Who is this man who has S.M. Krishna’s left ear?

If S.M. Krishna‘s appointment as the Union external affairs minister in the new UPA government was a bit of a surprise, even more surprising has been Krishna’s appointment of a little-known man called Raghavendra Shastry as his “advisor” in the MEA, with the rank of additional secretary.

To say that career diplomats are a little mystified would be an understatement, but correspondents on the diplomatic beat are happily reporting that the aroma of Mysore coffee (CoffeeDay™, presumably) is already wafting from the first-floor offices of Krishna’s (and Shastry’s) at South Block.

So, who is this neatly dressed, clean-shaven “longtime personal friend” of Krishna’s who has suddenly emerged as an officer on special duty (OSD) in the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) directory, and as “advisor” in the MEA telephone directory?

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# Raghavendra Shastry is the president of GetIt Info Services, the official publishers of the Bangalore telephone directory and yellow pages. On his Linked In profile (accessed on 27 July 2009), Shastry lists his official designations as “president”, “corporate vice-president”, and “strategy and negotiation consultant”, all in the same breath.

# On his Google profile, Shastry terms himself a “consultant at GetIt Infomediary Limited”. On the official GetIt website, he is listed as president of the BizList division of the company. Getit is a company of former Congress MP Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, whose family owned the Daily Tej newspaper and Sun, the youth tabloid, before branching into yellow pages around the country. Gupta’s younger brother, Ramesh Gupta, now runs the family business.

2006010709700401# There are those who claim Raghavendra Shastry was introduced to Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, once chairman of the Congress’ publicity committee, by Karnataka Congress leader B.K. Hari Prasad, now a general secretary of the party. Some others say Shastry owes his Congress connections to his father, whose fortune-telling skills got him close to several politicians.

home-logo-smallAs the ambitious Bangalore head of GetIt, Raghavendra Shastry is said to have come close to S.M. Krishna in the mid-to-late 1990s, according to one version. Others say Shastry got close to Krishna only a couple years after the Congress’s 1998 victory. Some give credit to Shastry for Krishna’s telephone campaign (a technique used by Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2004).

# On his Google profile (accessed on 26 July 2009), Shastry writes that he grew up in Bangalore, but friends say he hails from Mukkur, near Puttur in South Canara, which partly explains his proximity to S.M.Krishna’s son-in-law V.G. Siddhartha, the founder of Coffee Day who hails from neighbouring Chikamagalur.

# Shastry’s rise and rise all the way to South Block is attributed to Siddhartha, who accompanied Krishna on the day of the swearing-in. Some say Krishna’s “family” is using Shastry to keep another Krishna crony, R.T. Narayan, in check.

Mysorean Narayan shares Krishna’s enthusiasm for tennis and is best known for the “permanent room” he maintains at a star hotel in Bangalore. However, Shastry is said to have accompanied Krishna on his last three trips to Wimbledon. Shastry is also said to have gone with Krishna on his post-debacle visit to China in 2004.

# On his Google profile, Shastry offers this bio:  “A highly successful Senior Executive with over 15 years of experience in administration, sales, marketing, and operations.  Very proficient in sales and business development, with proven record for increasing revenues and profits.  Outstanding managerial, decision-making, and negotiating abilities, plus excellent communication and people skills.  Well experienced in change management and in building and leading high-performance teams.  Highly motivated and dynamic go-getter.  Energetic, ambitious, and demanding, yet fair and easy to get along with.”

# Shastry is variously described as a soft-spoken, unassuming sort of person who melts into the background. He is said to have a tremendous memory, and doesn’t drink, smoke or eat non-vegetarian food. One journalist-acquaintance of Shastry’s says he works “18 hours a day”, calling him “indefatigable”. Jacob Thomas, who worked with him at Getit for 10 years, says Shastry “was a taskmaster and big brother at the same time.”

20090302getit1# At the launch of the Mangalore-Udupi Bizlist in March this year, Shastry, who now has to deal with embassies and high commissions, presciently said the directory included the listing of “over 150 embassies in India” along with their phone numbers and addresses.

