ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Last Nehru: A Retrospective

Indira Gandhi shared the conviction of her grandfather Motilal and father Jawaharlal that India needed a Nehru family monarchy or else it would splinter in an anarchic hail of fragments. And so, after Sanjay's tragic death, she promoted and groomed her other son, Rajiv for the job even though he had a handicap in a foreign-born wife who refused to give up her Italian citizenship. Rajiv's rise and his death, and the developments thereafter are rooted in this construct that only the Nehrus have the skill and the charisma to govern the desperately poor millions of India.

Those who do not learn the lessons of history, it is said, are condemned to repeat it. Just over 10 years after the 1989 Lok Sabha elections led to the defeat of the last Nehru emperor, and yet little has been written about the man or his reign. This is an impressionistic contribution to such a debate, and as it is about Rajiv Gandhi the politician, it must begin with his younger brother Sanjay, for Rajiv owed his prime ministership to the June 23, 1980 crash of the Maule aircraft that killed his brother Sanjay, who had been chosen in 1973 (because of his ‘videshi’ wife, a factor that led Rajiv to affect a contempt for the family business till 1983, when he finally acknowledged his love for the vocation) over his elder sibling by his mother – prime minister Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi – for grooming as prime minister-in-waiting. That year, the younger brother was blooded by getting invited to Patna, where the managing director of Maruti Udyog was escorted everywhere in Bihar by both state Congress boss Sitaram Kesri and chief minister Jagannath Mishra. Yellowed copies of local newspapers show a beaming Kesri, a bemused Mishra and a sullen Sanjay. Mamma was, however, pleased by the publicity. Other trips were organised, but for two more years Sanjay refused to entirely forsake commerce qua commerce for commerce as politics. It was only after the 1975 Gujarat and Bihar agitations, and Allahabad High Court Justice J M L Sinha’s strictures against Indira Gandhi, that Sanjay altered his priorities to put politics first. ‘Mummy’ certainly needed help, for it appeared during those awful days as though her inheritance from ‘pappu’ (Jawaharlal Nehru), the Republic of India, would slip away from the Nehrus. Only the June 1975 emergency – that widened the ambit of the family dictatorship from the Congress Party and the government of India to the entire country – halted the slide. In that totalitarian environment, Sanjay came into his own, bulldozing slums and chopping away the sperm cords of countless males. It could have lasted far longer, Indians showing themselves as unwilling to confront dictatorship as their Pakistani cousins. By the end of 1976, political opposition to the emergency had all but vanished, with a lengthening queue of former critics lining up to ‘apologise’ for the crime of opposing Indira Gandhi. Perhaps it was the servile state of her prisoners that fooled her into believing in her popularity, for in 1977 Indira Gandhi chose to hold an election, which she lost, only to stand by and watch while her opponents turned on each other and in less than two years forced another election, in 1980, which she won comfortably. The family business was safe, and so seemed the succession history abounds with ‘Ifs’, and for India a prominent example is what would have happened had Sanjay and not Rajiv taken over his mother’s political inheritance. The younger brother made up for his lack of formal education by adopting a set of convictions that he sought to implement in an almost literal way. The first was that the country needed a generational change, from the old fogies favoured by his mother to a new, tough set. Among the members of a Sanjay Gandhi cabinet would have been Jagdish Tytler, Gundu Rao, Kamal Nath, Vilas Muttemwar, Tariq Anwar and Akbar Ahmed. The only individual from an earlier generation favoured by Sanjay was that permanent courtier of the Nehru clan, Arjun Singh. Liked, but not to the extent of the fellow-thakur from Madhya Pradesh, was V P Singh, whom Sanjay promoted. This team would have made short shrift of any lingering traces of liberalism in India, creating a Fuehrer state headed by Sanjay. Interestingly, despite their hostility to each other in life, after his death Sonia Gandhi has adopted many of the methods and the followers of Sanjay Gandhi, preferring them to the more squeamish Rajiv legacy. It was a style of functioning that Indira Gandhi secretly admired, though only during the 1975-77 emergency did she completely follow it.

The 1977 defeat led to a split between the brothers. Rajiv and Sonia packed their bags and left 1 Safdarjang Road for Chandragupta Marg, to the Italian embassy, there to stay with their two children till a friendly businessman intervened with the Morarji Desai government and secured an assurance that the non-political Rajiv and his wife and children would be graciously spared, especially as they made their contempt for Sanjay and his mothods clear both within the family and outside. Rajiv believed that it was Sanjay’s birth control fetish that had destroyed support for Mummy. His in-laws – who used to visit India frequently, courtesy the hospitality of hotelier Lalit Suri, who even today supplies victuals daily for the Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra households – refused to even talk to the upstart younger son and his wife, a distance that got miraculously bridged after the 1980 poll victory. This was seen as Sanjay’s achievement, in view of the fact that his team was given much of the credit for both the Janata government collapse as well as the subsequent election campaign.

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