In defence of Rajiv Gandhi

Book cover of My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy
Two Wajahat Habibullahs struggle to come out of this book. One is the courtly Shakespeare aficionado, writing in a self-deprecatory, slightly dated style. I mean, who uses words like “unbeknownst” and “anon” anymore? All that was missing was “tally ho” and “forsooth”. But the book is no less the charming for it. And the other is the terse bureaucrat, judicious with both words and judgments, relying on file notings as well as his own memory to shed new light on crucial events in Indian history and politics to which he was privy from his perch in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and other jobs he held at the time.

The book is not a diary or an autobiography. The account of Mr Habibullah’s childhood at Welham Boys’ School and later Doon School in Dehradun, with summer holidays spent at Khadakwasla where his father, General Enaith Habibullah — called Bubbles by his friends, family and children alike —set up the National Defence Academy, is short and leaves you wanting more. The young Habibullah’s  distaste for team sport and his fondness for Shakespeare and Tolstoy (and books generally) derives from a horrific experience of being bullied on account of his religion by boys at the school who were themselves scarred by the partition and violence they should never have had to see at that age.

The Habibullah family and the Nehru-Gandhis were close friends. 

Mrs Hamida Habibullah, Wajahat’s mother (who died recently at 101), was exactly one year and one day older than Indira Gandhi and was an active figure in politics and social work in Lucknow. It’s only natural that the children should grow up to be friends as well. He recalls his impression of Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi’s reaction when they got the news that their father had died at 48. “At the time, Rajiv seemed to me to have been the more affected. Sanjay seemed to care little and was even dismissive of Feroze (Gandhi), though it is undoubtedly from him that both Sanjay and his older brother had inherited their fascination for mechanics,” he writes.

The central figure in the book is not Wajahat Habibullah. It is Rajiv Gandhi. Although Mr Habibullah is careful to write in a detached tone, you can detect an almost leonine ferocity when he defends Gandhi from charges of corruption, mismanagement and high-handedness. Although accounts of the time will ineluctably include him in the “coterie” that caused the downfall of a prime minister whose Lok Sabha majority is yet to be matched, he describes in painful detail events — and people — who let Gandhi down. We come to know how Operation Brasstacks was botched “because of the jingoistic mismanagement of the operation by none other than Gen K Sundarji” and had little or nothing to do with the hysteria caused by reports of kickbacks in the Bofors guns deal (the narrative at the time was that Brasstacks was launched to divert attention from Bofors).

My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy
Author: Wajahat Habibullah Publisher: Westland
Pages: 356
Price: Rs 799

Indeed, on the Bofors matter itself, the man who went to his grave never having been able to conclusively clear his name of accepting kickbacks, asked at the time in a note some very searching questions on the implications of cancelling the contract. This note was to have been forwarded to defence secretary S K Bhatnagar by then special secretary in the PMO, Gopi Arora, who held it back as relations between Gandhi and his school friend and minister of state in the Ministry of Defence, Arun Singh, were deteriorating. The PM’s note would have cleared up a lot of the confusion. But while Gandhi sought “a military assessment from Gen Sundarji”, what he got instead was “a political surmise”. Mr Habibullah’s assessment is: “Arun Singh backed Sundarji to the hilt, consorting with him all the way, but the government did not know of it. Feeling let down and deeply hurt, Rajiv Gandhi lost confidence in his old friend.”

Mr Habibullah describes others who “used” their friendship with Rajiv to “promote their own political interests”. He counts journalist and former minister M J Akbar among them. On the Shah Bano case, he says, it was Akbar who convinced Gandhi that “if the government were not to challenge the (Supreme Court) judgment on Shah Bano, it would appear to the Muslim community that Rajiv was distancing himself from the defence of religious rights of the Muslims”.

And then there was the issue of the locks being opened in Ayodhya. 

Mr Habibullah says as prime minister Gandhi knew nothing about it. In fact, he told Mr Habibullah: “No government has any business to meddle in matters like determining the functioning of places of worship. I knew nothing of this development until I was told of it after the order”. To Mr Habibullah’s stammered interjection that Gandhi was the prime minister, Gandhi answered: “Of course I was. Yet, I was not informed of this action…”Arun Nehru was dropped from the cabinet within weeks of this conversation.

The book is called Triumph and Tragedy. Nothing could be more apt. It talks about Gandhi’s fascination for communication technology without which the JAM trinity on which the Modi government prides itself would never have been possible. It also describes the extraordinary hard work that went into redesigning the PMO by Sunita Kohli and others. Those visualising the Central Vista might find it useful to dust off those files. And give credit where it is due.

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