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The misunderstood Nehru

Last updated on: July 26, 2013 02:31 IST

Arun Nehru’s image of a political strategist, dealmaker and trouble shooter never allowed him to become a political leader of people, says Sheela Bhatt

Arun Nehru, late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin and former internal security minister, passed away on Thursday night, talking along with him many secrets of the Gandhi family and Indian politics.

Once a close confidante of Rajiv, Arun was mighty powerful during the latter’s tenure as prime minister from 1985 to 1989.

Many Congressmen believe that he knew the secrets of the Bofors scandal and was privy to lot more.

As internal security minister Arun was feared by many. He was much more confident of handling power than Rajiv ever was.

He had a dry sense of humour. He could paraphrase his thoughts, use jargons and mesmerize one to believe that what he was saying was the final truth.

Nehru had friends in all parties and all sections of the society.

Arun’s friend and former Railway minister Dinesh Trivedi said, “I have lost a friend. He was a very sharp mind.”

Many of his friends lately claimed that he was a much misunderstood man.

In fact, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her family had made up with Arun some time ago.

Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka even went to see him few days back, as he was recovering from a complicated ailment.

The Gandhis and many Congressmen must be feeling nostalgic even though his relationship with them had been a roller coaster of sorts.

In public perception, Arun is infamous for advising Rajiv to open the locks of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. But his admirers still believe that the person to blame should really be then Congress chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Veer Bahadur Singh. 

On February 1, 1986, the district judge of Faizabad ordered the locks be opened.

"At this time, Singh forced the Congress to open the lock to counter Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s rath yatra that was attracting thousands all over UP," claimed one of Arun’s close friends.

However, Arun could not convince them all.

The Congress has been stuck with the taint of playing "soft-Hindutva card" since the Rajiv-Arun-Vir Bhadra Singh days.

Arun began a successful career in the corporate world when he was 20 years old. Seventeen years later, he gave it up when Indira Gandhi asked him to join politics.

Arun was then the president of the Jenson and Nicholson group of companies.

Arun was a maverick, who won the Lok Sabha election thrice owing to his surname. But his image of a political strategist, dealmaker and trouble shooter never allowed him to become a political leader of people.

His politics astounded New Delhi in the tumultuous time after Indira Gandhi.

In Rajiv's team, he was the internal security minister but wielded more power than anybody else in the cabinet.

After a fall-out with Rajiv in the post-Bofors years, Arun joined V P Singh’s Jan Morcha.

Later, in 1999, he fought on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket from the Rae Bareli Lok Sabha constituency of Uttar Pradesh. 

During the 1999 campaign, Priyanka told people: “The BJP candidate here is someone who betrayed Indiraji's family and plunged a dagger in my father's back. How did you let that traitor even enter this place? (External Link)

Priyanka's emotional words were more than enough for Arun to lose the election in Nehru-Gandhi pocket-borough.  

Later, in an interview to rediff.com, Arun defended his decision to join the BJP, something that was unthinkable in those days for any Nehru clan member.

He termed as 'rumours' reports that he had opened Sonia’s letters while he was in charge of internal security.  

Nehru told rediff.com, “In 1987, when we formed the Jan Morcha and then the Janata Dal, we fought against and defeated the Congress and when we did that our partners were the BJP. So far as I am concerned there is no contradiction in that the Janata Dal is now a part of the BJP alliance. My option was whether I should fight on a Samata Party ticket or a Janata Dal ticket. No matter from where you fight you have to fight with the BJP's assistance. So it is much better to be a member of the BJP. I have known Atalji for decades and we have worked together in the past. There is no reason one should have… why have hypocrisy? Taking their help in the past and you are going to take their help in the future, then fight on the party ticket.”'

Arun was shaken from his position, slowly but irretrievably, after the Bofors scandal broke out.

Then, Rajiv held over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha.

Mani Shanker Aiyar, Rajiv’s close friend, wrote about Arun’s role in the Bofors deal and defended his friend saying, ‘The next elections were more than three year away. If he (Rajiv) were the beneficiary of the AE Service payment, there was no compulsion for him to terminate the account when it was terminated. What happened in August-September 1986 that might explain the termination of the Bofors-AE Services contract?’

‘Arun Nehru, minister of state for power, was dropped from the council of ministers at about the time the AE Services contract was concluded. As a relative of the prime minister, as the member of the family hand-picked in 1980 to contest the Rae Bareli seat that Indira Gandhi had vacated when she was elected also from Medak, Andhra Pradesh, and as a recognised leader of great influence in party and government circles, the failing out between Arun Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi was widely commented on in political circles and the media after Rajiv Gandhi failed to proceed to Srinagar in April 1986 where Arun Nehru was recovering from a severe heart attack. Bofors and AE knew as well as anyone else that Arun Nehru had ceased to be a person in good standing in the higher echelons of the ruling party. It was in this political context the AE Services contract was abruptly terminated."

Mani further wrote, “There are two main reasons for which the termination of the AE contract and the termination of Arun Nehru's ministership appear to be connected: Documents published by the Indian Express reveal that although Arun Nehru, as MoS power, was in no way entrusted with the defence negotiations relating to the 155 mm howitzer, he sent for the Swedish charge d' affairs (acting ambassador) while Rajiv Gandhi was abroad. The Swedish diplomat was so impressed that he sent a long and detailed report to his headquarters -- which was subsequently discovered and published. The diary notations of Martin Ardbo, president of Bofors, refer to one 'N'. It is the same diary that also refers to 'R' and 'Q'. Who is 'N' and why is he at all involved with Ardbo, Bob Wilson of AE Service and Quattrocchi? This is the most important angle calling for further investigation." 

Mani further wrote in a note that he had prepared for ‘use of the Congress Parliamentary Party on Bofors and the Quattrocchi Connection': “What needs to be investigated is whether 'N' and Arun Nehru are one and the same person. If so, was it 'N', using his apparent political clout and inside knowledge, who set up the AE scam after learning of the Rajiv-Palme agreement? Was that the reason why, on learning of Arun Nehru's fall from political grace, Bofors had no more use for him and terminated the contract? Is that why Ardbo says in his diary: 'N, one does not care about.' Why does one 'not care about' N?”

While talking to rediff.com in his election campaign, Arun denied the charge that it was he who made Bofors an issue.

''With the formation of the Jan Morcha we had begun opposing Rajiv and details of Amitabh Bachchan's and Ajitabh Bachhan's flats had come out. Rajiv and those in the Congress went around saying that it was the handiwork of Arun Nehru and V P Singh. But it was later revealed that someone else had revealed the Bachchan documents. However, since it was a political fight, we exploited all weak points that we found," he said.

In his later years, Nehru wrote a column predicting political trends, met friends and lived active family life. 

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi