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July 10, 1999


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The Rediff Special/ Janardan Thakur

The Return of Arun Singh

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It is not unusual for politicians to fade away or to bounce back from oblivion, but it is seldom that the return of a forgotten politician is welcome as widely and open-heartedly as that of Arun Singh. Had it been the comeback of the other Arun of the Rajiv days, the reactions would have certainly been different. The two Aruns -- Singh and Nehru -- were as different as chalk from cheese. Both had entered politics laterally, both had been Box-wallahs, both had been brough in to assist the Gandhi family.

But there the similarities ended. Arun Nehru had been Sanjay Gandhi's choice, and one can see why. Arun was brash and loud-mouthed and he knew how to throw his weight around, both literally and metaphorically. He had been inducted into politics soon after the 1980 election that had brought Indira Gandhi and Sanjay back to power. Mrs Gandhi had fought from two constituencies, Medak in Andhra and Rae Bareli in UP. She had won both and decided to retain her Medak seat. They were looking around for a trusted man for Rae Bareli, which they considered a family pocket borough.

The story is told of how Sanjay Gandhi was at the breakfast table one morning when the safari-suited cousin Arun Nehru shuffled into the room, and the idea stuck Sanjay like a lightning: Why not him? 'Arre Mote, MP banega? (Hey Fatso, want to become an MP?)' Sanjay is said to have asked, and so entered the future 'Big Boss' of the Rajiv days. Nehru never quite fitted with the Rajiv set, but he was planted there by Indira Gandhi more to 'protect and guard' her soft and reluctant heir.

Arun Singh, on the other hand, was entirely Rajiv Gandhi's choice. 'We were the Beatles Generation,' Rajiv had once said of his own group of friends. It was Arun Singh who had given this label to the bunch -- a happy and boisterous lot who loved their cars, their music, their women, and who loved the merry swing of their lives, dreamy, a little careless and a little innocent about the hard stuff of life. They seemed to make up a new Camelot, as it were, bleary with vision of hope and glory. It was not politics or power that brought Amitabh Bachchan or Mani Shankar Aiyar or Arun Singh to the national centrestage, but Rajiv Gandhi.

The two Aruns were often bracketed as being the two who were closest to Rajiv Gandhi, but Arun Nehru never belonged to the Rajiv set as Arun Singh did. Born in the princely family of Kapurthala, Arun Singh had been at Doon School and later in Cambridge with Rajiv Gandhi. After doing his MA in 1971, Arun Singh had joined Metal Box and later Reckitt and Coleman. Arun and Rajiv were great friends and so were their wives, Nina and Sonia. When Rajiv moved into 5 to 7 Race Course Road as prime minister, he made the Singhs live in the adjoining bungalow, with just a wicket gate separating them.

But then came Bofors and all the sound and fury. Arun Singh, then minister of state for defence, was in the eye of the storm. Initially, he defended the government but then one day, for reasons that were never completely known, he quit the government and faded into the misty hills of Almora.

In the Rajya Sabha, Arun Singh had taken the position that if Bofors had breached faith, the government must take action; cancel the contract, deduct the Rs 64 crore given as kickbacks and blacklist the company. Singh tried to resign thrice, but each time Rajiv had persuaded him to stay on. And then one fine morning, the two friends met and talked for an hour and then Singh put in his papers. What they talked neither side revealed; Arun Singh preferred to go into oblivion rather than make a capital out of his uprightness.

A few months after he resigned, I had followed him to his mountain hideout a Binsar in Almora. I was only too conscious that I was intruding into his private world. Arun Singh had discouraged visitors, especially politicians and journalists. All the same, I had broken into his retreat, but instead of being brusque or dismissive he was friendly and open -- except on matters relating to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He had wrenched himself away to an altogether different world, far removed from Delhi not just in distance but even more so in time.

One of the first things he had said was how little the authority of Delhi meant to places such as where he was living. The real heroes for the people there were still Jim Corbett and Commissioner Ramsay who had gone up and down the hills dispensing justice. Their legends were still alive. The bureaucrats of the day, Arun Singh thought, could still take a leaf out of Ramsay's book. He was a man who had gone to the people instead of expecting them to come to him.

We had walked to the edge of the promontory on which his old British-day bungalow sat. People in Delhi, I told him, thought he lived in a mud hut up in the hills. He laughed. 'Not really. It's all brick and stones, yaar. It's a small bungalow, with basically one big room to it.' In front were a small semi-oval ground, a gorgeous lookout, and then the sheer fall. Nanda Devi, Badrinath, Trishul and somewhere on the far right the mountains of Nepal, partly lost in a lake of snow-white clouds.

Without having told each other in as many words, there seemed to be tacit understanding between us that we would not discuss politics. 'I have had enough of that,' he had said. 'Four years is long enough, perhaps one could go on for another five years but no more... I was never a politician...' And yet politics had kept impinging on our conversation all the time, if only obliquely.

He had no regrets about his four years in politics, it had been a 'rich experience'. But to return to it was farthest from his mind. 'I am unwinding myself,' he had said, with a long pull at his cigarette. One could see it had been a sudden wrench for him, perhaps even a traumatic one, for one doesn't suddenly leave the goodies of the world, even if one had belonged to the 'beat generation' and go into self-imposed hibernation.

Some of what he said gave an insight into the working of his mind. Punjab used to be on everybody's mind in those days, and he was convinced it was an 'identity problem' which could not be solved except at the emotional level. He had referred to Subhas Ghisingh and Hrangkhwal. They were insurgents, but then the government decided 'it will talk turkey and they talked turkey and the problems are sorted out.' If there could be talks with Ghisingh, why not with someone like Simranjit Singh Mann? I had asked. 'Yes, why not?' he asked.

One fear that sat heavy on his mind at that point was of the country's balkanisation. He was averse to excessive centralisation -- 'something that perhaps Sanjay Gandhi would have done if he hadn't died so soon.' He talked of Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika -- which he thought sprang from Gorbachev's realisation that unless something was done fast the system would crack and fall apart.

We were not talking politics, and yet now and then I had dropped in a few questions. What did he think of Vishwanath Pratap Singh? 'Ah, he is a nice man,' Arun Singh had said. 'I have worked under him.' And then he said something very germane about the Raja of Manda: 'He can be a good follower. But a leader? No, I can't see him giving a lead to the country' This was more than a year before V P Singh became prime minister, only to end up as a 'national disaster.'

For a short while Arun Singh had returned to Delhi during V P Singh's regime, but obviously things did not work out and Arun went back.

We had talked about the other Arun too. What did he think of him? Arun Nehru? 'O, he is a darling. I like him.' And then he had broken into a big smile. But what makes more sense in the context of his return to Delhi as an aide of Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was the little conversation we had on India's relations with her neighbours. There had been some talk in those days about the possibility of an 'adventure' in Siachen and taking back 'Azad Kashmir.' He had replied with great conviction: 'That would be a big blunder. We could end up burning our fingers... I think it would be best if the two countries adhered to the Simla Agreement.'

This is the last article Janardan Thakur wrote before his death on Monday, July 12.

The Kargil Crisis

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