File photo of Congress President Rahul Gandhi | Facebook
File photo of Congress President Rahul Gandhi | Facebook
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Rahul Gandhi was keen to derive a new leadership for the party from its younger members, and it was with this in mind that he decided to set up the Jawaharlal Nehru Leadership Institute in 2010.

New Delhi: A dream project that Congress president Rahul Gandhi saw as an IIT for aspiring leaders has been shut down on account of a fund crunch.

Set up in 2010, the Jawaharlal Nehru Leadership Institute (JNLI) pulled the shutters in March this year after a promising start that saw veteran Congress leaders share their experience in the field with students, besides classes in the 132-year-old party’s history.

The idea first occurred to Gandhi in 2007, when he became a party general secretary with the charge of affiliates such as the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and the National Students Union of India (NSUI).

Gandhi was keen to derive a new leadership for the party from its younger members, and it was with this in mind that he decided to set up a leadership institute that could make national leaders out of the Congress’ youth membership. The curriculum was to be centred on issues like inclusive growth.

The genesis

Social entrepreneur Vijay Mahajan, recently appointed the CEO of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, was among two people tasked with setting up the institute.

Both Rahul and Mahajan had agreed on the need for an institute to train politicians since every other profession seemed to have one.

“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,” Mahajan told ThePrint.

JNLI was established in April 2010 without much fanfare, and Jayaram made its chief mentor and Mahajan the honorary director.

There was also a guiding committee, comprising then MP Meenakshi Natarajan, Sachin Rao and Suresh Sharma. Rao is a close aide of Gandhi who worked with him to build the leadership for the IYC and the NSUI. Sharma was brought in by Mahajan.

The office was set up at Room No. 103 at Jawahar Bhavan in Delhi, with the team reporting directly to Gandhi.

Veterans step in

Over the years, several batches of young turks underwent training at JNLI at different locations.

In August 2011, the institute organised a four-day leadership camp in Gurugram for 35 Congress MLAs from 15 states, with classes held by senior leaders such as late Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit and Rajya Sabha member Madhusudan Mistry.

Ahead of the turbo-charged 2014 election season, JNLI had organised several leadership development programmes in various states.

“It was an interesting model, where we used to train young Congress leaders – each class involving a maximum of 10 students – and everyone used to get involved in the training,” said a person involved with JNLI professional.

“A number of new leaders who are now at various levels in the organisation benefitted from the programme,” the person added.

Among its alumni are Priyank Kharge, a former minister in the Karnataka government and son of senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, Vishwajeet Kadam, president of Maharastra Youth Congress, and Paresh Dhanani, the leader of the opposition in Gujarat.

‘Success story’

August 2017 was a challenging time for the Congress as it sought to keep its flock of MLAs together in Gujarat ahead of a Rajya Sabha election crucial for the party to retain veteran member Ahmed Patel in the house.

When the MLAs were subsequently flown to the outskirts of Bengaluru and checked into the Eagleton resort, JNLI’s Suresh Sharma and Naushad Parmar were brought there to organise a small programme highlighting the history and achievements of the Congress.

Sources told ThePrint that the two-hour lecture was such a success that some of the MLAs who had decided to switch sides to the BJP changed their mind. In fact, the participants were so impressed they reportedly invited the team to take a full-day session of the party’s MLA-elects after the December assembly election.

It all started in 2014

The first signs of the troubled days ahead came after the Congress’ massive defeat in the 2014 general election, which handed a big blow to the party’s finances.

“We realised that the party is struggling to manage funds to run the institute and we voluntarily didn’t take any increment after 2014,” said a person associated with the JNLI.

The total expenditure of JNLI, including salaries, travel bills, stationery and other expenses came to around Rs 1 crore annually. But the party was unable to provide the money. Still, those working with the JNLI somehow kept it going till September last year. The team of 11 brought together to handle the institute’s affairs gradually whittled down to seven.

That month, a decision was taken at a meeting of the JNLI guidance committee to shut down the institute in light of the financial troubles.

All three members of the committee were present at the meeting.

“I have nothing to say on this,” Natarajan told ThePrint when asked about the institute’s closure.

Rao, meanwhile, said, “I was out of the JNLI almost a year ago and frankly don’t know what is going on there.”

Suresh Sharma, the third member of the guidance committee, declined to comment.

Since it was shut down, some JNLI employees have been adjusted in the party in various roles. The task of organisational training has now been entrusted to Congress general secretary Ashok Gehlot.

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