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
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...
“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”
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