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Indira’s comeback

janardan-thakurJanardan Thakur started his career in journalism with the nationalist Patna daily, The Searchlight, in December 1959. In his long and distinguished career spanning the reign of each Prime Minister since Independence, Thakur reported from the thick of some of the most momentous contemporary events at home and afar—JP’s ‘total revolution’, the Emergency, the bristling emergence of Sanjay Gandhi, the fall and rise of Indira Gandhi and then the rise and fall of Rajiv, the Kremlin of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, Ronald Reagan’s re-election in an America swinging Right, VP Singh’s ascent as a messiah with tainted magic and the rasping run to power of the BJP. Thakur’s journalism, from the very start, broke traditional moulds of reportage and writing, going beyond the story that meets the eye and into processes and personalities that made them happen. His stories on the Bihar famine of the mid-1960s and the manmade floods that ravaged the State were a sensation. He was perhaps alone in predicting defeat for Indira Gandhi in 1977 and again singular in exposing the corroded innards of the Janata Government that followed. A Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center, Hawaii, in 1971, Thakur moved to New Delhi as a Special Correspondent for the Ananda Bazar Patrika group of publications in 1976. He went freelance in 1980 and turned syndicated columnist. In 1989-91, he was Editor of the fortnightly Onlooker, and The Free Press Journal. Thakur authored All The Prime Minister’s Men, probably the most successful of the crop of books that followed the Emergency. His All the Janata Men, the story of the men who destroyed the first non-Congress government in New Delhi, was equally successful.

He passed away on July 12, 1999.

THE hurriedly cobbled coalition of parties was swept out in 1980 largely because all its leaders were a squabbling bunch of men, who spent nearly all their time abusing one another in public view, unmindful of what it was doing to the people. They took their power for granted. They had finished Indira Gandhi, and with her the Nehru dynasty, never to rise again. Or, so they thought in their wisdom. Wise men, many of whom had fought for the country’s freedom, talked of great idealism. but had ended up being self-seeking men content with power and pelf. A dissident faction of the Janata Party, composed of some of the very people who had brought Mrs Gandhi’s edifice down were now doing their damnedest, out of sheer pique against their hated colleagues, to put her on the wall again. Imagine the great ‘giant-killer’ of Rae Bareli plotting with his erstwhile enemy, Sanjay, to pull down Morarji Desai from his high perch. And this for the purpose of installing Chaudhary Charan Singh on a throne hanging by a slender thread which Sanjay and his mother could snap any time.

In three years of drift and dithering, all that the blundering gerontocracy had done was to lay the red carpet for Indira Gandhi’s return. She was back, as though she had never gone away, now promising to give the country something new, something different: A Government that Works. She had said it with great alacrity at her first press conference after her Second Coming, almost as though she had been waiting for someone to ask the right question. Little could she have expected that question to come from me.

It had been one of the most remarkable comebacks in history. The harried lady, with many more strands of grey in her hair, many more lines on her furrowed brow, had gone around the Country telling the people: “Is desh ko sirf Indira Gandhi hi chala sakti hai (Only Indira Gandhi can run this country),” and the people had believed her.

“The Indian middle-classes had always had a deep-seated fear of chaos and disorder,” commented Ashis Nandy. “Alienated from a society which has lived for centuries in near-anarchic state, they projected into their political leaders the search for a more cohesive, well-defined ‘hard’ and purposeful politics. They forgot that in a heterogeneous fragmented polity the search for order can too easily degenerate into a search for a leader who would freeze the society and impose on it a stability which would destroy the spirit of the civilisation. In India, the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos, between humane and unhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder.”

The people preferred the avatar of the Emergency to Charan Singh, who having manoeuvred himself into unelected office as PM, proceeded to revive the very same preventive detention laws which Mrs Gandhi had abused in 1975.
Na haat par na paat par,
Indiraji ki baat par,
Mohar lagegi haat par

(Not on caste or creed, but on Indira Gandhi’s promise, the ballot will be stamped on the hand)

It was the Indira slogan which had worked like a magic. She had such different faces, some of which the people loved so much. At different times, she could even be different people: an imperious leader who brooked no opposition, an utterly determined and courageous person who was neither overawed by hurdles nor deterred by what the Cassandras said or wrote. A powerful lady who had been hunted down by her enemies, a champion of the poor who had been removed from the scene by vested interests. It had seemed she had just returned to her habitat after a prolonged trek in the mountains.

