Soon, we set off in his newly purchased Scorpio car, mounted with loudspeakers and a huge BJP flag. On our way to Patratu block in Ramgarh district, Jayant opens up.

“There is a huge amount of material available on me on Google,” he says but volunteers to give some insight to his personal life and journey so far.

He says he graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, where he met the two most important persons in his life — Punita, now his wife and a former Blackstone fund manager; and Raghuram Rajan, governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

Jayant and Punita went to the US on scholarship and got married in 1986. Jayant worked for three years in Philadelphia before joining Harvard Business School for an MBA programme.

“Bill Akman (famous hedge fund manager) was in my section. I had Michael Porter, Michael Jensen as my professors. Amartya Sen, too, was teaching at Harvard then,” he continues, talking about a different world as the driver of the car honks incessantly to chivvy along the slow-moving vehicles ahead of us.

Jayant tells me, among others, Nitin Nohria, Tarun Khanna, Ranjay Gulati, Ashutosh Varshney and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, all of whom had started out at Harvard as junior professors then, are on his list of close friends.

Jayant joined McKinsey in Boston and hung out with the likes of Leo Puri, Noshir Kaka, Gautam Kumra, Rajat Gupta and Shirish Sankhe.

“A few days ago, we got together through video conferencing. They wanted to know what was happening here in India. They were having a wine-and-cheese party in Newton, Massachusetts, and I... Well, I miss it terribly, miss all of it,” he says, as we reach the venue of his first nukkad sabha (roadside meeting).

Jayant gets out of the SUV amid cheers from a gathering of 30 or 40 people. He is taken to a small make-shift stage and garlanded. Before beginning his brief but improvised speech, Jayant apologises for the delay.

Once the crowd is settled, he starts off by invoking BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s name, inviting instant and loud cheers.

“I am very close to Modi ji… Like Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna, we will have Pradhan Mantri Sinchai Yojana. My father gave a railway line to Hazaribagh, I will give a big hospital,” Jayant tries to convince his voters.

The hospital promise immediately strikes a chord with people, as despite massive industrialisation and rising air pollution in the region, people are forced to travel to Ranchi and New Delhi for treatment.

Jayant speaks at many such small meetings, promising people roads, water, electricity, jobs and special status for Jharkhand. But during his rhetoric, it became obvious that he is yet to master the art of connecting with the poor of the poorest. After each speech, he tried to make up with self-coined slogans.

“Rota hua baccha mang raha hai maa ki godi… har pal Modi, ghar ghar Modi,” Jayant says, in an attempt to woo the people.

As we carry on along the campaign trail, we pass a sprawling facility belonging to Jindal Steel, a thermal plant, a glass factory and Central Coalfields Limited. Jayant agrees to take some questions.

“What you call dynasty politics, I call service to the nation,” Jayant gets irritated with the mere suggestion that he is perpetuating just another dynasty. He tries to position himself differently from Congress leaders such as Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia.

“Neither of them have a proven track record, they were young and given tickets. I am 50 years old; my record outside politics is exemplary.”

Besides campaigning for his father, Jayant claims to have worked with Murli Manohar Joshi and Arun Shourie on the party’s manifesto during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

In his free time, Jayant plays tennis and invests in US-based technology firms. “I would call myself a Warren Buffett-style value enhancer.” Jayant likes to read historical fiction and has written a movie script. He is hopeful of getting a producer after the elections.

Before ending our conversation, he brings back me to the famous dialogue of Gladiator, which he remembers by heart.

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the north, general of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius.”

His emperor is Modi and he has no qualms about being named one of his courtiers.

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First Published: Wed, April 16 2014. 00:38 IST