The Congress' golden years

Book cover of The Lotus Years: Political Life in India in the Time of Rajiv Gandhi |
Every time they sit down to write a story, political reporters are beset by two gnawing anxieties: Whether their version of events is accurate and not slanted even unconsciously in favour of x or y source; and how much to say — and not say. A lot of what you know cannot be written (those two silly clauses, Section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code governing defamation, you know) and as a result, a huge amount of information goes unreported.

Ashwini Bhatnagar’s book on Rajiv Gandhi, because of his enormous depth and breadth of knowledge about politics in the Congress, especially in Uttar Pradesh, breaks these reportage shackles. A lot about Rajiv Gandhi’s life is already known but despite this, he comes up with new material about politics in India at a time that might arguably be considered the Congress’s golden years.

We know that Rajiv Gandhi was a reluctant politician and Sonia Gandhi held him back as much as she could. Mr Bhatnagar doesn’t linger on that. Instead he reports from inside the Gandhi household, the relationship between the five (and later four, after Sanjay’s death) adults in the family, how this spilled out into public view and shaped politics. Included are such delicious details as how the raven-haired factotum of the household, R K Dhawan, was tasked with evicting Sanjay’s widow Maneka, her sister Ambika, and their Irish wolfhound Sheba, from the Gandhi household after Maneka defied orders from Indira Gandhi to cease and desist from plans to join politics — and how Dhawan had to proceed warily after he was bitten by said Irish wolfhound in the midst of the eviction. Mr Bhatnagar attributes this account to Khushwant Singh’s autobiography, Truth, Love and a Little Malice but most know this to be true.

Mr Bhatnagar describes Rajiv’s struggle to transition from being a pilot to a politician against the background of a caste struggle in the Congress in UP between the Thakurs and the Brahmins and because he was reporting from UP at the time, reactions to Rajiv from below. His interview with one of the legends of the Congress in UP, Vir Bahadur Singh, is priceless because it captures the mood of the times so perfectly. Singh is describing Rajiv’s style of working and he tells Mr Bhatnagar:

“Rajivji is not a Congressi like me. He’s different. We don’t do any real work;  Congressis like us just float along with the crowd…we go where the crowd takes us…party crowd, election crowd…any crowd. We just want a crowd around us to confirm to the world that we are leaders. But Rajivji is not like us. He sits, thinks, discusses, puts everything in files…there are rows and rows of those steel cabinets in his office…all full of data and notings. I bet he even has a file on me with a diagram showing how many times I sneeze every day, and what is the likelihood of me sneezing right now. He’s very particular about details…you don’t understand him. He’s changing politics”.

The book describes sensitively how from being an ingenue, Rajiv becomes prime minister, gets into action, overcomes many obstacles to change, but ultimately becomes a victim of byzantine intrigue that he is unable to see because he surrounds himself with individuals who represent interests, rather than The People. Outsiders like Mr Bhatnagar can see this clearly — and from a Nice Guy, Rajiv Gandhi changes into a leader with teeth bared, snarling and fighting some of the very people he helped to turn into leaders. During the French Revolution, one of Maximilien Robespierre’s lieutenants, St Juste, who was being led away to the guillotine was asked if he had any last words for other aspiring revolutionaries. His answer was : “When you make a revolution halfway, you dig your grave’’. There cannot be a more apt epitaph for Rajiv Gandhi.

Mr Bhatnagar makes no bones about the fact that he admires, even likes, Rajiv Gandhi. His vinegary comments about how Vishwanath Pratap Singh managed to steer his way to the top job by manipulating opposition leaders give him away. But then, the book does not claim to be even-handed. It reports on a stupendous experiment in Indian politics and records personal foibles. One such is an interview with Amitabh Bachchan days before he resigned from Parliament. Halfway through there is a call that Mr Bachchan accidentally puts on speaker mode. A feminine voice asks the MP when he is coming. The caller? You need to read the book to find out.

The only niggling gap is insufficient research on the conspiracy that led to the end of Rajiv Gandhi’s life — his assassination. But that is incidental. Mr Bhatnagar’s writing brings personalities in politics in the 1980s and 1990s to life in all their splendid iridescence, making his book a wonderful spotlight on that period.

The Lotus Years: Political Life in India in the Time of Rajiv Gandhi
Author: Ashwini Bhatnagar
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 499

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