‘My Years with Rajiv’ review: Working with Rajiv Gandhi

Wajahat Habibullah, son of one of the few Muslim army officers to have stayed with the Indian army after Partition, knew the Nehru-Gandhi family long before Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister. He joined the J&K cadre of the IAS and served a little over two years in Indira Gandhi’s PMO before she was assassinated and a shade under three with Rajiv. His is, therefore, a sympathetic but not uncritical view.

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He has shared his experience of seeing a school friend who had become PM being betrayed by friends and relatives. That does not detract from his qualities as a decent human being. It is that element of empathy with the subject that is lacking in most assessments of Rajiv by his detractors.

Wajahat’s memoirs do not purport to be a political biography. They are an account, from the sidelines of politics, of his experience of working in Rajiv’s PMO, which was careful to segregate politics from administration. Moreover, it was so compartmentalised that few of us knew what the others were doing. It was only incidentally that we picked up tidbits of information that gave us a hint of what was happening in the political world.

Brief conversations

There are, for instance, only two brief snatches of conversation with Rajiv that Wajahat refers to in regard to opening of the locks at the Babri Masjid. One is when Wajahat, as the desk officer for minorities’ welfare, is invited into a discussion with M.J. Akbar, where Akbar pleads for Rajiv’s intervention to modify the Supreme Court’s obiter dicta observations that were causing great concern in the minorities’ minds. The other is a brief exchange of words that Rajiv had with Wajahat on a flight during which the PM tells Wajahat that he knew nothing of the attempt to change the status quo at the masjid and was attempting to find out whether Arun Nehru and M.L. Fotedar were behind this. Rajiv was not running a police state and there was no way a private, vengeful conspiracy to undermine him would have been revealed to him before the deed was done. It took only half an hour between judgment being rendered and the locks being opened. Thousands swarmed into the masjid and Rajiv was confronted with a fait accompli that could only be reversed by action that would have precipitated a huge communal riot.

So, what action, did the then PM take? Well, Arun Nehru was sidelined within weeks and was unceremoniously thrown out of both government and the party within months. Fotedar was not, which goes to show that Rajiv had held an impartial inquiry and punished only the guilty one. Wajahat gets wind of what is happening only when Arun Nehru requests (in effect, orders) him to pass on any information about the UP Chief Minister seeking to meet the PM on his own. Quite properly, Wajahat directs Arun Nehru to the PM’s private secretary.

Bofors, Shah Bano case

Arun Nehru is never rehabilitated in the party or in the family he thinks he belongs to by right. He takes his revenge by enticing dissatisfied elements — Arif Mohammad Khan, V.P. Singh and others to defect and form the alternative National Front (that Rajiv crushingly described as the “National Affront”). True, the traitors’ cabal they formed with an opportunistic BJP and Left support defeated Rajiv in the 1989 election largely by propaganda that Rajiv had banned middlemen in the Bofors deal only to clear the way to himself taking a huge bribe of ₹64 crore. This was backed by V.P. Singh flaunting a piece of paper at every election rally on which he claimed he had the number of Rajiv’s Swiss account. In the event, the V.P. Singh government collapsed under the weight of its contradictions within a year of taking office. None of the eight non-Congress governments that took office in the decades that followed produced a shred of evidence that stood up in court. As for the long-term outcome of the Shah Bano shindig, the Supreme Court in Danial Latifi held that no provision of the Constitution, and certainly no fundamental rights, had been violated by the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986.

Rajiv died before the Narasimha Rao government stood by as the BJP and the goons it had instigated demolished a Muslim place of worship. Had he lived, there would never have been such a wanton attack on minority rights and sentiments. After his assassination, the secular fabric of the nation has been torn to shreds.

Keeping the peace

The Brasstacks fiasco was another example of disloyalty at the highest echelon of the army and those charged with supervising the armed forces. Despite the solemn undertaking given by Rajiv to the Pakistan PM that he would still fears of an invasion in the name of undertaking an exercise, following which strict orders were issued by the PM (who was also Raksha Mantri), the army chief and his MoS orchestrated a show of strength while Rajiv was away which almost brought the two countries to war. Rajiv, on return from a holiday with his family, telephoned the Pak President and PM, got his MoS and army chief to tone down their belligerence and kept the peace.

Wajahat convincingly shows that the Bofors rumpus too was an act of betrayal, not venality. He quotes Rajiv’s highly relevant questions to the Ministry of Defence which were never answered because his notes of June 4 and June 15 were held up in the PMO and not passed on to the MoD by Rajiv’s closest bureaucratic aide, Gopi Arora, determining on his own that if he were to pass on the file it might worsen the already bad relations between the other Arun — Arun Singh — and Rajiv. The reader might try to answer Rajiv’s queries himself to test their relevance and validity. (pp. 130-131) This reviewer can only endorse the author’s view that to have taken the kind of steps that were being suggested then would have had disastrous consequences on the nation’s commercial reputation and its defence requirements. And, as Wajahat underlines, the Kargil war would never have been won within so short a time but for the Bofors gun.

Major achievements

There is insufficient space here to more than mention the positive achievements of the Rajiv years: Panchayati Raj; the Punjab, Assam and Mizoram accords; the beginnings of MNREGA; far-reaching reforms in education, health and human development; the Technology Missions; the commencement of economic reforms; the struggle against apartheid; the nuclear weapons abolition Action Plan; his pathbreaking initiatives on China and Pakistan. These are recounted, including the mistaken assessments that led to the IPKF quagmire in Sri Lanka (most importantly Gen Sundarji’s hopelessly misplaced belief that it would take the Indian army only a week to end the LTTE insurgency). Wajahat has redressed the balance through his even-handed assessment of the ‘triumph and tragedy’ of the short life of a PM who was among the most human and humane of the leaders we have seen in seven decades of freedom.

My Years with Rajiv; Wajahat Habibullah, Westland Books, ₹799.

The reviewer served with Wajahat Habibullah in Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO.

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 3:53:09 PM |

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