JET SET GO

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By Snorkelling, scuba diving, five-star dining - civil aviation minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy went the whole hog in Goa. That's today's politician for you - not shy of living it up
  • Published 14.02.04
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Everybody knows Goa in winter is the place to be. The seafood is excellent, the beaches are beautiful and the party goes on all night. So when Union civil aviation minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his family in these scenic parts of western India, it was understandable.

In a sense, it was also refreshing. In a country where politicians have traditionally hidden behind a public curtain of spartanism while splurging in private, here was a young politician openly enjoying la dolce vita with his airhostess wife in a five-star deluxe hotel. And, in a new globalised era, where politicians are hardly averse to throwing lavish parties, flying club class to the US for holidays and travelling to Wimbledon for the games and the social scene, the extravaganza appeared to be in the order of things. For, Rudy — known as much for his chic kurtas as his skiing skills — was the quintessential Good Life Guy.

But, sometimes, changes are only skin- deep. It was discovered earlier this week that the 41-year-old minister from Bihar had slipped into an old habit of Indian politicians: asking a public undertaking to pick up the tab for private pleasures. First, he refused to pay his hotel bills saying the rates had been jacked up. Then, the Union civil aviation minister asked the Airports Authority of India to pay his bills worth Rs 2.44 lakh for his five-day family outing. So much for cost cutting! After the cat was let out of the bag, a red-faced Rudy coughed up the amount.

More followed. Reports tumbled out that the scuba-diving, snorkelling-loving minister was a big spender who burnt up substantial sums from the national exchequer doing up toilets, floorwork, interiors in his office.

Maybe, a few months back such disclosures wouldn’t have mattered. After all, in an era of multi-crore scams, Rudy’s transgression is minor. But with fresh parliamentary elections only a couple of months away, the revelation is quite embarrassing for both the minister and his party, the BJP. His Goan jaunt is likely to provide delicious fodder to his likely opponent in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election, Laloo Prasad Yadav. And, if a recent television interview was any indication, Rudy is feeling the heat already. Grilled on his Goan peccadillo, the usually confident minister was on the back-foot, struggling to play straight.

Before the Goa holiday, Rudy was riding high. The boy, who lost his father at the age of four, who became the first Bihari to become the general secretary of the Punjab University Students’ Union and who once taught economics in Magadh University, had made it big.

For someone with no RSS background and who joined the BJP only in the mid-Nineties after a stint with the Janata Dal, he is one of the fastest climbers in national politics. Changing his name from Rajiv Pratap Singh to Rajiv Pratap Rudy was part of the process of creating a distinct identity for himself. “When he became an MLA in 1990, there were quite a few Rajiv Pratap Singhs. So he began using his pet name, Rudy, as his surname,” says an aide.

Those close to him say, he plays his cards — or some say, caste — well. Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, a Lohiaite, was his early mentor in politics though be came over to the saffron side through veteran BJP leader Kailashpati Mishra. But it was Rajasthan’s then chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat who helped him get the party’s Lok Sabha ticket in 1996. Both Shekhawat and Chandra Shekhar are Rajputs, the same caste as Rudy.

In his early days in Parliament, Rudy was an aggressive member of the shouting brigade. But he also displayed a penchant for being on the right side of the men who mattered — for instance, Jaswant Singh, another thakur, and Pramod Mahajan. “He is a new-age politician who knows the art of keeping important people happy. And he is quick to seize an opportunity,” says a Bihar leader.

The politician, who loves English action movies, came into national prominence in November, 1997, when there was talk of dissolving the Lower House. He was prominent among 21 first-time MPs who handed over a memorandum to the then President K.R. Narayanan, urging him to prevail upon party leaders not to rush to an early dissolution.

But it was only in his second innings in Parliament beginning 1999 that Rudy really became a face in a crowd of politicians. Television proved to be his ally. Educated in Patna’s cultured St Michael’s school, Rudy impressed as a young, glib, English-speaking politician; helpful ingredients in times when most national political debates are thrashed out on the small screen.

The rewards came soon enough. He became the Union minister of state for commerce and industry in 2001. Last year, he was upgraded to civil aviation — a portfolio as desirable to a politician as a European posting is to a diplomat. Under Rudy, cosmetic changes such as allowing photography in airports have taken place. But being a Cabinet lightweight, he has not been able to drive through policy changes.

His only stab at reforms, the Open Sky policy, which would have allowed domestic airlines to fly overseas, was stalled. Yet, till last week, the civil aviation minister was hardly complaining. Of late, there is a story doing the rounds that the present anti-Rudy campaign is an in-house creation, starring another young BJP leader. Perhaps, yeh andar ki baat hai.

Whatever be the truth, Rajiv Pratap Rudy has to overcome this matter of inconvenience in his professional life. Hitting the ground after flying high can be a painful experience.