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Mani Shankar Aiyar’s book on Rajiv is not really a memoir

How will future generations remember our Prime Ministers?

This is not a question about serious historical analysis but one about the rewriting and framing of history.


It is no secret that for the last several years — and perhaps, going forward for many more — the most influential historical record of our times has been WhatsApp. And young people can’t even attempt to double-check what they have discovered on WhatsApp because history textbooks are being continually rewritten to reflect the political wisdom of the times.


   At present, the officially sponsored WhatsApp version of Indian political history goes something like this:


Mahatma Gandhi: Not such a bad chap but gave Pakistan away so not such a good chap, either.


Nathuram Godse: A true patriot and a very brave man. Okay, he may have got a little carried away but hey? Who doesn’t, eh?


Jawaharlal Nehru: Evil British stooge who enjoyed champagne-fuelled holidays in so-called ‘jails’ with his British masters. Was propped up by the white man to keep the great Gujarati Sardar Patel from running India.


Indira Gandhi: Brave leader who acted decisively against Pakistan and showed us that India can only be run by strong leaders.


Narasimha Rao:  Hindu champion who unshackled the Indian economy despite the best efforts of the hated dynasty. (Yeah, okay, some sardarji may have helped a little bit).


Manmohan Singh: Ventriloquist’s dummy masquerading as Prime Minister. Was made to remain silent while India was looted.


Sonia Gandhi: White person who maintained the dynasty tradition of robbing India while pampering the peasantry and ignoring the lower middle classes who are, of course, the future of the country.


   I make no comments about how valid or comical these characteristics are. But it is hard to deny that these are the sort of views that pass for history on social media.


   My concern today is with two elements of these caricatures. The first is: why do these guys have so little to say about AB Vajpayee, in my view one of our best Prime Ministers? They can’t attack him for his refusal to fully embrace Hindutva because he was one of their own. But they can’t bring themselves to praise him either. (As for LK Advani, it is: “LK Who?”)


   And the second is: how about Rajiv Gandhi?  The Congress won the largest ever electoral mandate in Indian history under him. And yet, the BJP rarely seems concerned with him. If he is mentioned at all it is only in the context of being part of the dynasty. His own achievements and failures rarely come up.


   Strangely, this is true of many Congress supporters too. Ask them what Rajiv’s greatest achievements were and they will hum and fret. They will look faintly embarrassed about Bofors but will not have much else to say. Their tale of Congress successes begins with the liberalisation of 1991 and goes on to include the direct transfers and welfare measures that were pioneered by Sonia Gandhi and have now been adopted by successor governments.


   Bizarrely the only person in the Congress who recalls Rajiv’s contributions to our country is Mani Shankar Aiyar. Unlike members of Rajiv’s family who may be shy to brag about a relative/husband/father, Aiyar can claim to be relatively (well, sort of) independent. He was a Joint Secretary in Rajiv’s Prime Minister’s Office and was, as he says in his new book, kept out of many of the weightier discussions on such subjects as Ram Janmabhoomi, the Shahbano case, the IPKF  and Bofors.


   Aiyar joined the Congress after taking premature retirement in late 1989 but could not work with Rajiv for much time because his former boss was assassinated in 1991.


"Nevertheless, the Rajiv Gandhi that emerges from these pages is a statesman and a conciliator."

   Aiyar was kept out of government by Narasimha Rao who loathed Rajiv’s people (and possibly, Rajiv too), sat out the two Vajpayee terms and then finally became a minister in the Manmohan Singh governments. But even then, he was not part of any inner circle, and had no special access to Sonia Gandhi. He has no consequential role in today’s Congress either.


   I spoke to Aiyar on stage last year at the launch of his autobiography Memoirs of a Maverick and asked him if it was true that he always felt that Sonia Gandhi did not like him. (Sonia who was in the first row, shook her head in denial.) And in response to an audience question about Rahul Gandhi, Aiyar said he hardly knew him. I don’t think any of the Congressmen present were comfortable when Aiyar recalled how relieved he felt when he heard about Sanjay Gandhi’s demise because of the danger Sanjay posed to Indian liberal democracy.


