This Article is From Aug 02, 2023

Opinion: Rajiv Gandhi's Reach-Out To RSS Had Indira Gandhi's Approval

Two narratives of present day Congress strategy against Narendra Modi appear to contradict the Grand Old Party's past stance, as revealed by a forthcoming book, "How Prime Ministers Decide", by veteran scribe Neerja Chowdhury. In a well-researched narrative, she recounts connections between Rajiv Gandhi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leadership. She also gives an account of Indira Gandhi's cordial relationship with India's business community. This is in sharp contrast to the Rahul Gandhi-era Congress's malignancy towards the RSS. The criticism that the present government is influenced by a few "favoured businesspersons" is also called into question by the book's recapitulation of events in the life of Indira Gandhi, which were influenced by a business house. The type of influence that businesses wielded in the Indira and Rajiv eras are perhaps not in vogue today.

The book says that Rajiv Gandhi's meetings with then RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras' brother, Murlidhar Dattatreya Deoras, popularly known as Bhaurao Deoras, had the approval of Indira Gandhi. The meetings were held at the residences of intermediaries, promoters of Mohan Meakins, and India's leading liquor manufacturers of the time. Owner Kapil Mohan's home at 46 Pusa Road in West Delhi and his nephew Anil Bali's Friends Colony home were venues of the Rajiv-Bhaurao rendezvous. Bhaurao met Rajiv at 10 Janpath after he demitted power as Prime Minister.

(Relations between the Congress and RSS have usually been acrimonious. Most RSS leaders were jailed during the Emergency. Balasaheb Deoras was released after a short spell in prison. Mahatma Gandhi's disciple Acharya Vinoba Bhave, who had described the Emergency as 'Anusashan Parv', had spoken to Indira Gandhi prior to Deoras' release. Vinoba Bhave had played a background role in softening Indira Gandhi's attitude towards RSS.)

Overruling the reservations proffered by his Information Minister HKL Bhagat, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi accepted Bhaurao's suggestion that a serial on Ramayan be aired on Doordarshan. This popular serial produced by Ramanand Sagar set the tone for the escalation of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which ultimately catapulted the BJP from two Lok Sabha seats in 1984 to the status of India's party of governance.

The Mohan Meakins owners also influenced some of Indira Gandhi's religious decisions. Neerja recounts how Indira Gandhi decided to visit the Shakti temple of Chamunda Devi in Himachal Pradesh's Kangra region prior to launching Rajiv Gandhi in politics. The Mohan family had cordial ties with the Nehrus;  Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Mohan were friends; Indira Gandhi considered VR Mohan as a "Rakhi brother" (at one stage a matrimonial alliance between the two families had been considered) and she made him a Rajya Sabha MP. He was one of the original Directors of Sanjay Gandhi's Maruti venture. After his death in 1973, his brother Kapil Mohan inherited the proximity.

Kapil Mohan and his nephew Anil Bali were not responsible for the Rajiv-Bhaurao meetings alone. The government of Morarji Desai fell in 1979 as a result of powwows organised by the Mohans between Sanjay Gandhi and Raj Narain, which charted the way for the formation of the short-lived Charan Singh regime (which the Indira Congress supported from outside) and the subsequent return of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister. Raj Narain, whose election petition sent Indira Gandhi out of power, was used as a fulcrum to oust her rivals and chart her return to power.

Neerja recalls that the Mohan family planned a visit by Indira Gandhi, accompanied by Sanjay Gandhi, to the Chamunda Devi temple on June 22, 1980, and it was called off by the Prime Minister's aides at the last moment. Sanjay died in a plane crash on June 23. During his chautha ceremony, Indira Gandhi called aside Anil Bali and commented that perhaps ill fortune had befallen as she had cancelled her visit. She decided to go there in a few months and offer penance.

She planned a visit on December 13 that year - it was a day prior to Sanjay's birth anniversary on the 14th. Mohan Meakins had made all arrangements - the chief ministers of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, Ram Lal Thakur and Darbara Singh, were present. So was Union Home Minister Gyani Zail Singh, who, two years later, was to become President of India (and swear in Rajiv Gandhi after Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984). Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone of a ghat on the Baner River next to the temple, built on the lines of Haridwar's Har ki Pauri. The Himachal Pradesh Public Works Department (PWD) constructed the ghat, supervised by Minister Sukh Ram.

After returning from the Chamunda Devi temple, Indira Gandhi went to a function to launch National Herald's Urdu venture, Qaumi Awaz, where she asked Rajiv to join her on the dais. This was reluctant Rajiv's second public appearance. On December 6, he had attended the All India Congress Committee session in Delhi's Talkatora Stadium but he was seated in the front row as part of the audience. On December 14, the Indian Youth Congress organised a memorial meeting at Karol Bagh's Ajmal Khan Park. Here Rajiv was formally introduced from the dais in the presence of Indira Gandhi—her heir apparent was thus anointed.

Rajiv Gandhi too visited the Chamunda temple with Anil Bali in March 1990, when he was Leader of Opposition. On learning about the Indira and Rajiv visits, Pranab Mukherjee too prayed at the temple during his visit to Kangra in 1995 as Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission.

The proximity between businesses and the powers that be has long been in vogue in India. Mahatma Gandhi was close to Ghanshyam Das Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj. The term Tata-Birla emerged in the Jawaharlal Nehru era. In the initial days of Indira Gandhi's tenure, as her relationship with Indian Express owner Ramnath Goenka (who had been the employer of her husband Feroze Gandhi) soured, so did her rapport with a large section of the Marwari business community, who were perceived to be siding with Goenka.

Indira Gandhi told her close associates that she would square up with those who had gone against her by facilitating the growth of parallel businesses. On 14 January 1980, the evening of the new regime's swearing in, Delhi's Taj Mansingh was the venue of a dinner hosted by Dhirubhai Ambani, at that time a relatively unknown Gujarati trader-businessman. The entire Union cabinet was present. A new era, of the dominance of Gujaratis in the traditionally Marwari-Parsi controlled landscape of Indian business, had dawned. The old adage of "Tata-Birla" to describe dominant businesses was on the wane. The backdrop to the "Ambani-Adani" narrative of today was set in the Indira-Rajiv era.

No regime can ensure economic growth by treating businesses as pariah - the acerbic comments of present day Congress leaders are at variance with the paradigm of past Congress rulers.

Sonia Gandhi's biographer Rasheed Kidwai has recounted how Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi and his spouse Maria were permanent guests in the informal Sunday brunches hosted by Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi on the lawns of the Prime Minister's House. Quattrocchi, who first figured in parliament discourse when the Thal Vaishet deal of Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers was discussed in the post Sanjay Gandhi days of 1980, figured prominently in l'affaire Bofors. He left the Indian shores in 1993. Attempts by the CBI to bring him before Indian courts came to naught.

Neerja Chowdhury's book revisits numerous incidents of the pre-Modi era, shedding light on aspects of the past that offer a perspective on the present times.