The Prime Ministers

The anti-politician

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.

RAJIV Gandhi was an unique example in Indian politics. He was the anti-politician who became the Prime Minister without wanting it, perhaps without ever having dreamt of it, at least until Sanjay Gandhi was around. Everything had come to him on a platter: membership of Parliament, post of general secretary of the Congress, and now the country’s topmost job. All of this in less than four years. In March 1977, he had been under pressure from his wife, Sonia Gandhi, to leave the country; when Sanjay Gandhi died, she was set against his getting into politics even if it meant ‘just helping Mamma’; and if Sonia Gandhi could not even press him this way or that on October 31, 1984, it was more because of the failure of nerves all around. There was not even the time to think. Things were just happening. Events had taken a life of their own.

In a dazed silence, Rajiv Gandhi, the new Prime Minister of India, had stood hour after hour, with dignity and grace, by the side of his mother’s body as people in thousands, people great and small, Indians and foreigners, filed past, laying wreaths and flowers at the feet of the brave woman who had said just the day before that she would shed her last drop of blood for the country. She had. By the manner of her dying she had transcended all her faults, all her failings. Indira Gandhi’s greatest wish had also come true: her son had stepped into her shoes.

Rajiv Gandhi had begun with a head start like no other man in politics, and he won an election like no other Prime Minister ever had. He still knew next to nothing about politics, and yet he was saying the right things, just the things people had been saying for years and years without any leader listening to them. When Rajiv Gandhi spoke at the Bombay session of the Congress in December 1985, it seemed he was breathing new life into a dead party. Here at last was a leader who was articulating the despair of the people, without any hedging. He was saying all the things that needed to be said, in a tone and voice that sounded sincere, for the simple reason that this was not some foxy politician engaged in the usual double-talk. Here was a young Prime Minister and party president who was calling spade a spade. He was saying the country had government servants who did not serve but oppressed the poor and the helpless. He was saying the police did not uphold the law but shielded the guilty, tax collectors did not collect taxes but connived with those who cheated the state. He was saying there were whole legions whose only concern was their private welfare at the cost of society. “They have no work ethic, no feeling for the public cause, no comprehension of national goals, no commitment to the values of modem India. They have only a grasping, mercenary outlook, devoid of competence, integrity, and commitment…” He was saying that instead of a party that fired the imagination of the masses throughout the length and breadth of India, the Congress had shrunk, and had lost touch with the toiling masses. Millions of ordinary Congress workers throughout the country were full of enthusiasm for the Congress policies, but they were handicapped, for “on their backs ride the brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy…”

Obviously that speech was ghost-written, but if Rajiv Gandhi meant what he was reading out, as people thought he did, there was great hope for the future. Here for the first time a young Prime Minister was talking of “marching India into the 21st century” and that roused hopes no end, because it was Rajiv Gandhi who was saying it, a Prime Minister who was an ‘anti-politician’.

prime-minister-booksIt was a great start. 1985 was rightly called the ‘Year of Hope’. Hope sprang up on all sides, even in strife-tom Punjab and Assam. The accords, sadly, were half-baked and did not hold for long, but even so the people saw that here was a well-meaning Prime Minister, a man without malice who was eager to heal the wounds of the past, and was striving for it. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had won the biggest landslide in Indian electoral history — 48.1 per cent of the popular vote and a staggering four hundred one of the five hundred and eight Lok Sabha seats. At Bombay in December 1985, his image had soared so high that it seemed no other leader, no other party could touch him for the next twenty years or more. It looked too good to be true. His image could not go higher. It could only go down.

And down it did go, and so fast that one could only feel sorry and sad. The euphoria died too soon. He was becoming too much of his mother’s son: imperious, distant, arrogant – without her political savvy. He had no real understanding of politics. It was not only the grammar of politics that was beyond him; it was more that he just could not understand the ‘language’ of his party men. He had suddenly become the president of the party but remained a stranger to most Congressmen right till the end.

