In his third avatar as a politician and an investor, Chandrasekhar seems to be in search of a balance between being an angry, young man out to clean the system, and a hard-nosed entrepreneur with fingers in many sectors.
If interviews were a game of chess, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, it seems, always prefers to play with white pieces. The minute he walks into the bright and biggish conference room of his investment firm Jupiter Capital’s headquarters in Richmond Road, Bangalore, Chandrasekhar goes back to our previous meeting a few weeks ago in Delhi. He had just held a press conference at the Constitution Club, a stone’s throw away from Parliament, to debunk newly-appointed telecom minister Kapil Sibal’s “zero revenue-loss” theory on the 2G spectrum scam.
The poor media coverage of the press conference was still grating him. “If it was Nirmala Seetharaman (a BJP spokesperson) saying the same thing, it would have made the front pages,” he says even before the handshakes are finished. Chandrasekhar’s zeal in what he calls the search for truth in a scandal — that, according to the government auditor, is worth 1,76,000 crore — is nothing short of evangelical.
He has been vocal about the telecom policy mess in the Rajya Sabha, where he’s a member. Chandrasekhar wants to position himself as a dogged public policy activist — an anti-corruption and good governance crusader.
Sceptics see his recent slanging match with Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata through “open letters”, and barbs at telecom ministers, as publicity stunts aimed at burnishing his activist image. He blames the Delhi mindset for that perception.
“Delhiwallas have a problem understanding me,” he says. “They are always looking for an agenda. If they can’t figure out whether my agenda is the BJP or the Congress agenda, they’ll dismiss me.” In 2006, a year after exiting his telecom venture BPL Mobile, Chandrasekhar was elected as an independent MP from Karnataka, with support from both the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular), which were in an alliance back then in the state.
Is he repaying his benefactors? His detractors say there isn’t anything “independent” in the manner he is providing political ammunition to the opposition with his number crunching and “fact finding” in the 2G scam. Before this particular meeting, his office put together a note on Chandrasekhar, the new-age politician. It says his parliamentary interventions have “earned” the government about 2,00,000 crore and that he was more effective than all other Rajya Sabha members from the world of business put together.
There are also Internet links to the nearly 500 parliamentary questions he has asked since 2006, ranging from the telecom policy to an increase in terrorist infiltration. “People ask me what high do I get from being in politics,” he begins, pulling up his sleeves. “After my repeated haranguing, Parliamentary questions, PILs and the CAG report, the government will net an additional 2,00,000 crore,” he says. “I can say I was instrumental in getting that for the country.” Despite the sincerity of his voice, there’s a shade of self-righteous grandstanding in his words.
Right Of Centre
Chandrasekhar, like many CEOs, can’t resist the urge of using the whiteboard to illustrate his words. He writes down India’s problems, akin to a class X student drawing Kirchhoff’s electrical circuit. According to this diagram, the biggest threat to India is its politics. Politics is defining governance. Bad governance increases the transaction cost for citizens. And citizens elect politicians. Governance is a recurring theme with Chandrasekhar.
He feels governance reforms haven’t kept pace with economic reforms, which have unleashed the country’s entrepreneurship. And that’s what he seeks to change with his politics.
Chandrasekhar is denominationally an independent MP. But if he isn’t merely there to further his business interests, where does one fix his ideas in the political spectrum? Does he belong to the Left, Right or Centre? He responds in an uncharacteristically obtuse way. “If you understand my background, you’ll understand my politics,” he says. “I’m a service officer’s son and public service has a very different meaning for me. I’ve lived in a culture where duty and service mean something.” By his reckoning, governance needs to be judged on three parameters: transparency, responsiveness and cost effectiveness to citizens.
A lot of what he’s written on the whiteboard is reminiscent of the Swatantra Party’s 21 founding principles. And like the founders of the party, rooted in anti-Nehruvian conservatism, he too is condemned by many as a reactionary (perhaps why he seems eager to play with white!). He admires UK’s conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his idea of creating a valuefor-money culture of governance. It wouldn’t, therefore, be inaccurate to describe his ideas as right of centre. Not surprisingly, the BJP has enlisted Chandrasekhar to author its ‘vision document 2025’, which bolsters chances of his re-election to the Rajya Sabha in 2012, when his term expires.
Techie to Entrepreneur
Chandrasekhar’s career has had three broad phases. He began his working life as a techie at Intel in Silicon Valley. By all measures, he had a fairly successful stint with the semiconductor giant. As a senior design engineer, he was part of the team that created and launched the 32-bit 80486 microprocessor. His office has a large picture of the first 486 chip, signed by former Intel bosses Andy Grove and Craig Barrett, that bears his initials in recognition of his work. “I had a great career at one of the best companies in the world. I was driving a Porsche to work in Silicon Valley,” he says. “I basically had everything I wanted.”
