Vinod Mehta has rummaged the memories and testimonies of the clique that surrounded Indira’s chosen heir
The post-Emergency days had seen, among other things, cathartic expressions of freedom of the press, to compensate as it were for its enforced suppression and constipation. In the familiar tradition of the Muse of History being the rightful grab of the victorious, there were several journalistic “quickies” to tell the sordid story of un-freedom and the villains who guided or operated there. Though claiming to be objective, they knew that none indeed cared to look for that elusive virtue during those heady days. Vinod Mehta’s The Sanjay Story was published early in 1978 as one of the Emergency ‘quickies’ and had met with well-deserved commercial success. Now, after nearly 35 years, the book is back in print, not in its revised avatar but with just a brief new Introduction.
The tragedy of ‘hubris-leading-to-nemesis’ is a good story-stuff, and when a good story-teller tells it, it invariably makes good reading. And when it is about our own democratic values and experiments, it produces a simmering mood anger, betrayal and pain. The biography of Sanjay Gandhi was written at that moment and has to be judged as such. The story necessarily begins with the high-profile household, in which figures Motilal Nehru, “something of a prig” who “mercilessly mimicked the English”, his politically famous son Jawaharlal Nehru and daughter-in-law Kamala who languished under “callous neglect”, their daughter, Indira, who was drawn to her suffering mother and was “determined not to be hurt”, Feroze Gandhi’s connection with Anand Bhavan and marriage with Indira, which produced two sons, including the subject of the book. Otherwise, the marriage was silently unsuccessful. In the lavishly documented life and times of Indira Gandhi, Feroze becomes “a footnote, a matrimonial accident”. This, as well as the relentless pampering at the Teen Murti from both the mother and the grandfather, is shown as going into the making of Sanjay’s character.
Vinod Mehta has rummaged the memories and testimonies of Doon School to find out how Sanjay indeed fared there: He was reportedly ‘outstandingly mediocre”, a ‘loner’, mostly friendless and ‘uncommunicative’. He had a reputation of being ‘bit of a kleptomaniac’ and ‘he tried his hand at some petty forgery, too’. He had a penchant for car pinching, whisking away unlocked cars for short, fast drives and brought back before they were missed. Later, when he shifted to Delhi, his nocturnal adventures continued, sometimes sneaking into the pages of newspapers, (as in an infamous case of car theft in May 1964) whose clever use of adjectives providing the key to decode the anonymity on offer. Vinod Mehta has also sleuthed his way into some of the equations that Sanjay struck with girls in which power-as-aphrodisiac is shown to have played a decisive part.
The Maruti project and Sanjay’s putative entrepreneurial skills fill one full chapter. His fast-track training at the Rolls-Royce plant in England in which he claimed to have learnt all there was to learn, his friendship with Arjun Das who knew all the Delhi junkyards and ‘chor bazaars’, Bansi Lal’s generous land-grant for the impending plant and V.C. Shukla’s intervention to silence the objections of the Commanding Officer of the airfield, the magic of the man (whose declared income for 1970-72 was Rs 772) who could open the flood-gates of capital to his company, violations of import regulations and many other unedifying details bristle in its pages.
The Emergency, however, pushed all these inconvenient facts under the carpet to project Sanjay as the ‘future light of India.’ Vinod Mehta recounts the feverish growth of the Youth Congress, the recruitment of droves of practising or potential criminals into its service, the insults that many craven chief ministers received with a grin, the slum-clearance programmes in which bulldozers operated physically and metaphorically and the prose of hope and triumph that was hectored into a muted nation. The gory details of the ‘Mission Sterilisation’, of its many little concentration camps and its prowling volunteers fill another chapter. When the future of the country was sought to be secured by meddling with the most private areas of human anatomy and touching the dark regions of people’s psyche, they could not but resent it. It showed in the elections of 1977. The Sanjay Story ends there.
But Sanjay lived to see Congress come back to power in 1980 after “the Janata leaders fell on their own swords with great facility”. But not for long. He died when the plane he flew crashed. We are told that it took eight surgeons four hours to stitch up his mutilated body. But the party which propped him up and went about hysterically announcing his messianic greatness did not lift a finger to stitch up his mutilated reputation. It merely put a shroud of oblivion over him. Perhaps it was politically convenient to do so; but it throws up a few questions. Should the Emergency be seen as the curse of an individual’s ambitions or foibles? If so, does the buck really stop with Sanjay? Or was it a reflection of some deeper malady in our democratic life, attitude and governance?
The author could have revisited the story and reflected on it to give the book greater relevance and meaning. It could have more convincingly justified the exhumation of the subject after more than three decades.
The Sanjay Story; Vinod Mehta;
HarperCollins, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301.