The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Clean slate in hand, George back in hot seat

March 16: Three years in exile, and the prodigal is back with “Madam” — with a squeaky-clean slate and doing what he has always done best.

Private secretary Vincent George has quietly made a comeback at Sonia Gandhi’s, and taken the hotseat he vacated some time ago. For the past week, he has been spotted at 10 Janpath, meeting people, writing reports, going through “position papers” and doing some behind-the-scenes firefighting.

Only a week into the job, and George is believed to have been behind the formula to harness breakaway warhorse K. Karunakaran. Give his daughter, Padmaja, the Mukunandapuram Lok Sabha seat, George said, and get him to allow archrival A.K. Antony to carry on as Kerala chief minister.

His unmistakable “stamp” also showed in former chief election commissioner M.S. Gill being inducted as the Congress’ Rajya Sabha nominee from Punjab and AICC spokesman Anand Sharma from Himachal Pradesh.

George’s “rehabilitation” comes in the wake of feedback Sonia has that the CBI found nothing “incriminatory” against him while probing an alleged disproportionate assets case.

The Congress chief had eased him out in 2001 after the CBI began “preliminary investigations” against him. Although no formal chargesheet was filed, Sonia — conscious of her image and stung by charges of running a coterie — shook him off.

George’s return to Sonia’s innermost circle is significant in many ways. For one, it indicates her dependence on a man whose efficiency blends with unflinching loyalty.

After his exit, Sonia tried out many famous and not-so-famous persons, ranging from Ambika Soni, Ahmad Patel and Margaret Alva to S.V. Pillai and Madhvan. But she found none who could match the “one-in-all-George”.

In the three years that George stayed away from 10 Janpath, nobody replaced him. The anteroom next to the visitors’ room was dismantled weeks after George proceeded on “leave”.

The anteroom has now become a VIP waiting lounge. Secretariat staff — including Patel, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Janardhan Dwivedi, all members of the Congress president’s office — have rooms in the “executive quarters” a short way from Sonia’s work station. But there, too, a room with a telephone was kept vacant as a reminder of the life and times of Vincent George.

Congress circles believe George has the ability to track down any individual in an hour or so. He is a workaholic who can be on duty for 20 hours a day, surviving on his staple diet of “chicken tikka and coffee”. He is also perceived to be tailor-made for “palace politics”, preferring to die than let out a secret.

Sources close to Sonia see George’s rise, fall and “gradual ascent” as part of power politics. They claim his loyalty and labour were never in question, just that in 1999-2001 Sonia got the feeling he was becoming larger than life.

Around this time, a string of bad decisions were taken: Sonia made her famous “272” remark (she staked claim to the Centre saying she had the support of 272 MPs), and egged on by Pranab Mukherjee, backed Bansi Lal in Haryana, only to be routed in the elections.

Then came the exit of Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar and rumblings of discontent from Madhavrao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada. When George’s disproportionate asset allegations added to the heat, Sonia pushed her trusted aide into the political wilderness.

But “wiser” Congress leaders never lost sight of him. Many leaders, chief ministers and disgruntled party workers continued to call on “George sahib” at his Satya Marg Chanakyapuri residence. Witnesses often saw him picking up the phone and briefing “Madam”.

When George celebrated his birthday on September 5 last year, a Congress chief minister gifted him a cake weighing as many kgs as his age. A good part of it was sent to an orphanage.

As of now, only one area is out of bounds for George: of playing “interface” and setting up appointments/meetings with Congressmen.

A large section of Congress leaders are grumbling that they don’t get access to Sonia. George’s successors Pillai and Madhvan dislike entertaining lesser mortals in the party hierarchy and those who are not recommended by Ambika-Patel duo.

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