The love for fast cars has persisted. His large fleet includes Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis. His office walls bear pictures of him with Formula 1 legends such as Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. In the 1990s, he took leave from Intel to come to India, and get married to Anju — the daughter of TPG Nambiar, the owner of consumer electronics major BPL. A chance meeting with Congressman Rajesh Pilot changed the course of his life. Chandrasekhar’s father, a former Air Force officer, had been Pilot’s flight instructor.
Pilot even arranged a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, then in the opposition, and urged him to look for business opportunities in India. Some years later, Rajiv Gandhi’s technology advisor Sam Pitroda, on learning of Chandrasekhar’s mobile telephony plans, asked him to junk the non-starter of an idea, and instead look at setting up PCOs and STD booths.
Using, as he claims, nothing more than the recklessness of youth, his father-in-law’s reputation and the brand equity of BPL — at the time, India’s premier TV and appliance maker – Chandrasekhar found a partner for the cellular business in France Telecom. BPL Communications was one of the first companies to get a cellular licence in 1994. Back then, Chandrasekhar was a babe in the woods. Often mystified as to why assets and liabilities should match, he began taking rudimentary finance lessons from his wife, an MBA. With mobile licences for Mumbai, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, BPL was India’s largest cellular operator for a brief while, with about a million customers. There was a lot of learning on the job.
“None of us had any telecom experience. The government was notoriously incapable of dealing with a new sector like telecom. Things would change on a daily basis,” says Chandrasekhar. “We used to work 19 hours a day, but those years were undoubtedly the most exciting in my career.” The alliance with Batata — the consortium of Tata, AV Birla group and US behemoth AT&T, which eventually morphed into Idea Cellular — proved ill-fated.
With little room to expand in a market dominated by bigger companies, Chandrasekhar sold BPL Mobile to Hutchison for nearly $1 billion in 2005. One of Chandrasekhar’s fellowindustrialist Rajya Sabha MPs says he hasn’t overcome the bitterness of virtually surrendering the telecom business he had built from scratch.
Chandrasekhar says it wasn’t a difficult decision to quit telecom. “The only challenge in the sector in 2005 was lobbying for free spectrum,” he says. “I was neither good at it nor interested in it.” Chandrasekhar argues there is nothing personal and emotional in his telecom policy activism. “I’m going after the policy-making muddle in telecom,” he says. “Do I have an axe to grind with the entire corporate sector? Yes, I do have an axe to grind with A Raja, but on a matter of principle.”
Today, in his third avatar as a politician and an investor, Chandrasekhar seems to be in search of a balance between being an angry, young man out to clean the system, and a hard-nosed, canny entrepreneur who needs to be alive to opportunities in not one but many sectors. Jupiter Capital, he says, started with a corpus of $100 million in 2005; today, it manages assets worth almost $800 million in sectors ranging from media to hospitality to aviation (See box). “I’ve never had to work this hard,” he says. One of Chandarsekhar’s strengths is his ability to go deep into the details of any given issue. “He has this rare ability to pore through a couple of thousand bureaucratic papers at a time and make a perfectly sensible presentation,” says a former colleague. His 36-slide rebuttal of Kapil Sibal’s claims was accompanied by a 100-page annexure.
Also, since his entry into politics, he’s gained the reputation of being someone who loves a good spat. Chandrasekhar is amused to hear that. He gleefully recounts a time when BJP’s Arun Jaitley called him a “telecom jihadi”. “I don’t go out looking for a fight. But on matters of principle that are dear to me, I’m a bulldog.
You could say I have the traits of a Nair warrior,” he says, adding that as an “outsider” in business, it was he who was always at the receiving end of corporate cartels and motivated policy distortions. There was apparently even a death threat.
“One former telecom minister told me, ‘Main tumhe thok doonga’. I stood my ground,” he recalls. Chandrasekhar is penning a tellall memoir of his telecom days to be published this year, and he’s almost licking his lips at the prospect of renewing some old corporate battles.
Owns the high-end luxury resort Surya Samudra in Kovalam. Plans to expand the premium-end franchise in the South.
Vital for anyone with political ambitions. His focus is the South: Asianet news is the most watched Malayalam news channel; its Kannada counterpart Suvarna TV is a relative laggard; recently bought 51% in Kannada Prabha, the fourth largest Kannada daily. Isn’t keen to go to the North, besides owning minority stakes in large pan-India groups. Lastly, there’s Bangalore’s international music station Indigo and Asianet Radio in Kerala.
Hindustan Infrastructure Projects and Engineering has interests in transportation, real estate, ports, airports and container terminals. Along with partner Neptune Orient Lines of Singapore, it has a national licence to operate private cargo trains, and is developing its own inland container depots. Also developing a port in Vijaydurg, Maharashtra, and an airport in Hassan, Karnataka.
Axis Aerospace & Technology provides engineering design services and offset solutions to aerospace and defence firms.
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