Within a year or so, Rajiv Gandhi started showing a different side of himself. Hubris was taking over. Even at her majestic worst, Indira Gandhi had never exhibited the kind of arrogance that Rajiv Gandhi did when in a rather cavalier manner he sacked the foreign secretary, AP Venkateshwaran. Right in the middle of a televised press conference. A senior journalist from Pakistan had asked him about his planned visit to Pakistan. “I have not planned any such visit,” the Prime Minister said. But, said the journalist, the Indian foreign secretary had suggested that such a trip was on the cards. “Ask the new foreign secretary,” beamed the Prime Minister arrogantly. What a way to announce the dismissal of a foreign secretary! Watching him at the press conference that morning, I was amazed that he should sit on that chair and be so flippant and insouciant. Could it have something to do with genetics, I had wondered.

AMONG his government’s biggest achievements were the various accords he had signed, and it was here that he was proving most vulnerable. The Punjab accord had become a dead letter, in Assam the agreement was cracking to pieces. But the Prime Minister had a totally different view of things. He had brought to the press conference what he described as the ‘original’ agreements to refute the widespread belief that they had failed to work. Point by point he ran through the documents, to show how most of the points had been ‘done’, and that if some of the points still remained to be implemented, it was ‘the fault of either chief minister Surjit Singh Barnala or of Prafulla Kumar Mohanta and not of Rajiv Gandhi.’ By then Rajiv Gandhi had totally forgotten about his great “power-broker” speech. No more action was needed against them, he was saying. The power-brokers were already out of the party, that is to say! Forgotten too was all talk about ‘marching India into the 21st century’.

The downhill slide was getting faster. The Republic Day, 1986, which had been set as the deadline for the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab came and went. The Sikhs lodged in Jodhpur jail had still not been released. Instead the government had started a campaign to pacify Haryana, obviously because of the impending Assembly elections, due in the summer of 1987.

Stirrings of dissent had started in the party, but they were either ridiculed as ‘idle chit-chat’ or put down with a heavy hand. Organisational election, he now realised, was an anathema for the party. With every split in the old party, Indira Gandhi had trimmed and honed the organisation to suit her own purposes, and now to talk of restoring what some kept describing as “inner-party democracy” would have amounted to going against the party’s grain.

Few doubted, even then, the intentions of the young leader. Fewer disagreed that he had brought a whiff of fresh air in the conduct of the government. He still wanted to simplify the operations of the government, and speed up decisions. The Congress Party had started using computers and there was a new look to the party headquarters. But behind the facade of modernity the party was slipping. Dissenters were raising their heads. A bit of confidence was regained by the election victories in Nagaland and Tripura in early 1988, but a stunning blow awaited the part)’ when the new challenger Vishwanath Pratap Singh won the Allahabad by-election. From the new hopes generated at the AICC session at Maraimalai Nagar in April 1988, which had been described as a “love fest of sycophancy”, the mood had swung to one of despair. Rajiv Gandhi responded by changing two chief ministers and shuffling his pack at the Centre. In the process he showed that he was returning to the comparative security of the old guard. Though the honeymoon seemed to be coming to an end, people were still fond of Rajiv Gandhi, but he could retain their support only by ‘giving uninhibited expression to his own deepest beliefs’

at-the-funeral-of-indira-gandhiMEANWHILE, arrivals and departures from the Rajiv ministry had become so frequent that dozens of hopefuls in the party seemed to be glued all the time to their telephones for a possible call from the Prime Minister’s Office. They prayed all the time that when Rajiv Gandhi gave the next jerk to his ministerial kaleidoscope, they were not left out on the grey margins. Those who kept track of the quick-change patterns in the shifting kaleidoscope said during the first three years of the Rajiv Gandhi regime, nearly 80 Congress MPs, or 80 ‘bits of glass’, if you please, had at one time or another found a place in the kaleidoscope’s ‘central design’, in other words the Central ministry, their periods of stability ranging between a few weeks to seven or eight months, except in the cases of some ‘rare specimen’. By the end of his two years as the PM, Rajiv Gandhi had sent off 47 of his ministers to the guillotine.

Rajiv Gandhi’s first ministry, before he got his own mandate, had been virtually a carry-over of his mother’s team, except for a few who were bundled out unceremoniously. After the massive mandate of December 1984, the Prime Minister could begin playing with his new-found toy, if only a little tentatively. At one jerk of the kaleidoscope, the diminutive Pranab Mukheijee, who had slowly risen to the top in Mrs Gandhi’s power structure and become her No.2 in the Cabinet, was flung overboard. It had been whispered that after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination he had coveted the post for himself, an inexcusable misdemeanour.

