ON HER MAJESTY’S SER­VICE

Were con­fir­ma­tion needed that only those loyal to the Gand­his thrive in the Congress, it can be found in Mar­garet Alva’s mem­oir

India Today - - LEISURE BOOKS - By Kaveree Bamzai

This is not the sea­son to be a Gandhi. All man­ner of Congress lead­ers are step­ping out of the shad­ows of Lu­tyens’ power cor­ri­dors. Hi­manta Biswa Sarma, Amarinder Singh and Sheila Dixit have been vent­ing their anger at the high com­mand. Now it’s the turn of Mar­garet Alva, loy­al­ist of the Gand­his from Indira’s days. Alva, the daugh­ter-in-law of a staunch Congress fam­ily, be­came per­sona non grata for So­nia Gandhi when her son Nivedith was not given a ticket for the Kar­nataka as­sem­bly elec­tions. She was asked to re­sign and even­tu­ally despatched as the Gover­nor of Ut­tarak­hand, which clearly seems to have given her enough time to write a mem­oir, Courage & Com­mit­ment: An Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, which de­tails her as­so­ci­a­tion with the Gand­his (Indira, San­jay, Ra­jiv, So­nia and, briefly, Rahul) as well as the party.

Among other things, she lets us know that the Gand­his are adept at us­ing and dis­card­ing politi­cians (she spends much time writ­ing on Indira Gandhi’s even­tual ex­pul­sion of her men­tor Devraj Urs). She ex­plains how she took on San­jay Gandhi thrice dur­ing the Emer­gency and lived to tell the tale (in­clud­ing op­pos­ing his move to merge the In­dian Youth Congress and NSUI and take over univer­sity unions). She also writes that she op­posed Ra­jiv Gandhi, with whom she had an oth­er­wise close relationsh­ip, on the Shah Bano case (when she con­tra­dicts him at a meet­ing, he says to her in anger: “A fine min­is­ter I have—con­tra­dict­ing me in an open meet­ing. You were called in to help. If you could not sup­port me, the least you could have done was shut up!”) She also has a delicious en­counter with Fidel Cas­tro in Cuba, who ends up send­ing a pre­scient warn­ing for Ra­jiv Gandhi through her—to alert him that his finance min­is­ter V.P. Singh is up to no good and will end up be­tray­ing him.

But the mem­oir re­veals to us as much of the servile Congress mind­set as it does the Gand­his’ im­pe­ri­ous ways and their be­lief that there can be only one dy­nasty in the Grand Old Party. Con­gress­men and women know they serve at the plea­sure of the Gand­his and any­one who tries to defy them ends up like P.V. Narasimha Rao. Alva, who served un­der Rao, makes sym­pa­thetic noises about how the gun car­riage bear­ing his body was not al­lowed to en­ter the AICC head­quar­ters, but she is be­ing disin­gen­u­ous when she asks why. She takes it badly when she is let down by So­nia Gandhi, whom, she em­pha­sises through­out the book, she did much to help—in­clud­ing serv­ing as a con­duit be­tween her and Rao, a role she says earned her the grat­i­tude of nei­ther.

Ex­cerpts from her book that show­case her one-time close­ness and even­tual dis­en­chant­ment with the Congress pres­i­dent...

EX­CERPTS

“You are the link to our past’’ Be­fore I could come to terms with the as­sas­si­na­tion (of Ra­jiv Gandhi), there was a spate of at­tacks on me. My loy­alty was ques­tioned, the pro­gramme cov­er­ing the five con­stituen­cies in Tamil Nadu was crit­i­cised and the choice of venue in Sripe­rum­budur was con­demned. PCC pres­i­dent V.K. Ra­ma­murthy went to the press ask­ing that my role in the events be in­ves­ti­gated while BJP leader Subra­ma­nian Swamy claimed that the de­tails of Ra­jiv Gandhi’s visit had been leaked in ad­vance by me. I went to see So­nia, “I owe you and the chil­dren an ex­pla­na­tion,” I said and pro­duced Ra­jiv’s hand­writ­ten paper. She saw it and read it care­fully and re­turned it, say­ing: “This is def­i­nitely his!”

Un­til then, I had not been very close to So­nia. But in her grief I felt drawn to her as never be­fore. She ap­peared lonely and shat­tered, yet com­posed and dig­ni­fied in her new role as a wi­d­owed mother. One day I went to her and said: “I do not mean to im­pose. But now I wish to stand by you, you do not walk alone. if there’s any­thing I

UN­TIL RAJIVJI’S DEATH, I WAS NOT CLOSE TO SONIAJI. BUT IN HER GRIEF, I FELT DRAWN TO HER AS NEVER BE­FORE”

can do at any time to help, I will do it. Also, know there are many like me who wish to reach out. Af­ter all, you are the link to our past, a sym­bol of the mem­o­ries we cher­ish.” In the days that fol­lowed, I met her reg­u­larly to keep in touch. “What does the prime min­is­ter want to do? Send me to jail?” Soniaji and the prime min­is­ter had never re­ally ap­peared com­fort­able with each other. She seemed un­able to trust him, not least be­cause of his prox­im­ity to Chan­draswami, who was be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for his role in Rajivji’s as­sas­si­na­tion. The prime min­is­ter, on his part, had al­ways been un­nerved by her aloof­ness. But af­ter the Babri Masjid episode, the un­der­cur­rent of sus­pi­cion and cold­ness in­creased.