   So, The Rajiv I Knew is not really a book by a Gandhi family retainer. Nor, despite the title, is it really a memoir. Much of the information (which Aiyar was not privy to at the time) comes from interviews with the primary actors and from meticulous research and examination of documents.


   As you might imagine, Rajiv comes off well but Aiyar is also critical of some of his actions (the sacking of the Foreign Secretary at a press conference, the ill-considered IPKF intervention based on a wrong assessment of the facts and so on) and he never pretends to understand exactly what was going on Rajiv’s mind.


   Nevertheless, the Rajiv Gandhi that emerges from these pages is a statesman and a conciliator. We tend to forget now how Rajiv put out the fires his mother had either lit herself or neglected, in such states as Punjab, Assam, Mizoram and even Bengal (the Gurkha accord). He chose to patiently negotiate even when, for instance, the murder of Sant Longowal might have led to a return of the cycle of bloodshed. Rajiv was always willing to use a mixture of force (the very effective Operation Black Thunder as distinct from the bungled Operation Bluestar of his mother’s time) and persuasion to save the peace.


   When Rajiv took office there were very real fears that India might not hold together. By the time he finished his term nobody even considered that possibility. And yet, he never gets the credit for that considerable achievement.


   In my view, Aiyar’s book does not dwell long enough on some of Rajiv’s triumphs (the computer revolution and the transformation of telecom) but Aiyar does believe that had Rajiv returned to power, he would have liberalised the economy.


   The book is most interesting in two areas, both of which, strangely enough, involve Arun Nehru.


   Aiyar has done his research on Bofors and he marshals evidence to demonstrate that Rajiv had nothing to do with the payments Bofors made to various entities. He also suggests that Nehru was connected to AE Services, the mysterious company that was paid a commission/kickback/ winding-up charge by Bofors.


   As Nehru had featured in the then Bofors boss Martin Ardbo’s dairies, which were discovered by Swedish authorities, this was always obvious at an intuitive level. But Aiyar uses facts, dates and documents to make a strong case linking Nehru to AE Services.


   The second is Ayodhya. We keep hearing that ‘the Congress opened the locks of the disputed structure' but have been fobbed off with the Congress explanation that it was ‘a judicial decision’. Aiyar recounts the entire sequence of events and makes it clear that it was a political strategy.


   The gates of the Babri Masjid were locked in 1949 by the UP government. (Not by any court.) They stayed locked till Veer Bahadur Singh, an Arun Nehru protégé, who was Chief Minister of UP visited Ayodhya in late 1985 and met a delegation which wanted the locks removed.


   In February 1986, the local district sessions court heard a petition asking for the gates to be opened. The District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police, both UP government officials who reported to Veer Bahadur, told the Court that the locks were not required for keeping the peace and that opening the gate would make no difference to law and order. The Court then had no choice but to order the gates opened and within minutes, Hindu worshippers surged into the structure and claimed it for themselves.


   So it was not a mere judicial decision as the Congress now claims. A Congress government arranged for the gates to be opened. Aiyar believes the assessment of his colleagues in the PMO (such as Wajahat Habibullah) who say that the Prime Minister had no idea of what was going on in a case in a district court in Ayodhya. When Rajiv found out what had happened, Arun Nehru was first sidelined and then sacked. (Eventually Nehru joined the BJP.)


   And the rest, as we shall see over the next few days, is history. But if Aiyar is right then the BJP should thank Arun Nehru for creating the issue. On the other hand, given that nobody is willing to thank LK Advani for the same thing, perhaps not!


I will be in conversation with Aiyar about these issues on Friday and I expect that you will be able to find a video of our chat on The Print’s channels.


Posted On: 18 Jan 2024 10:30 AM
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