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IIT-IIM alumnus becomes CEO of Rajiv Gandhi Foundation but vows to stay apolitical

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Mahajan’s relationship with Rahul Gandhi dates back over a decade, to a time the Congress president had approached him to understand microfinance.

New Delhi: Social entrepreneur Vijay Mahajan has been appointed the CEO and secretary of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF), a philanthropic organisation set up in honour of the former Prime Minister after his death in 1991.

He will also serve as the director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies (RGICS), a national policy thinktank promoted by the RGF. He succeeds Deepak Chandra at the RGF and G. Mohan Gopal, a close adviser of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, at the RGICS. The terms of both Chandra and Gopal ended in March.

“I met Rahul ji last year and he asked me to suggest people who could head the RGF and the RGICS,” Mahajan, an alumnus of IIT-Delhi and IIM-Ahmedabad, told ThePrint. “He called me earlier this year, and I thought it was to discuss the names I had suggested. But he asked me to take the offer,” he added.

A man of the masses

Born in 1954, Mahajan started out working among the poor and socially weaker sections in Bihar and other states. In 1982, he set up an NGO, Pradan, which encourages young professionals to give back to society and work in the grass roots.

However, he moved out of Pradan and left for further studies at Princeton University, one of the US’ premier ‘Ivy League’ institutions.

On his return, the difficulties faced by the poor, including farmers, in securing loans caught his attention, and, in 1991, he launched Basix Social Enterprise Group to help ease the situation. The company soon emerged as a model for microfinance in the country and is said to have helped more than 30 lakh households.

In 2003, he was named one of the world’s 60 outstanding social entrepreneurs at the World Economic Forum, Davos. He has also served on the board of a number of organisations and NGOs.

In his new role at the RGF and the RGICS, Mahajan hopes to pull off an apolitical stint aimed at upholding the mandate of the organisations. “Probably I have been chosen because I am apolitical and this happens to be an institute aimed at development,” he said

“My first priority in the new assignment would be to work on the legacy and heritage of the RGF and the RGICS,” Mahajan added, “In the past, some prominent names have been associated with these two organisations and my responsibility is to take the legacy forward.”

Association with Congress

Mahajan’s relationship with Rahul dates back over a decade, to a time the Congress president had approached him to understand microfinance, which centres on giving out small loans at low rates to new businesses or small-scale farmers.

“I first met Rahulji in 2005,” said Mahajan, “when he came to Hyderabad to see the business model of microfinance… Then we kept meeting in Delhi.”

In 2009, when the Congress scion decided to set up an institute to train future politicians who would lead not just the party, but also the country, with a focus on issues like inclusive growth, he called Mahajan to work on it.

“The idea was presented by Dr G.K. Jayaram (the first chairman of Infosys who also served as the founding director of its leadership institute) as he had the expertise in training and transforming leadership. I joined as someone who would execute the idea on the ground,” he added.

It resulted in the establishment of Jawaharlal Nehru Leadership Institute (JNLI) in April 2010, with Jayaram as its chief mentor and Mahajan the honorary director.

Over the years, JNLI trained several batches of young Congress leaders at different locations, with senior leaders such as the late former Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh and former Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit stepping in to offer lessons.

In October 2010, a crisis engulfed the microfinance industry, first in Andhra Pradesh (then united) and subsequently across the country. “In six months, Basix lost Rs 700 crore. I had to go back to make things right,” he added. As a result, Mahajan’s involvement with JNLI reduced till he finally quit in 2012.

“I was very clear (from the start) that once JNLI takes proper shape I will move on… My mandate was to get it running,” he said.

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