Another jerk of the kaleidoscope had brought in a curious mix or young and old, dubious warhorses and green-horns, with a good number of old Doon School chums. Critics could only keep their judgements in suspension over the entry of the heavyweight cousin, Arun Nehru, or Madhavrao Scindia, or K Natwar Singh, a former career diplomat. If the carping ones could raise their eyebrows at the entry of the Haryana Strongman, Bansilal, whom even Indira Gandhi had flung aside after her return to power in 1980, they could not help welcoming the induction of a couple of experienced men like Krishna Chandra Pant, son of Nehru’s one time Home Minister, Govind Ballabh Pant, and Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the former Raja of Manda whom Sanjay Gandhi had made the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

The former Raja was to become, first Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘knight in shining armour’ and then his biggest nightmare. Even while dust had begun to settle on Rajiv Gandhi’s image, that of VP Singh was becoming glossier. He was being hailed as the mascot of Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘clean government’. Singh had struck terror in the hearts of businessmen and industrialists and the more shock- waves he created the happier he seemed. In one of his first interviews as the Prime Minister, Rajiv had been asked why he had dropped Pranab Mukherjee and he had said, “The Finance Minister has to be very tough. He can’t be goody-goody…I don’t think he (Mukherjee) was tough enough…”

Singh was his tough man. He was clapping big businessmen behind bars. He was being described as a “lion-hearted Finance Minister”. VP Singh was enjoying every minute of his crusade against the ‘scamps and scoundrels’ of the business world. Eyebrows had begun to go up in the Rajiv circle. There were undercurrents of consternation around. Some of Rajiv Gandhi’s aides had begun telling him to watch out against Singh, but he was not willing to believe that his dear Finance Minister could have any ulterior motives. He had ‘absolute trust in VP’. But the Finance Minister was slowly chipping away at the Prime Minister’s main plank. While Rajiv Gandhi was getting associated in the public mind with the process of economic liberalisation and getting flak for it, VP Singh was seen as the man who was really crusading against corruption. He was emerging as “cleaner than Mr Clean”, and the more Rajiv Gandhi slipped and blundered, the more VP Singh’s image shone.

On January 22, 1987, Rajiv Gandhi had called VP Singh to 7 Race Course Road and shared with him his thoughts on the need for a full-time Defence Minister. Indian troops were already deployed on the Punjab border with Pakistan and the forces of the two countries were “eyeball to eyeball”. The top Army brass was apprehensive of a major crisis erupting any time. Rajiv used the opportunity to shift VP Singh to the Defence Ministry. He did it two days later, causing an immediate howl all around that the Prime Minister had used the pretext of a border crisis to get rid of an inconvenient Finance Minister. Saying Neta ka hukum sir mathe par — the leader’s orders are supreme — VP Singh had promptly assumed charge of the Defence portfolio and moved from the North Block to the South. Everyone could see that Singh had resented the transfer.

The rift between VP Singh and Rajiv Gandhi assumed a new dimension in April when the Defence Ministry issued an official press release announcing that an inquiry had been ordered into a `30-crore commission reportedly received by an Indian agent in a defence deal with a foreign country. The release said the ministry had received a formal intimation through a telex message from an Indian embassy that an Indian agent was involved in a defence deal worth more than `400 crore for which he got a 7 per cent commission. VP Singh had consulted neither the Cabinet nor the Prime Minister before ordering the probe. Faced with attacks from the Congress, VP Singh declared he was ready to “undergo the severest test to prove my loyalty to my party and my leader.”

SUCH was the furore in the Congress, with many asking for Singh’s dismissal, that Rajiv Gandhi cut short his visit to Uttar Pradesh and rushed back to Delhi. While the Raja kept repeating that he would “stand by Rajiv Gandhi, come what may”, several Congress leaders told the Prime Minister that “Singh has literally declared a war against the Government.”

A few days later, VP Singh wrote a two-page resignation letter, put it in a sealed cover marked ‘Prime Minister’ and drove down to Rajiv Gandhi’s residence. As VP Singh himself described his meeting with the Prime Minister: “It was a heart-to- heart talk with some very touching moments…” According to another account given by Rajiv Gandhi’s acolytes, it had been a highly emotional meeting: “VP Singh had wept and sobbed and then hugged Rajiv Gandhi at the door before leaving.”

