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March 1, 1999


E-Mail this story to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Maneka's motives, BJP's 'mission'!

Of all the mysteries surrounding contemporary Indian politics, none is as intriguing or enduring as the continuing success of that accomplished party-hopper and whining cast-off of the dynasty: Maneka Gandhi.

If a media statement is to be believed, the other Mrs Gandhi was on our television screens on February 21 on the state-owned Doordarshan network. No, she was not doing her billi-kutta number on her own Doordarshan series, Maneka's Ark -- could this be the first time that a minister of the government stars in her own television show on a government channel? -- but will instead, be giving an interview. So significant is this interview that Doordarshan, loyal to its political masters in every respect, telecast it over two Sundays. The first part appeared on February 21 and seven days later, you can reach for your remote controls to see the former towel-model-turned-television star in action once again.

Will Maneka present the lushly pancaked and luridly lipsticked persona (complete with wardrobe by Robit Bal and Gitanjali Kashyap) that fills the screen on Maneka's Ark? We will have to see the programme to find out. But we do know -- thanks to the media statement -- some of what she had said.

Apparently, she talked about how wicked Rajiv and Sonia were during the Seventies. In a sense, this is only fair. After all, Maneka is part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition at the Centre and it was during the Seventies that Indira Gandhi put most of Maneka's current colleagues in jail: Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Kishenchand Advani, George Fernandes, Murli Manohar Joshi and even her cuddily little pal, Ramakrishna Hegde. What could be more wicked than that? And isn't it about time that a member of the dynasty -- even one is exile -- came out and condemned this disgraceful rape of India's democratic freedoms?

Well, not quite.

On close inspection, the media statement reveals that what Maneka is objecting to is not the Emergency and the locking up of the Opposition. Her problem is not with Indira Gandhi, the woman who suspended India's democratic rights so that she could promote her thuglike, sterilisation crazy, semi-articulate younger son, Sanjay.

Maneka's problem is that Rajiv and Sonia were not nice enough to Indira Gandhi, that poor older dear! Why, they even refused to have their meals on the same table as gentle, thoughtful and cultivated Sanjay!

And Mrs Gandhi, that nice old darling, was so-o-o hurt. ''My mother-in-law was really very upset. That, perhaps, hit her harder than losing the election because she was a very family person.''

And why did the evil Rajiv and Sonia behave so badly with the kindly Mrs Gandhi? Well, says Maneka, it was because the Congress had lost the 1977 election and they treated the defeat ''as taking away privileges to which they were entitled.''

And what privileges they were! After all, wasn't it Rajiv Gandhi, a former juvenile delinquent with a rumoured (but not substantiated) involvement in car thefts, who had suddenly been hailed as the hope of the nation? Wasn't it Rajiv who dismissed Inder Kumar Gujral as information and broadcasting minister because Doordarshan wasn't twisting the news enough? Wasn't it Rajiv who sat back as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh put his shoes on for him?

Wasn't it Rajiv who brusquely dismissed Cabinet ministers as they cowered before him? And wasn't it Sonia who suddenly went from being Miss LSR to becoming India's youngest editor as a magazine was specially started for her?

Well actually no, it wasn't Rajiv and Sonia.

It was Sanjay and Maneka.

So much for ''taking away of privileges to which they were entitled''. It wasn't Rajiv who suddenly went from being The Illustrated Weekly 's 'Man of the Year' to becoming public enemy number one. It was Sanjay. And it wasn't Sonia who went from being the much-feted bright young editor to running the sort of publication that printed semi-pornographic pictures of Jagjivan Ram's son and his future wife. It was Maneka.

By now we've all heard Maneka's version of the 1977-80 phase on the grapevine. In this version, Rajiv and Sonia were disloyal to Indira, considered running away to Italy and blamed 'mummy' for losing the election. Maneka, on the other hand, was the little tigress who fought for Indira Gandhi, stuck close by her mother-in-law and contributed to the dynasty's comeback.

