New Delhi: When the Central Bureau of Investigation named its suspects in the ‘liquor scam’ case beleaguering the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi, one name stood out from the rest: Vijay Nair, the former CEO of an event management company.
Known as a backstage mover and shaker even though he seemingly tends to avoid the limelight, the 38-year-old has been associated with AAP for a while, but not in any official capacity.
Nair, a college dropout, came into prominence in the early 2000s as a band manager for top indie music acts like Pentagram, and also founded the event management company Only Much Louder (OML), best known for organising live music festivals and eventually comedy collectives like the All-India Bakchod (AIB).
Then, somewhere down the line, Nair purportedly became a confidant of AAP head and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
AAP sources told ThePrint that Nair has been involved in the party’s fundraising campaigns since 2014, and is currently a major force behind its media and communications strategy, despite not holding a formal designation.
Nair, of course, is now front and centre, for all the wrong reasons. Last Sunday, the CBI named him as one of the 15 accused — along with Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, three bureaucrats, and at least four individuals belonging to the liquor industry — in a case registered in connection with alleged irregularities in the now-withdrawn Delhi excise policy implemented by the AAP government last year.
That Nair has appeared on this list has led to speculation about what role a former music manager might have in a political party’s workings, but several AAP sources claim that he has been a valuable associate and behind-the-scenes adviser for years.
“We look at AAP as a political startup. It is not just any other political party like the Congress or the BJP. That way, Vijay (Nair) brings new things to the table,” an AAP functionary said on condition of anonymity.
“He has ideas, he has social capital, and he has skills which the other close advisers of the CM do not possess. He himself prefers operating in the shadows. That is his style. The party never had a problem with it. With his skills, he is also a brand in himself,” the AAP leader added.
ThePrint reached out to the media team of AAP for a comment on Nair’s role in the party, but did not receive a response.
Also read: ‘Undue benefits to licensees, loss to exchequer’: What CBI’s excise FIR says on Sisodia & others
An entertainment ‘game-changer’
In 2002, Nair, then 18, dropped out of the Bachelor of Commerce programme in Mumbai’s Sydenham College. The same year, he founded Only Much Louder (OML), a company that focused on live music entertainment, artiste management, and show bookings.
By 2014, OML’s net worth was reportedly estimated at US$ 10 million. The company became known for conceptualising major events, like the NH7 Weekender, which went on to become the biggest live indie music festival in the country.
As an artiste management company, OML had on its profile top bands such as Pentagram. Its live events saw glittering names, ranging from AR Rahman and Raghu Dixit to Norah Jones and DJ David Guetta. It produced a music series called The Dewarists for MTV India.
“At one point, people in the indie music industry started calling him (Nair) a game changer,” said an executive with a prominent event management company, who did not wish to be identified. “He is one of the pivotal figures in the independent music scene in India.”
By 2015, OML had expanded its footprints into new domains, including stand-up comedy, theatre, events with media outlets, and online/TV content. The company gave a big push to AIB’s roast shows, organised three shows of internationally acclaimed comedian Russell Peters in India, and partnered with comedian and actor Vir Das’s Weirdass Comedy for a festival.
In 2018, Nair had a brush with controversy when the #MeToo movement in India was at its peak. In November 2018, The Caravan ran a news story based on first-person accounts of women who worked with him. The company later issued a statement denying the allegations. The same statement also claimed that Nair had left OML almost six months prior to the allegations surfacing.
Where did working with AAP fit in?
According to sources in AAP, Nair first started organising fundraising campaigns for the party in 2014.
“He (Nair) could easily get a lot of artistes for fundraising events and that helped the party immensely,” said a former AAP office-bearer who has worked with Nair.
The party, then two years old, was born out of an anti-corruption movement led by social activist Anna Hazare in 2011. In 2014, Kejriwal had quit as Delhi chief minister within 49 days, after forming government with the support of the Congress. The same year, he had unsuccessfully contested Lok Sabha elections from Varanasi against PM Narendra Modi.
In 2015, AAP made a comeback, winning the Delhi state polls with a huge majority of 67 out of 70 seats, and in the years to follow, Nair’s bonding with the party’s top leadership purportedly got stronger.
Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, party insiders claim, Nair became more deeply engaged with AAP’s activities, especially those pertaining to media management, conceptualising Kejriwal’s roadshow formats, and fundraising.
“It was a crucial time. The AAP was preparing for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and it needed new strategies of campaign to appeal to people,” said another AAP functionary who did not wish to be identified.
Even though the AAP lost all seven seats in Delhi, Nair’s performance did not go unnoticed – he gained many admirers within the party and the biggest of them was Kejriwal himself, added the party functionary.
In October 2019, The Caravan reported on how Nair had been working with the AAP.
In that report, AAP’s spokesperson Atishi, who eventually went on to become an MLA, was quoted saying Nair is working as a part-time volunteer of the party and does “ad-hoc work” in social media and organising party events.
On Wednesday, ThePrint contacted Atishi through a phone call and a text message asking in what capacity Nair is associated with AAP, but she is yet to respond.
‘AAP communication strategy was Nair’s brainchild’
As AAP started preparing for the February 2020 Delhi Assembly polls, Nair’s plate was full, according to the former AAP office-bearer quoted earlier: “He did the same things, such as media management, digital campaign and fundraising, but with much more of a free-hand given to him and at a much larger scale.”
When the AAP emerged victorious in the 2020 Delhi polls, once again with a majority, and formed government, one of the first things it did was change its media response strategy.
The party’s previous media advisor’s contract had ended and it set up a whole new team. Spokespersons were told not to comment on larger issues at an individual level with reporters and to limit themselves to press conferences at the party office.
Separate coordination teams were set up for English and Hindi media outlets, with two former journalists appointed as nodal officers. Under the new protocols, reporters who had queries would have to approach the concerned nodal media officer, who would get an approved response from the top leadership and their advisors.
“This strategy was entirely Vijay Nair’s brainchild,” said another former AAP functionary who has worked with Nair. “The old system of briefing the media on the background of larger issues, policies, legalities, and technicalities surrounding them, either on or off the record, was gone. Now the party and the government had two simple options: Either to respond or to ignore.”
Since February 2022, Nair has been managing the entire communication wing of AAP — which includes digital campaigns, fundraisers, media strategy, social media and other arms — in Delhi and all other states in which AAP has been trying to expand its footprints, ThePrint has learnt.
However, he remains in the shadows. He holds no official designation in either of the two AAP governments or the party, one current and one former AAP functionary told ThePrint.
“He is skilled in diversification and has defeated all others in the game. He is also very particular about being in decision-making positions. That way, the news about his role in the AAP has not come as much of a surprise for those who have followed his career trajectory,” said a Bangalore-based music journalist who has tracked Nair since he founded OML.
While Nair’s name has surfaced in connection with the liquor policy, he is learnt to have significantly contributed to several other flagship initiatives of the AAP, including the Electric Vehicles policy, startup policy, and an entrepreneurship programme called Business Blasters which, in the party’s own words, draws inspiration from popular TV show Shark Tank, sources said.
What CBI has accused Nair of
The CBI’s FIR says Nair was “actively involved in irregularities in framing and implementation of the excise policy of GNCTD (Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi) for the year 2021-22”.
The agency has accused Nair of acting as a conduit in enabling financial transactions involving bureaucrats and players in the liquor industry in connection with the AAP government’s liquor policy.
Over 19 and 20 August, as the CBI raided several locations across Delhi-NCR and other cities, they could not trace Nair. It later emerged that he was not in India.
Nair then released a statement saying he would cooperate with the ongoing investigation and had not fled the country, as had been claimed. “I am abroad for the last few weeks for some personal work. I have not done anything wrong. So, there is no question of my running away,” he said, but did not disclose his location.
During a press conference on 21 August, reporters asked Sisodia about Nair and his association with the AAP. But he did not take any question on Nair.
In an interview on the same day, when The Indian Express asked him about Nair’s association with the party, Sisodia said: “It is not about Vijay Nair. Their intent is to jail all the people associated with Kejriwal … Let them investigate. These are all matters of investigation now.”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
Also read: Opposition divided on CBI raid on Delhi Deputy CM Sisodia, blame AAP’s ‘eerie silence’ in the past