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HomePoliticsShehzad Poonawalla: The TV talking head challenging Rahul Gandhi's elevation in Congress

Shehzad Poonawalla: The TV talking head challenging Rahul Gandhi’s elevation in Congress

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Shehzad and Tehseen’s rise in the Congress has been fast and a matter of envy. But one of them may have got ahead of himself by taking on Rahul Gandhi, the party feels.

New Delhi: Maharashtra Congress functionary Shehzad Poonawalla has sparked a controversy by challenging Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as party chief. He is the first in the party to allege that the election for the top post is already “fixed”.

Shehzad’s allegations have been doing the rounds on various media platforms primarily because of his connection to the Gandhi family — his elder brother Tehseen married Monika Vadra, a cousin of Robert Vadra, in March last year.

The Poonawalla brothers started working for the Congress in 2008 and have come a long way since then. Their access to the top party high command is a matter of envy for many Congress leaders, sources said.

The Poonawallas, as their names suggest, are from Pune and come from a well-off Aga Khani Muslim family. Not much is known about their father Sarfaraz Poonawalla, who passed away years back.

Successful businessmen

The Poonawallas run a successful fitness business apart from owning a few restaurants in Pune and Delhi.

Shehzad, the younger one, has a law degree. He also attended a master’s programme from MIT School of Government, Pune.

After completing this course in 2008, Shehzad came for an internship with Congress’ media research team in Delhi. Tehseen, the elder brother, too came with Shehzad to pursue his business interests.

Soon, Shehzad came in touch with many senior Congress leaders such as Digvijaya Singh, Rajeev Shukla and Manish Tewari. After spending some time with the AICC media team, he joined Manish Tewari’s office, then a minister in UPA-2.

“He was here from June 2009 to December 2010 and then went to join Rajeev Shukla,” said Tewari.

Shehzad went on to become an additional private secretary (APS) to Rajiv Shukla, when he became a minister of state in UPA-2 in 2011.

In between, Tehseen had worked as a consultant to Suresh Kalmadi during the preparation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

“Whatever problems came to Kalmadiji, I stood by him and even today I am with him. Once I commit myself to a person, I stand by him in all weathers,” Tehseen told ThePrint.

This was the time when the Congress was preparing for the 2012 UP assembly elections and Digvijaya Singh, then in-charge of UP, handpicked both brothers to run the party’s war room in Lucknow.

However, there was a lot of criticism against the duo after the party suffered a defeat in the election. The Poonawallas had nothing to worry about though.

Unofficial spokespersons

After coming back from Lucknow, Shehzad continued working with Shukla, while Tehseen started making appearances on TV shows as a Congress supporter.

Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress had withdrawn from some TV debates about Robert Vadra’s wealth and land deals. The Poonawalls would be there to defend Vadra, even when the party had boycotted the debate.

There would be some murmurs in the Congress over their TV appearances but the party couldn’t do anything as they were presenting themselves as Congress supporters, the sources added.

Hostilities within party

After the defeat in the 2014 election, the Congress’ media department formally lodged protests with some TV channels for inviting the Poonawalla brothers. In one of the TV debates, Tehseen was asked to leave in the middle of the programme at the behest of Randeep Surjewala, who is now in-charge of Congress’ communication department.

However, things really changed for the better for the Poonawallas. In 2015, Tehseen was all set to marry Monika Vadra, a jewellery designer and first cousin of Robert Vadra. The engagement took place on 20 December, 2015.

Their wedding in March 2016 was attended by many political heavyweights. Apart from Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka, the guests included L.K. Advani, Varun Gandhi, Amar Singh, Sambit Patra, Manish Tewari and Shashi Tharoor.

Following this, senior Congress leaders did not object to the Poonawalla brothers’ TV appearances and Shehzad was made a secretary in the Maharashtra Congress.

The duo had been active in taking up controversial issues like violence unleashed by cow vigilantism. In July this year, they filed a petition in the Supreme Court against mob lynching and demanded the Modi government pass a special ‘Manav Surkasha Kanoon’ (MASUKA) to ensure protection of citizens from cow vigilantes.

In July this year, when Nitish Kumar resigned and moved away from the grand alliance in Bihar, the Poonawalla brothers also came to Lalu Prasad’s rescue and ran a social media campaign for his son Tejashwi.

“Initially, I was surprised to see them in Patna. Then I realised that they are the Gandhis’ relatives and might have been asked to be there,” said a Bihar state Congress leader.

Bone of contention

In the ongoing Congress organisational elections, Shehzad was willing to contest for a Youth Congress post, but that did not materialise. Party sources said that despite their proximity to the Gandhis, many in the Congress did not take them seriously.

“Their hunger for publicity was proving detrimental to the party,” said a senior Congress leader in Delhi. “They were using the first family’s name to push their political career.”

Shehzad slammed the election process for the Congress president post, alleging that the party was promoting only dynasts. Tehseen, however, distanced himself from these comments.

“My loyalty is to Rahul Gandhi and I won’t deviate from that. If Shehzad wanted to contest election against Rahul Gandhi, he is free to do so. Creating a scene at this point of time doesn’t augur well,” Tehseen told ThePrint.

Shehzad responded by saying, “Some are loyal to the family; some to the nation.”

The Congress, however, played down the entire controversy saying, Shehzad didn’t even take the primary membership of the party and hence, he is not a member.

“What is the credibility of this person (Shehzad) who used to claim that Cyrus Poonawalla, a Pune industrialist, is his uncle, forcing him to release a statement saying he had nothing to do with these two,’ said Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress spokesperson.

Tweet by Shehzad Poonawalla

Shehzad Poonawalla later tweeted, clarifying no such statements were issued and that it was a mischief by a reporter.

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