When Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi made a favorable impact a series of well-received public appearances across the United States in September, close family friend Sam Pitroda was credited with the creating the Nehru-Gandhi scion’s image make-over.

Not only did Pitroda organise Rahul Gandhi’s meetings with members of the Indian diaspora and his talks at US universities in his capacity as head of the Overseas Indian Congress, the technocrat is also learnt to have given the young leader tips on improving his communication and leadership skills.

Pitroda’s proximity to the Gandhi family is no secret. In the 1980s, he had established an excellent rapport with Rajiv Gandhi, who had designated him his technical advisor when he was prime minister. Though a controversial figure back then, it is acknowledged that he helped usher in the telecom revolution in India.

Though he returned to the US after Rajiv Gandhi lost power in 1989, his links with the Gandhi family remained firm. His appointment as head of the National Knowledge Commission when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government returned to power in 2004 came as no surprise.

Having made a success of Rahul Gandhi’s US trip, Pitroda has now pitched tent in poll-bound Gujarat where he is playing a key role in guiding the Congress vice-president’s election campaign. Besides the fact that he close to Pitroda,the Congress vice-president is learnt to have turned to him for help as he is a Gujarati, studied engineering in Vadodara and as a US-based Indian, is well-connected with the overseas Gujarati community.

Growing influence

As the Nehru-Gandhi scion gets ready to take over as Congress chief, Pitroda has emerged as an important member of Rahul Gandhi’s team. However, some party leaders are unhappy with Pitroda’s growing influence in the Congress vice-president’s set-up and have been quick to play down his role. They insist that Pitroda has been entrusted with the limited task of holding consultations with various sections of society, particularly in the urban areas where the Bharatiya Janata Party has a strong presence, so that their demands and expectations can be included in the party’s election manifesto. Pitroda is focusing on five cities – Vadodara Rajkot, Surat, Jamnagar and Ahmedabad – for these inputs.

But, from all accounts, Pitroda’s involvement in Gujarat goes beyond this. He is driving the party’s social media and communication strategy in the poll-bound state. He is also framing the issues that the Congress is flagging in the intense poll campaign. According to a Congress leader familiar with matters, the party’s new social media chief, Divya Spandana, is Pitroda’s choice. Having a made a slow start in the use of social media, the Congress is now using Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp prolifically by organising live chats and soliciting people’s suggestions. Pitroda is also featuring in the party’s videos, speaking in Gujarati to establish a connect with the audience.

This has led to speculation in the Congress about Pitroda’s future role in the party. One probability being discussed in party circles is that Pitroda could well be the chief ministerial choice if the Congress surprises everyone by winning the tightly-contested Gujarat polls. Others maintain that he would be Rahul Gandhi’s key advisor if he succeeds in replacing Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2019. While both suggestions may be exaggerated, these do point to Pitroda’s undeniable influence.

“Pitroda’s proximity to Rahul Gandhi can best be compared to Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s relationship with Manmohan Singh,” said a senior Congress leader. Ahluwalia returned to India from the US when the Congress came to power in 2004 in response to Manmohan Singh’s request and joined the Planning Commission as its deputy chairman.

Broad range of advisors

Pitroda’s sudden visibility has, however, not gone down well with other Congress leaders who are usually disdainful of technocrats and academics as they believe, they lack grassroots connections. In this regard, they point to Prashant Kishor, who was hired as the party’s election strategist for the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls for a huge sum of money but failed to deliver.

On the other hand, party functionaries go out of their way to emphasise that Rahul Gandhi consults many leaders on the areas of their specialisation and Pitroda is just one of them. For instance, it is pointed out that the Congress vice-president holds regular meetings with senior leaders including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Finance Minister P Chidambaram on economic issues. Similarly, they said, he also keeps in touch with veteran party leader Karan Singh who is an expert on Hindu scriptures and discusses international affairs with Shashi Tharoor.

Randeep Surjewala, head of the Congress communications department, also enjoys Rahul Gandhi’s confidence. Former bureaucrat K. Raju, appointed head of the party’s scheduled castes department, is a member of Rahul Gandhi’s core team and is the main architect of the Congress vice-president’s Dalit agenda.