But it did not take even a hundred days for the people’s disenchantment to begin anew. Prices rose, lawlessness mounted, Punjab and Assam were in turmoil, hoodlums and lumpens stalked the land. A hundred days after her return, the country was still without a budget. Nothing like a policy to control the prices was anywhere in sight. The makers of the Indira legend were themselves becoming its victims. “The legend,” wrote former Editor of The Statesman, Pran Chopra, “is not only that Mrs Gandhi alone can save India but that she can do so all by herself, armed with nothing more than her charisma and the love of the people for her. Not her party, not her colleagues, not her policies but only the magic of her personality is needed to do the trick.”

If there had been a magic, it was fast fading. Indeed, if you saw her closely, she was no longer the same Indira Gandhi. She had gone under some diabolical shadow, as it were. Her old ‘Chanakya’, DP Mishra, who often spent time in Delhi those days, had shared with me his theory about Indira Gandhi’s fading image. ,”Her political world,” he said, “has been completely shattered by her son.” Sanjay Gandhi had built his own ‘political world’ on the ruins of his mother’s. He had ‘stolen the thunder’ in more ways than one. He had given a new face to the party, a face in his own mould, which was totally alien to Indira Gandhi, but she had no option but to adopt it because she had become so dependent on her son, whom she considered the real victor, the man who had salvaged her crown from the Janata quagmire. He had become much more than just a son who had shone in her reflected glory; he had become almost her mentor, and she had virtually moved into the shadows, leaving the centre-stage to him. She was the Prime Minister again, but the shots were now called by Sanjay Gandhi. He had picked the party candidates for the elections, and now he was putting his men in key places—ministers at the Centre, chief ministers in the crucial states. One of his creations was our protagonist to come, Raja Vishwanath Pratap Singh of Manda, whom Sanjay made the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, because his mother would not let him take the post himself. She wanted him to be in Delhi with her, to run the country. Mrs Gandhi still had some of her old people, here and there, but they had become ‘outsiders’, who were there more at the sufferance of the Rehnuma, as Giani Zail Singh used to call Sanjay Gandhi, than in their own right.

BLUFF was the name of the political game now. If there was any lapse in the government’s performance, Indira and Sanjay had the perfect alibi: the Janata government. Those wretched usurpers had made such a mess of everything that it would take time just to clean it up. The Gandhis were actually becoming more imperious, more irresponsible, more contemptuous of the people. They did not seem to have forgotten what the people had done to them in 1977. Sanjay was now determined to take his revenge for the lese-majeste the people had committed. To rub in the point, as it were, they had picked up a non-entity and foisted him as the country’s President. “The lady,” thought one distinguished commentator of the political scene, had “crossed the Rubicon from mania to megalomania. Perhaps because it is her second coming, frenzy fits her snugly. Without batting an eyelid, she indulges in palpable untruths, such as that she neither appoints nor dismisses chief ministers of states…A Prime Minister whose second nature is uttering untruths, can be a trailblazer of an ominous kind.”

June 23, 1980. Sanjay Gandhi’s body lay in the hospital, mangled and mutilated. Mourners pushed their way in and out of the room. Suddenly there was commotion and everyone was asked to leave. Indira Gandhi wanted time alone with her son’s body. As she entered, her face showed more worry than pain.

From the hospital she rushed to the crash site a second time. The whole area had already been cordoned off. Mrs G walked around the rubble, her eyes searching. She told the guards she was looking for a bunch of keys and a wrist watch. Both were found. A sense of relief showed on her face, but people started asking questions. Why did the shattered mother have to go looking for a bunch of keys and a watch by herself? When and how did she know that the two things were not on the body? Had she looked through the pockets of her dead son’s kurta in the quiet of the hospital room?

Only ten days before his death, Mrs G took Sanjay in a ceremonial motorcade to the AICC office and installed him as the party’s general secretary. She looked overjoyed. Twenty-five years earlier, Jawaharlal Nehru’s voice had also been choked when he spoke at a ceremony at the AICC’s Jantar Mantar office to felicitate Indu on her becoming Congress President. Older people recalled that tears had rolled down the cheeks of Motilal Nehru when he saw Jawahar being taken in a Congress presidential procession some 50 years before.

