Opinion: Advisers Misled And Alarmed Rajiv Gandhi, Says Zail Singh's Aide

Insights on how advisers misled and alarmed Rajiv Gandhi during five years of his premiership are cited in an interview published in a commemorative book on the life of nonagenarian Tarlochan Singh, who was a confidant of President Gyani Zail Singh.

The former Rashtrapati Bhavan aide, who later became an Independent member of Rajya Sabha and also served as Chairman of National Commission on Minorities during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime, enjoyed a rapport with Rajiv Gandhi as he had worked with him during the 1982 Asian Games. At one point it seemed matters had reached a break point when Rajiv Gandhi called Tarlochan Singh late one night to inquire about reports that the President was about to 'dismiss' the PM. As it turned out, it was a wrong intelligence input, accentuated by rumours which the PM's advisers were inclined to rely on.

The differences between the President of India and the Prime Minister became evident soon after Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in after Indira Gandhi's assassination on October 31, 1984. Zail Singh had foregone the requirement of a formal request from the ruling party while inviting Rajiv Gandhi to be the Prime Minister.

(The President was abroad when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. On reaching Delhi, he invited Rajiv Gandhi for the swearing in. The Congress Parliamentary Board passed a post-facto resolution later that evening electing Rajiv Gandhi as the leader.)

Tarlochan Singh recalls that as Delhi and many other parts of India were engulfed in unprecedented anti-Sikh riots following the assassination, the Head of State was chagrined to find that after being sworn in as the head of the government, Rajiv Gandhi was not even taking phone calls from Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The condolence meeting for Indira Gandhi was presided over by Vice President R Venkataraman. This, too, added to Zail Singh's angst as he had administered the oath of office to Rajiv Gandhi by overruling his advisers, saying he was fulfilling Indira Gandhi's desire that her son should succeed her.

Elections were due in December 1984. The practice is that the Union Cabinet recommends the dissolution of Lok Sabha to pave the way for elections. The decision of the Cabinet is conveyed to the President by the Prime Minister, who formally calls on the Head of State. Rajiv Gandhi departed from this rule-only a formal letter was sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Meetings between the President and the PM became a rarity thereafter. The President's goodwill visits abroad were curtailed.

The acrimony worsened over the years and led to a section of Congress leaders and some leading lights of the media suggesting to Zail Singh towards the fag end of his tenure in 1986-87 that he may consider withdrawing the President's 'pleasure' under Article 75 and dismiss the Prime Minister.

Legal eagle Ashok Sen, who had served as law minister under Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, was part of this dissenters' group, which had been put together by Vidya Charan Shukla. Journalists S. Mulgaonkar, Kuldip Nayar and Arun Shourie also proffered advice to Zail Singh. And so did BJP leader Vijayaraje Scindia.

Tarlochan Singh says Zail Singh mandated him to create a 'smokescreen' that he was taking the advice of these people seriously in order to 'scare' Rajiv Gandhi and make him respect the protocol governing the President-PM relationship.

As news of these moves spread, BJP stalwarts Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani called on the President and advised him against creating a dangerous precedent with such adventurism.

Zail Singh, who in any case was not taking Rajiv Gandhi's detractors seriously, decided to sound out Vice President Venkataraman on these developments. The Shukla-Sen group had suggested the possibility of swearing in Venkataraman as PM. The news reached Rajiv Gandhi through intelligence inputs. He immediately announced Venkataraman as the candidate for President of India two months ahead of the end of Zail Singh's tenure. Usually, the successor's candidature is announced at the fag end of an incumbent's tenure.

At the height of this crisis, a letter drafted by S. Mulgaonkar for Zail Singh 'dismissing the Prime Minister' surfaced in a section of the media. Tarlochan Singh says he received a call from Rajiv Gandhi late one night. The Prime Minister wanted to know from his erstwhile Asian Games colleague if indeed such a move was afoot. Tarlochan Singh assured him that he had checked with confidential stenographer Kulwant Singh and no such letter had been typed. (Zail Singh's knowledge of the English language was limited. He had relied upon Kulwant Singh to put into officialese his thoughts since his days as Chief Minister of Punjab in the late 1970s.)

Apart from Mulgaonkar's draft, a draft corrected by an Indian Foreign Service officer who served as deputy secretary to the President apparently had been leaked and intelligence inputs alarmed the Prime Minister. The role of leading media personalities in muddying the waters emerges from Tarlochan Singh's recollections. The sobering effect of two BJP stalwarts at a time when a section of Congressmen were being abrasive to the extreme is noteworthy.

President Zail Singh is remembered for his stance on the Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill, 1986. The bill, passed by both houses of Parliament, empowered central and state governments to intercept, inspect and detain any items in the post perceived to be a threat to national security. The President sent the legislation back to the Cabinet for reconsideration. When the Council of Ministers again forwarded the legislation to Rashtrapati Bhavan, Zail Singh sat over the file. The legislation lapsed when he demitted office.

Tarlochan Singh says that before Zail Singh demitted office he persuaded Rajiv Gandhi to invite the outgoing President for dinner, where the differences were buried. Minister KK Tewari, who had spoken against the President in Parliament, was dropped soon afterwards. As a parting gesture, Rajiv Gandhi created a rule under which retiring Heads of State were provided residential accommodation and staff in the national capital-Zail Singh's predecessors had returned to their native homes after demitting office.

Tarlochan Singh's disclosures throw light on the tumultuous era when the controversial Shah Bano and Ram Janmabhoomi decisions were taken - decisions which left an imprint on the history of India.

During the height of the Zail Singh-Rajiv Gandhi acrimony, this writer once asked the then President why his relations with the person whom he had sworn in by skirting protocol had gone sour. Zail Singh replied in Urdu: "Jab khiza thi toh khoon humney diya; jab bahaar ayi toh poochhtey ho hamara kaam kya hai ?" (Rough translation: 'I nurtured the garden during drought; you question my locus when it attained bloom')

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired Editor and a public affairs commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author