From ‘suit-tie’ to ‘kurta-pyjama’

Business Standard, June 07, 2014

In March, when Jayant Sinha’s name was announced as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate from Hazaribagh constituency in Jharkhand, his opponent from the Congress, Saurabh Narain Singh, distributed laddoos. In the local market, people laid bets; the odds put Sinha in third place.

Singh and the bettors probably thought they knew a thing or two. After all, till January, the Harvard-educated Sinha had headed the global social impact fund Omidyar Networks’ India office in Mumbai. So Singh, a sitting member of the state’s Assembly and a scion of the former royal family of Ramgarh, and those who bet on him saw only a weak opponent. Singh’s confidence also came from the fact that in the 2009 general election, he lost only by a small margin to Sinha’s father, the veteran politician and former finance minister Yashwant Sinha (note to readers: this lunch took place before Yashwant Sinha’s arrest earlier this week).

As it turned out, Sinha defeated Singh by a margin of over 1,50,000 votes. This was unimaginable even for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had quipped in his rally at Hazaribagh in April, “Mujhe bharosa nahi tha ki Jayant jo suit tie ki duniya me rahta hai wo kurte pyjame ki duniya me aa payega, parantu aa gaya.” [I was not sure if Jayant, who comes from the world of suits and ties, would be able to adjust to the world of kurta-pyjama, but he has].

I, too, was curious to see how he had made this transformation when I invited him to Lunch with BS.Sinha, tired from his arduous campaign and visit to Delhi where he witnessed Modi’s emotional speech in the central hall of Parliament, preferred to eat at his home in upscale Charmichael road in south Mumbai.

Of the numerous corporate executives who had contested the election this time, he is one of just two who actually won. The other is Jaydev Galla, managing director of the Amara Raja Group, who won from Guntur, in Andhra Pradesh, on a Telugu Desam ticket.

This Friday afternoon, Sinha looks very different from the image to which his friends in the US and Mumbai are accustomed. Gone is the wine-loving sophisticate. In his place is the emerging politician in a full-sleeved pink khaddar kurta with a tricolour badge on the pocket. The kurta is worn under a grey sleeveless Nehru jacket, white pyjamas and brown slip-on shoes.

Sinha’s life thus far had pretty much followed the trajectory of a successful IIT alumnus. After finishing his chemical engineering degree from IIT Delhi in 1985, he joined the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a master’s in energy management and policy, which he followed up with an MBA from Harvard Business School.

After Harvard, he spent 12 years with McKinsey in the US and made partner, no small achievement in this prestigious and competitive global management consultancy. Then he moved to investment advisory firm Courage Capital as managing director, before joining Omidyar Network as a partner and managing director in Mumbai in September 2009. He held the post for over four years before the switch to politics.

We’re chatting in his living room while the table is being set for lunch and I ask him why he gave up a settled successful (and luxurious!) career for the gruelling uncertainties of politics. It was not as though Sinha was unaware of what he was getting into. “From 1998 onwards, I really led two lives when my father became finance minister of India,” he says explaining how he helped him with speeches, grass-root campaigning and providing inputs for policy.

“There was no choice, there is so much to be done that the family inevitably gets involved. My sister and brothers got involved too but I probably did more than them,” he says. He took three months’ leave during the 2009 election to be his father’s campaign manager. Following that, he designed a computerised system to track the implementation of the MP local area development (MPLAD) funds.

“I was a professional so it was not possible for me to be public with any of the work that I was doing,” he reasons. This election saw a role reversal – Yashwant Sinha became his son’s campaign manager in what is seen as a pocket borough for the family. No doubt, the Modi wave did Sinha’s chances a world of good, but so did his father’s legacy in the constituency.

I was curious. Did he not see an anomaly in fighting from his father’s seat in a party that professed to shun dynastic politics? Not that Sinha is alone in this; there are at least half-a-dozen children of BJP leaders who have won this election, including Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh’s son Abhishek Singh and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s son Dushyant Singh. Sinha counters this argument by pointing to his own, admittedly formidable, qualifications. “In dynastic politics, typically, a young person is taking advantage of family to get into public life, without bringing experience and qualification to the table,” he says.

Still, given Modi’s very public aversion to dynastic politics as practised by the Congress, it was no surprise that he did not include any BJP leaders’ children in his Council of Ministers and Sinha has kept his expectations realistic by planning for the long haul.

Lunch is served and it proves simple ghar ka khana: chapatti, dal, rajma, mushroom and pea curry, universally known as “mushroom mattar”, green salad and raita. The khaddar outfit and simple fare prompt me to ask whether he’s lost all interest in the worldly things he worked so hard to enjoy.

Not entirely, it seems. I note he still sports the high-end Swiss brand IWC’s engineer model. And, when I probe a little more about what he does outside of work, it turns out that Sinha has written a movie script for Hollywood, which he expects to be produced by Peter Jackson of The Lord of the Rings fame.

He is also an avid sportsman and blithely tells me that he harbours ambitions of becoming India’s number 1 tennis player in the age category of 65-plus years. Considering that he is just 51, that’s long-term planning indeed.

Back in the living room for tea, I return to his political ambitions. So where does he see himself in five to 10 years? After getting the expected answers – being a “loyal party worker” ready to do “whatever party assigns” – I rephrase my question. Where do his strengths lie? It turns out that information technology and telecom are really close to his heart since he’s done a lot of work on both as a consultant. Energy is another domain of expertise, a subject on which he did his master’s degree in the US. Also, since he had criss-crossed the globe, he has developed expertise in geo-political issues, where he thinks he can contribute.

Our conversation is interrupted by a call from his constituency by someone who is being harassed by the local police. Sinha patiently directs him to someone in his office. How will a McKinsey consultant, the first to enter the Indian Parliament, handle such ground-level issues? He has already planned for this and is setting up a call centre to which people from his constituency can make a missed call with their grievances. His office will follow up with the local authorities on issues ranging from water, electricity, schools, hospitals and so on. At any rate, that’s a creative way of integrating his past and future careers, I think, as I leave the lush environs of Sinha’s home for the muggy realities of Mumbai.

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