INDIRA Gandhi was in a shattered state. She had suddenly lost her ‘only friend, philosopher and guide.” She had the image of being a decisive person, but she had always depend on someone or the other for ideas, counsel, and moral support to make up her mind. During the days of the ‘kitchen cabinet’, she had relied on people like Dinesh Singh, Asoka Mehta and C Subramaniam. The devaluation, as we saw, had been the handiwork of this group. Later this position came to be occupied by the left lobby whose think-tank was the Haksar-Kumaramangalam- DP Dhar group. It was this lobby which engineered the 1969 split, bank nationalisation, constitutional amendments and a host of other radical measures. It had egged her on to a confrontation with JP. Then started the third chapter. With the declaration of Emergency, Sanjay dislodged all of the other “Navratnas” of the court and became the sole adviser and executor. Bansilal, VC Shukla, Jagmohan, Bhinder and others were all side-kicks of the enfant terrible with no direct access to Indira Gandhi. They had to propitiate Sanjay to get a nod from the lady, and those who did not follow this rule had to suffer, as hider Kumar Gujral did. After her comeback, Indira was convinced that Sanjay had always been right in his political perceptions and decisions. “He had been totally opposed to elections in 1977. He proved right. He pushed Mrs G for a split in the Congress in 1978. It worked. He extended support to Charan Singh and later withdrew it. Superb tactics. He got nine state assemblies dissolved. The gamble paid. He got the wings of the old guards clipped in the distribution of state assembly tickets. No harm done. In the garb of a “generation revolution” he got a large number of personal followers elected to the assemblies. A giant step toward succession.”

The Indira-Sanjay duo must have been the world’s most arbitrary hirer and firer of men. Their appointments defied all logic. Sometimes they chose men because they were so honest and angelic, sometimes because they were so corrupt and knavish. No principles were involved, except the principle of loyalty. Indira had never been allergic to corrupt men or to people on the make; she must surely have developed an immunity toward such people during her long years of apprenticeship to her father, a noble figure who not only tolerated but at times even promoted the worst of knaves and carpetbaggers. Had Mrs. Gandhi been averse to corrupt men she would not have granted the Hyderabad Nizami to someone like Dr Chenna Reddy or the Sultanate of Maharashtra to Abdul Rehman Antulay or the Bihar zamindari to Dr Jagannath Mishra. What an odd man out was Vishwanath Pratap Singh, but then he was not just a princeling but a good courtier, too.

No rules applied. When Chenna Reddy’s corruption assumed gigantic proportions he was rewarded with a governorship. If Anjiah came to be known as the most inept man to succeed Reddy and became a bit of a joke in Andhra Pradesh, could he ever beat the clown of a chief minister Mrs Gandhi chose for the land of Shivaji? There was no better explanation given for the Babasaheb calamity than the one given by the inimitable cartoonist, RK Laxman. A row of kowtowing Congress minions, and the imperial lady turning around with a finger pointed toward a chubby face in the line, “You there, you be the next chief minister,” and then asking, “Er, what’s your name?” That about summed up all the rationale that Mrs Gandhi and her son had for hiring her men.

Now Sanjay was gone, and his mother’s world lay in splinters. Whom would she turn to now? She had to rebuild her own political world. Many thought she would fall back on traditional politicians for consolation and counsel. But that had its complications, for she had a more important goal now: to create a new successor who would keep the dynasty going. She had to build a niche for Rajiv Gandhi. The new heir-apparent’s dilemma was that he fitted neither with the old, nor with the new, and to create his own following or build his own ‘political world’ was a tall order. Willy-nilly, a coterie did gather around him, the ‘whiz kids’ or the computer boys as some called them, but much as they tried, they found it hard to sell him to the people. Some thought he was ‘too good and clean for politics’, others that he was ‘too dumb’. Several years later, journalist Dhiren Bhagat, after his long and hilarious interview with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was to describe him as “an amiable duffer”.

I take you back a little, to the time the first Son of India was still rising. Rajiv Gandhi in those days was content with co-piloting Avros. On one of his stop-overs at Patna, he had walked into the airport restaurant and taken a side table for himself. So shy and withdrawn it was hard to make any conversation with him. He blushed at every question, never looking up from his plate of fried eggs as he mumbled his ambiguous answers. On one point, though, he was quite categorical: “No politics for me…Never.” Politics was something left entirely to the other brother.

Then suddenly on June 23, 1980, Sanjay was dead. A situation in the family quite akin to what John F Kennedy once wrote about his own clan: “Joe (Junior) was supposed to be the politician. When he died, I took his place. If anything happened to me, Bobby would take my place. If something happened to Bobby, Teddy would take his place.”

Indira Gandhi had only two sons: the younger one who was supposed to be the politician, and the elder one who loved his family, his music, his flying. Rajiv was caught in a dilemma: should he carry on with flying or switch over to the family’s main occupation for at least three generations – politics.

Excerpted from Prime Ministers: Nehru to Vajpayee by Janardan Thakur, Eeshwar Prakashan, New Delhi

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