x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

'Gopi' lands on political stage

The son of a farmer, GR Gopinath is now the head of one of the world's few airlines to show significant growth.

GR Gopinath, one of India's highest profile businessmen, on the campaign trail as an independent candidate for Bangalore South.
GR Gopinath, one of India's highest profile businessmen, on the campaign trail as an independent candidate for Bangalore South.

When G R Gopinath moved into his newly renovated US$2 million (Dh7.3m) British bungalow in central Bangalore four months ago, he probably did not plan on sharing it with crowds of student idealists. Yet there he is, the serial entrepreneur, hunched barefoot on the patio in jeans and a white linen shirt, hotly debating strategy with a group of 20-something volunteers. Mr Gopinath, or "Gopi", as he is affectionately known, became one of the best known faces in Indian business after he launched Air Deccan, the country's first no-frills airline, in 2003. By offering flights that often cost less than train fares, Deccan soared with the slogan "bringing wings to the common man". Air Deccan soon had 380 flights a day to 65 destinations, more than the national carrier Air India. On March 27, Mr Gopinath began his latest venture, campaigning for the seat of Bangalore South as an independent politician. "Events in the last four to five months really shook me up," he explains. "It seems almost like we are a failed state, because we are failed citizens, all of us. "We can't blame the politicians. I felt that we couldn't give ourselves any more excuses. We couldn't afford this indifference." The first push towards his candidacy came when terrorists attacked Mumbai last November. Mr Gopinath, 58, had just flown in from Bangalore to attend the Economic Times's Business Leader of the Year awards in Mumbai's Trident-Oberoi hotel. Like many Indians, he was outraged by the authorities' failures surrounding the attacks. But he felt he was too busy with his latest venture, Deccan Express Logistics, an air-freight business, to become involved in politics. But when Hindu activists attacked women in a hotel in the city of Mangalore last January, he decided he could no longer stay on the sidelines. "The last thing that really shook me up was these moral goons," Mr Gopinath says. He is at the forefront of a new trend in Indian politics: the re-engagement of the educated, upper middle class. Meera Sanyal, the head of ABN Amro in India, is contesting South Mumbai; Shashi Tharoor, the former UN under-secretary general, is contesting Trivandrum in Kerala; and the newly formed Professionals Party has Mona Shah, an ophthalmologist, contesting South Mumbai, and Rajendra Thacker, a trader, contesting North Mumbai. India's middle class is showing signs of shaking off the cynicism about politics that has kept it away from polling booths for decades, from the candle-lit vigils after the Mumbai attacks to the proliferation of NGOs trying to register middle-class voters. Mr Gopinath pithily captures the angst and the hope: "All of us know whatever we've achieved today, we have achieved through our own individual will. Every government has failed us. If we say it's possible, it's possible." Today, less than a week before his constituency's turn in the five-phase Indian elections begins, his bungalow's garden office has been turned into a campaign room; its walls papered with maps of the constituency's 292 areas. Reaching the constituency's two million voters directly will be difficult, if not impossible. So far, the team of 1,000 volunteers has canvassed only 50 areas, and daily strategy meetings are still mired in arguments about which areas to canvass and how. That does not put him off, though. "My story is the story of possibilities, the story of New India where you can overcome seeming insurmountable difficulties. If I'd analysed, if we had to overcome all the obstacles to doing something before we started, we would never start anything." Mr Gopinath grew up in the village of Gorur outside Bangalore, the son of a schoolteacher and farmer who supported eight children on a meagre salary. The teenager failed his entrance exam to military school because his English was not good enough. But his teacher lobbied the military authorities in Delhi to allow him to take it in the Kannada language. He passed and attended the prestigious National Defence Academy in Pune and the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun, graduating in time to be sent to the Bangladesh front during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. By 1979, he had made the rank of captain, but began to bristle against an Indian Army which after eight years he now found too restricting. "I resigned with 6,000 rupees (Dh444) in my pocket, and I came back to my village not knowing what to do, but ... with a great sense of excitement." Mr Gopinath returned to Gorur and found his family's land submerged under water for a dam project. The land he was awarded in compensation was dry and barren. But living in a simple tent, with only one Dalit servant to keep him company, he tried to raise an assortment of fruits and vegetables. After six disastrous years, he turned to silk farming. Using a low-cost, yet organic, farming method, he finally found success, briefly becoming India's largest producer. Along the way, he married Bhargavi and, today, still sports the gold watch he won in 1996 with the Rolex Award for Enterprise for his environmentally friendly farming methods. In 1994, Mr Gopinath flirted with politics, joining the newly formed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to run for the local assembly. He lost. Disillusioned by the BJP's drift into Hindu nationalism, a visit to China shortly after made him realise that politics was not for him. "Suddenly, a thought went though my mind that the way for India to create wealth was through entrepreneurship," Mr Gopinath recalls. A year later, he had set up a helicopter-leasing business, Deccan Aviation, with an old army friend, with almost $1m raised from Lachmandas Ladhani, a local Coca-Cola distributor, and Kenichi Miyagawa, a former chief executive of East Asia AirLines. "I didn't have any money but I just thought that the idea was so powerful that someone would put up the money. It took relentless focus, relentless drive. I didn't give up." Today, Deccan Aviation is still India's largest helicopter-leasing business with 15 aircraft. But it was getting Air Deccan off the ground in 2003 that proved Mr Gopinath's genial, grinning face hid a will of iron. When Jet Airways, India's only established private airline, realised the threat he posed, its executives pulled every political string to block him. In response, Mr Gopinath mounted a high-profile publicity war. "I took on the cartel, and I broke them," he says, slamming his fist on to the table for emphasis. Still, he could not staunch the red ink. In mid-2007, the airline's mounting losses forced him to sell control to the liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya, whose own bungalow backs on to his own. Mr Gopinath currently has a 5 per cent stake in Mr Mallya's Kingfisher Airlines. Now, Mr Gopinath's fight is more about winning the hearts and votes of his people. Some analysts are sceptical that candidates such as Mr Gopinath can connect with the vast majority of India voters, whose impoverished lives have little in common with those of executives. But the BJP, now India's leading opposition party, took his candidacy so seriously that it offered him another seat if he dropped out of the contest for Bangalore South. He declined. "All parties are corrupt," he says. "That's the fact. If the independents win, I think it will send a symbol." This, perhaps more than the prospect of drafting bills in New Delhi, is his real motivation. "Everybody asks, 'how will you win'? But that's exactly what I'm trying to break: we have a large middle class which is not only apolitical, but also cynical," he says. Even if the cynics are right, his past suggests he will find ways around the obstacles, just as he did when he failed his military school entrance, when he failed as a farmer, and when Air Deccan ran out of funds. In any case, Mr Gopinath is already thinking beyond election day. His next venture, Deccan Express Logistics, will launch at the start of next month, just a fortnight after the election. business@thenational.ae