I used to meet Soniaji reg­u­larly, try­ing in my own way to bro­ker peace and also per­suade her to lead the party. Be­fore my ef­forts could yield re­sults, the de­ci­sion of the gov­ern­ment (the PMO, to be pre­cise) to ap­peal against the Delhi High Court de­ci­sion to quash com­plaints in the Bo­fors case was announced. Soniaji was dou­bly up­set with him. I clar­i­fied to her that while I was in charge of the CBI, I had nei­ther been asked nor told about this de­vel­op­ment and all in­struc­tions had gone di­rectly through A.N. Verma [prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary to Rao] when the prime min­is­ter was abroad.

At this, she snapped: “What does the prime min­is­ter want to do? Send me to jail?” I protested, “You mis­un­der­stand!” She shot back: “What has the Congress gov­ern­ment done for me? This house was al­lot­ted to me by the Chan­dra Shekhar gov­ern­ment. I am not seek­ing any favours for my­self and my chil­dren from him.” She was re­ally angry.

I con­veyed her re­sponse to the PM. He too snapped at me: “What does she want from me? I can­not close the Bo­fors case which is be­fore the courts, it will go on.”

Con­se­quently I found my­self play­ing an un­will­ing in­ter­ces­sor. While Soniaji re­mained angry, the prime min­is­ter would call me over now and then on Sun­day evenings to know the “mood” at 10, Jan­path. He seemed keen to avoid con­fronta­tion, but was un­able to break the ice. My sin­cere at­tempts to help made me a sus­pect in both “camps”. “You have let me down” I was es­pe­cially angry be­cause the al­lo­ca­tion of seats [for Kar­nataka as­sem­bly] had been ma­nip­u­lated. While sons

and daugh­ters of many lead­ers in Kar­nataka and other states had been ac­com­mo­dated, Nivedith [my son] had been de­lib­er­ately left out, in a bid to side­line me. We lost the elec­tions in Kar­nataka—a state we would have won had tick­ets been prop­erly dis­trib­uted. But I kept quiet.

Sud­denly, one evening, jour­nal­ists barged into my sit­ting room with a list of can­di­dates from other states. They pointed out that fam­ily members of sev­eral lead­ers had been in­cluded. I re­acted sharply, “Dif­fer­ent rules ex­ist for dif­fer­ent peo­ple!” On be­ing ques­tioned fur­ther, I said: “This is how we lost Kar­nataka. We have com­plaints that tick­ets were sold at the lo­cal level. As for sons and daugh­ters, [C.K.] Jaf­fer Sharief’s grand­son and my son are not smug­glers or ter­ror­ists—why were they kept out?”

On my re­turn to Delhi, A.K. Antony said the Congress pres­i­dent wanted to meet me. To­gether, we en­tered 10, Jan­path and I saw a grave Congress pres­i­dent seated at her ta­ble. I said: “I feel like a school­girl sum­moned by the prin­ci­pal. Are you still angry with me?’’

She smiled and asked us to sit down: “Why did you do this, Mar­garet? And that too when elec­tions are on.”

“I am sorry,” I replied. “It was a sud­den out­burst. But what I said is true. I have proof—let­ters that re­veal how much has been de­manded from can­di­dates.”

Soniaji in­ter­rupted: “I have al­ways stood by you, even de­fended you, Mar­garet. But this time, the pres­sure on me is far too much. Why did you do this? You have let me down.”

I softly said: “You brought me to the AICC. If you feel I have let you down, I will go. I need a day to fi­nalise by let­ter of res­ig­na­tion. In fact, I have a draft ready. I will place on record all the facts that you need to know.’’

“No no, please don’t do any­thing that will hurt the Leader,” Antony pleaded.

“You stay out of this, Mr Antony,” I said firmly. “This is be­tween Soniaji and me.”

Soniaji put her hand on mine and said: “Calm down. You will have to go for now, but I prom­ise I will bring you back.’’

One af­ter­noon, while sleep­ing, I got a call from Soniaji to say she had sent my name to the prime min­is­ter for the post of Gover­nor. Be­fore I could re­ply or refuse, the call ended. I got no ap­point­ment to meet her. The next call was from P. Chi­dambaram who said I was to be ap­pointed Gover­nor of Ut­tarak­hand. This was against my wishes, but since re­fus­ing would have caused em­bar­rass­ment to Soniaji, the gov­ern­ment and the Pres­i­dent, I re­luc­tantly ac­cepted it and moved.

It was a new be­gin­ning—one that I hadn’t bar­gained for—a Gover­nor at 67 years.

Once I had made the mis­take of say­ing: “The Al­vas are the only po­lit­i­cal fam­ily to have a mem­ber in Par­lia­ment with­out a break for al­most half a cen­tury.” This state­ment sealed our fate. It was seen as a challenge.

JAF­FER SHARIEF’S GRAND­SON AND MY SON ARE NOT SMUG­GLERS, I BURST OUT BE­FORE JOUR­NAL­ISTS”

GETTY IM­AGES

UPA PRES­I­DENT SO­NIA GANDHI WITH THEN AICC GEN­ERAL SEC­RE­TARY MAR­GARET ALVA AT AN ELEC­TION RALLY NEAR KOLKATA IN 2006

COURAGE & COM­MIT­MENT: An Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy By Mar­garet Alva Rupa Publi­ca­tions Price Rs 500 Pages 380

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