On March 26, barely a week before the sixth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) began, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa's decision to not allow Sri Lankan cricketers to play in Chennai threatened to send the tournament into a tailspin. The ever-defiant Pune Warriors would have to be without Angelo Mathews, Delhi Daredevils without Mahela Jayawardene, Sunrisers Hyderabad without Kumar Sangakkara, and Mumbai Indians without Lasith Malinga against Chennai Super Kings. There were protests brewing in the IPL's billion-dollar club.
That's when IPL chairman Rajeev Shukla-with an oily smile and an unholstered phone-stepped forward. It was the kind of situation that India's top political firefighter and wheeler-dealer had built his reputation on. With a series of calls, an array of promises and a bevy of personal assurances, he managed to defuse the situation. "If you know people, and how to deal with them, it's easy," a delighted Shukla told INDIA TODAY not long after saving the day. "Managing egos is an art. You must have the knack for it."
It is this art of managing egos and helping adversaries mend fences that has made 5, Safdarjung Road an iconic address in Delhi's power circles. The phones never stop ringing, and the netted door is constantly shoved open by important people cutting across party lines-some of them just to ask for VIP passes for the next IPL game.
Rajeev Shukla, 53, wears several hats: Minister of state for parliamentary affairs and planning, Congress spokesperson, chairman of IPL, member of BCCI's marketing committee, president of Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association, board member of Hockey India League, political commentator, and now media baron.
It's a busy afternoon. Shukla is sitting on a leather chair, dressed in a white bush shirt and dark trousers. He looks odd in any attire: Kurta-pyjama for Parliament, jacket-and-tie for ipl matches, safari suit for BCCI meetings and T-shirt and dark glasses for Page 3 parties. In each setting, he's the quintessential problem-solver-smiling, sizing up who to fraternise with.
Shukla's waiting room is like any other, fairly innocuous in styling, save for one wall on which an assortment of pictures offer a glimpse into his own public life, and consequently the highs and lows of modern India-from politics to Bollywood to cricket. There is a group photo with Sonia Gandhi and Rahul. One where he is shaking hands with pop star Katy Perry. Arching over all these is a large frame of Shah Rukh Khan whispering into his ear. The most striking is a picture from 2002 at the Lord's cricket ground. In the players' balcony, captain Sourav Ganguly is brandishing his shirt, celebrating an improbable win. In front of them, holding his hands aloft, is Shukla.
These are just some of the prominent friends that he wants to admit to having, and his rise is symptomatic of a well-connected network of rich and powerful people who can be catered to by a common pool of friends. Shukla's true power comes from the volume of his phone book and BBM contacts, and the ability to instantly comprehend who needs what. On most evenings these days, he is seen on a luxurious couch in an IPL stadium, a seat that once belonged to a certain Lalit Modi, in exile in London facing charges of financial irregularities. "I knew comparisons with Modi were inevitable because of the hype he had created about himself. Why should it be Modi vs Shukla? If IPL was really Modi's baby, why couldn't he create another?" Shukla asks.
Shukla took charge as IPL chairman in 2011 in difficult times. Sponsors were leaving, TRPs were dipping, and franchise owners were losing money. He has tided over the turbulence, helped ink a new deal worth Rs 396 crore with Pepsi, and taken IPL viewership to 100 million across 192 countries. Still, it's not as a manager but as a troubleshooter that Shukla has made himself invaluable. When Congress has issues with allies or the Opposition, when BCCI has a problem with the Government or when Shah Rukh Khan is brawling with Mumbai Cricket Association officials, Shukla emerges as the 'man Friday' for all concerned.
This reference from Robinson Crusoe makes Shukla chuckle. "It should be used for people with superior qualities. My job is only to solve problems," he says, before letting us in on his secret: "Maintaining relations takes time, attention and a lot of running around. It takes money and energy. You need to believe it can be done." Shukla says his motto is, "It's impossible to keep everyone happy, but it's in your hands to make most people feel content." To achieve this, he works 17-hour days: Seven-eight meetings, two-three press briefings, and hundreds of phone calls, in which he nods and says "no problem" to anyone who has called.
Shukla's has his roots in political journalism. He remembers his first byline in 1978 in Northern India Patrika in Kanpur, covering a small train accident. It was at Ravivar magazine that he did a series of investigative stories about land deals linked to V.P. Singh, which brought him close to Congress and its first family. He bonded with Rajiv Gandhi, and carried it forward after his death. He has access to 10, Janpath, and is one of its key foot soldiers. Shukla set up a production house with wife Anuradha Prasad, who is the sister of BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad and now owns BAG Films, which runs four news and entertainment channels and has declared assets of Rs 23.3 crore.
"I can't count my friends-I have a long, long list," he says. "It's easier to count my enemies, and to work towards bringing them into the friends' column. Fighting is for children. I'd rather be a yaaron ka yaar."