In public, VP Singh was still pledging “everlasting support and loyalty” to his leader, Rajiv Gandhi. And then just four days after he resigned, the Swedish Radio dropped a bombshell. It reported that an arms firm, Bofors, had won Sweden’s biggest export order by paying bribes to senior Indian politicians and key defence figures through secret Swiss bank accounts. The Political Affairs Committee of the Cabinet met in a state of panic and denied the report, but the Swedish Radio not only stuck to its story but even promised to release documentary evidence to support it. The mystery deepened with the Radio claiming that it had the numbers of secret Swiss bank accounts into which the multi-million dollar bribe had been stashed.

With the Opposition mounting an attack on the Government, and an already alienated President pressing for details of the Bofors deal, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rose in Parliament to deny the charge that any clandestine payments were involved in the Bofors arms deal.

Rajiv Gandhi was now seen to be in trouble, but very few of the Congress MPs were ready to stick their necks too far out. Elections were still far away, and even VP Singh’s Jana Morcha MPs were keeping their Parliament seats, even at the cost of their sensitive souls! VP Singh had given several ‘clarion calls’ to Congress MPs to rise in revolt against Rajiv Gandhi. All he got was a sullen silence. Even if the pastures could later turn out to be greener on the other side, where was the guarantee that they would get nominations for Parliament in VP Singh’s new set-up?

united-nations-general-assemblyATOP Raisina Hill, tempers were mounting. Zail Singh’s term was ending, and Rajiv Gandhi had already started discussions with the Opposition parties for a new consensus candidate. Amid widespread rumours that the President was planning to dismiss the Rajiv Government came Zail Singh’s statement:

“The President has noted with distress the reports and comments which have appeared in the Press persistently speculating that the President intends to dismiss Mr Rajiv Gandhi from the office of the Prime Minister. The President has so far refrained from commenting on these reports as also on the conjectures concerning what transpired in his recent meeting with the Prime Minister. The President feels that reports and comments concerning so grave a matter as the dismissal of the Prime Minister cannot be allowed to remain uncontradicted any longer. The President therefore wishes it to be known in the clearest terms that the said reports and comments are utterly devoid of any basis.”

Even so, the controversy took a sharper turn after the Prime Minister armed himself with a Cabinet resolution in support of his contention that the Council of Ministers was the final judge on how much information could be given to the President. Having done this, the Prime Minister finally turned down the President’s request for more details on the Bofors.

On the night of June 20-21, the Rajiv Government seemed to teeter on the brink of a precipice. The plot to dismiss him was being given final shape in the Rashtrapati Bhawan atop Raisina Hill. President Zail Singh and his circle huddled for nearly six hours and the eminent jurist Asoke Sen was even ready with a draft announcing the dismissal of the Prime Minister. At one point, the scenario took a farcical turn, when one of those gathered there suggested that Raiiv Gandhi should be called for talks and then locked up in a room until after a new Prime Minister was installed. Indian politics had been reduced to a burlesque.

The President had contacted VP Singh to find out if he was willing to be sworn in as the new Prime Minister. Singh had gone into his own huddle and decided that even if he made it to the Prime Minister’s chair this way, he could not last very long, and what was more, it would finish him forever. He gave a No to Zail Singh.
Next morning was a decisive day. The Opposition parties were meeting to choose their candidate for the President’s post. The game was really over after the two communist parties rejected the candidature of Zail Singh. And now Rajiv Gandhi was being pressed by his advisers to go and a have a meeting with the President. “Sir, please be cool and patient with that man,” they pleaded. “Sir, please don’t be provoked by what he says, Sir…Only listen to him, Sir…”3

Rajiv had agreed. At a cordial 70-minute meeting, Zail Singh had been ‘sweet as honey’ and assured Rajiv Gandhi that all the reports that he was planning to act against him were “totally motivated and baseless.” By then he had already given up the hope of winning a second term for himself as the Opposition’s candidate.

But Rajiv Gandhi was still jittery. Thirty-three days still remained for Zail Singh to step down from the steps of the Rashtrapati Bhawan. What if he changed his mind? Some Congress leaders, including Kamalapati Tripathi, began trying for a rapprochement between the Prime Minister and Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who was the only person whom Zail Singh could use if he got down to mischief.