The problem with this version is it leaves too many unanswered questions. If Rajiv was such a disloyal louse, then why did Mrs Gandhi insist on drafting him as her successor? If Sonia was such a dreadful person, then why did she remain her mother-in-law's favourite up to the last tragic moment when she took her dying body to hospital, cradling her head in her lap?

And if Maneka was really so wonderful and such a help to Indira, then why was Mrs Gandhi always so down on her? Why did she claim that Maneka had been planted in this house? Why, according to many published accounts, did she regard Maneka's mother as a thrusting, unsuitable type? And why did the two women fall out so spectacularly, with Maneka doing everything possible to embarrass Indira Gandhi, the same kindly, sensitive old dear she refers to in this interview?

I suspect that we will never know the answers to these questions. Family relationships are always complex and hard to comprehend, particularly when the family is the Gandhis. Nor, I suggest, are the answers terribly important in the context of history. Who really cares whether Rajiv and Sonia came down for dinner at 2000 hours after Maneka and Sanjay had finished eating at 1930 hours? Perhaps Maneka is telling the truth. Perhaps she is not. Either way: so what?

The important questions are not the ones about dinner timings. The crucial questions are about politics.

A few months ago, there was a huge controversy when Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Congress spokesman, refused to condemn the Emergency (or tried to justify it, depending on your perspective). That uproar demonstrated how we have still to come to terms with that sorry chapter in our history. Maneka Gandhi's late husband was, if not the architect, then certainly the unsung star, of the Emergency. Yet, she has sat in three Cabinets comprising people who either opposed the Emergency or went to jail during that period. Now, she shares a bench with the Bharatiya Janata Party which both her apparently sainted mother-in-law and her husband opposed in the strongest possible terms during their lifetimes. Let us not forget that it was Sanjay who justified the Emergency era ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

If Maneka wishes to be taken seriously, if one wishes her politics to rise above the level of television shows and gossipy tittle-tattle, then she needs to answer some basic questions.

Does she think that the Emergency was a blot on India's democratic record?

Doesn't she think that the manner in which the Opposition was locked up and the press censored was a disgrace?

Does she accept that there was something deeply offensive about the manner in which Sanjay Gandhi was suddenly projected as a youth leader and became de facto deputy prime minister of India?

Does she disown Sanjay's disdain for the RSS and for the Hindu ideology represented today by the BJP?

If the answer to any of these question is no, then she has no business being part of this government.

But as you know and I know, she will never answer these questions because she has spent the last 18 years trying to have it both ways. The only reasons she has become a minister is because she married a Gandhi. And yet, the only way she can justify her increasingly marginal political existence is by abusing the Gandhis. Hence, the tightrope walk -- don't attack the Emergency, that could be complicated; attack Sonia instead, she is a soft target.

There are many legitimate reasons for opposing the Gandhis. You could reasonably argue that Indira Gandhi subverted our democratic institutions or even that a dynasty has no place in a democracy. But these are not Maneka's reasons. In fact, not only is she a creation of the dynasty, but she wouldn't mind seeing her son take his place at the head of the next generation. As she says in her interview (to quote from the media statement): ''If he wants to go into politics, it would not be to take something. It would be to give, just as was the tradition of the great Gandhi family.''

So there it is in cold print. The great Gandhi family. Nice touch, that, a minister in the BJP government hoping that her son takes over the Congress dynasty.

We know what Maneka's motives are. Her only problem with Rajiv was that he got what she so desperately wanted. And her problem with Sonia is that she has revived the Congress while Maneka has gone from party to party desperately searching for a role for herself.

But what are Atal Bihari Vajpayee's motives? How can he justify keeping this woman in his Cabinet? Or is it part of the BJP's mission to help nurture the next generation of the Gandhi dynasty?

I know Vajpayee has problems with Nagpur but, surely, this is going too far!

Vir Sanghvi

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