At the same release, the DIG (western range), Gopal Hosur urged Shastry to “create a directory of all the criminals and keep a record of their addresses, so that it will help the policemen to easily trace them.”

nyt-global-edition-masthead-logo# Shastry was holding forth in a New York Times story in May 2008 on the damage wrought by coalition politics to Karnataka. “Nothing has been done in the last four to five years and we’re worried Bangalore will lose competitiveness. Companies are expanding to other places. And it’s not Bangalore that will lose business – it’s India.” Among the others quoted in the article was Ashok Kheny of Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise.

# Shastry is said to be a bachelor of science (BSc) from Bangalore University, but on his Linked In profile claims “education” in the University of Chicago’s Booth school of business (2005), Harvard business school (1999-2003) and Columbia business school (1996).

Searches on the Booth school and Columbia school websites for “Raghavendra Shastry”, “Raghavendra” or “Shastry” do not turn up any matching results.

Exhibit A: On the HBS executive education website, Shastry offers this quote for the six-day, $13,000 (Rs 6.5 lakh) course on “Leading change and organisation renewal”: “The work and study groups helped me to solve major problems in my company. As a result, I now am able to deal with the conflicts and pressures from the past—and prepare for the future by using all the tools and innovative processes of organizational problem solving.

Exhibit B: On the website of MCS consulting, an “international investment and strategic management consulting company”, Shastry offers an almost identical certificate:  “The work and study groups really helped me to solve major problems in my company. As a result, I now am able to deal with the conflicts and pressures from the past—and discover the future using all the tools and the innovative process of organizational problem solving.

# Shastry is effusive in gratitude even otherwise. “Dear Dr Prasad, Thank you very much for the individual reports of senior managers as well as the set of ‘inspirational keepsake’ provided by you. On behalf of the company I wholeheartedly thank you for giving the inspiration which we have already started adapting (sic) in our daily work,” he wrote to Prasad Sundararajan of the Coimbatore-based Geniuschoice Institute of Creative Management.

shastry raj

# During the Raj Kumar kidnapping crisis that dogged the S.M. Krishna regime, Shastry, according to reporters on the beat, was a busy player, if not the “chief negotiator”, in the negotiations that finally secured the release of the thespian from the clutches of Veerappan, by all accounts after the payment of a ransom. Some claim that Shastry dealt with Vysya Bank in person to “arrange” for the release.

Shastry  is said to be close to R. Ram Kumar, the son of former DGP R. Ramalingam, who was in the thick of things during the Raj Kumar abduction, with Veerappan even allegedly using Ram Kumar’s mobile phone to make contact with S.M. Krishna, according to former DGP C. Dinakar.

# On his Google profile, Shastry says he has conducted case studies for leading multinationals in USA and Europe; that he has been “invited” by Public Affairs International, London; China Strategy Forum, Beijing ; and China Society for Strategy and Management Research “to discuss matters on strategy and crisis management”.

Foreign secretary-designate Nirupama Rao was India’s ambassador to China till recently. Her husband Sudhakar Rao is currently chief secretary of Karnataka.

# When “Bandra Bomber” Sachin Tendulkar visited the Kukke Subramanya temple, Shastry set up a website on the temple and its rituals.  He claimed the site received 17.5 lakh hits in seven hours due to interest generated by the cricketer’s spiritual sojourn. Shastry is said to maintain and manage websites of temples at Udupi, Dharmasthala, Katil and Kollur on a “non-commercial basis”.

# In 2000, Shastry played a hand in announcing a Bangalore police foundation on the lines of New York police foundation. He initially promised Rs 3 crore from his organisation to help modernise police control rooms, but suffered a setback when he failed to get income tax exemption for the monetary contribution.

# Those who know Shastry say he is a cat at public relations (PR), with a special fondness for journalists. On his Facebook account, he has nine friends, including two working journalists and two former journalists. On his Twitter account, he follows one journalist. In the early 1990s, he donated rain jackets to every photo-journalist in Bangalore, and later also helped produce the annual diary of the Press Club of Bangalore.

Also read: S.M. Krishna on the release of Dr Raj Kumar

How Siddhartha built the Coffee Day dream cup by cup