Rajiv could trust neither Zail Singh nor VP Singh. The former Finance Minister was still saying in public that Rajiv Gandhi was in no way involved in the Bofors scandal, that his objective was not to “harm my leader”. Even so, he was creating waves, and every day he was becoming a little perkier, demanding that the Bofors deals be scrapped, that the government sign a bilateral treaty with Switzerland for getting information on Indian money stashed away in their banks. He was spinning round the country. He had set his sights on the Prime Minister’s chair.

On June 26, the Rajiv camp was in real panic when news came that VP Singh had finally joined hands with the other Congress dissidents. At a tea party at the Sunehri Bagh residence of Arif Mohammed Khan, who had left the Rajiv government over the controversial Muslim Personal Law bill, VP Singh had joined hands with the former ‘Boss’ of the Rajiv government Arun Nehru. The slogans at VP Singh’s meetings were becoming more and more reminiscent of the JP movement. “Desh neta kaisa hop …Desh ka neta V.P. Singh…” The Raja of Manda was now talking about the need for a change in the ‘political system’, for an awakening of Janashakti’ (people s power). The opposition too was becoming aggressive.

rajiv-gandhi-on-election-trailRajiv Gandhi’s confidence had somewhat revived after Venkataraman’s election and his own visit to Moscow where President Gorbachev had assured him full support in his “fight against destabilisation”. He finally struck. The bouquets and garlands from a triumphant rally at Hardwar were still fresh when VP Singh learnt that his three new-found comrades, Arun Nehru, Vidya Charan Shukla and Arif Mohammed Khan, had been expelled from the party.

On his way back from Hardwar, VP Singh had stopped at the telegraph office at Muzaffamagar and wired a long ‘resignation letter’ to the Prime Minister. Condemning the expulsion of his three friends, he wrote, “The action taken against them was undemocratic and dictatorial. This has proved that Congressmen can be politically hanged without any hearing or show-cause notice.” The telegram went on to say that if his removal served the party, he was prepared to offer the “supreme political sacrifice” and resign from the Congress. His ‘letter’ itself could be treated as his resignation, he said, and “as a natural corollary I am also attaching my resignation from the Rajya Sabha, which may be forwarded to the Chairman…” Rajiv Gandhi rejected VP Singh’s ‘resignation’ on the ground that it was a ‘conditional offer’.

SINGH stepped up his campaign. Six more days were still left for Zail Singh to relinquish office. There were hopes in one quarter, jitters in another. Pressures on Rajiv Gandhi from within his caucus became so strong that he finally expelled VP Singh from the party. The very next day, Singh told the Press that he favoured the prosecution of Rajiv Gandhi. He had suddenly forgotten all his vows and pledges.

On his last day in office, President Zail Singh rejected a petition by cartoonist-politician Rajinder Puri seeking permission to prosecute the Prime Minister. He may have feared that any action on that front could create problems in his search for a proper house and post-retirement security for himself. Gianiji had finally caved in.

The danger from the Rashtrapati Bhawan had ended, but the other fronts remained. Most of all the danger from Rajiv Gandhi’s own front. In the long run, he proved to be his own worst enemy. No other Prime Minister had got the kind of start that he had, none had less to worry about from the Opposition than he did. Even the opposition that emerged later was his own creation. When he began, there was virtually no opposition in the country; they had all been stunned into silence. All had been reduced to a virtual zero, when the electoral pendulum could well have swung their way once again in a normal election despite all their cannibalistic fights during the Janata interregnum.

Rajiv Gandhi was a likeable man, but he was a man who had no real convictions of his own. There was the joke in Delhi that Rajiv Gandhi was like a cushion which took on the impression of the last person who sat on it. Destiny had suddenly pitchforked him into a job which was simply beyond his ken. Even so, he did the best he could to understand the intricacies and complexities of the office he held, and to the extent that he could, he did bring about several changes. What if Rajiv Gandhi had stuck to his anti-politician stance? What if he had stuck to his own true self? Maybe he would still have failed, but that failure would have been far less tragic than it turned out to be.

VOL. 10, ISSUE 4 | JULY, 2016

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