The Trials of Goodness

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s new book abounds in ‘villains’, but there is only one hero. It is also an exposure of the nature of contemporary Indian polity, with friendships and even family relations held hostage to political compulsions. A window into the premiership of Rajiv Gandhi ahead of his 33rd death anniversary.
Former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi and Mani Shankar Aiyar in discussion in Patiala in 1995
Former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi and Mani Shankar Aiyar in discussion in Patiala in 1995

In his Introduction to this memoir of his time with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Mani Shankar Aiyar describes what he considers the ‘central paradox’ of Gandhi’s term of office. “What made him a good man, compassionate, diligent, honest, upright, unruffled, bold, truthful — was what felled him,” says the author. Hence the title of the book, The Rajiv I Knew: And Why He Was India’s Most Misunderstood Prime Minister (Juggernaut).

Aiyar goes onto deftly summarise with the authenticity of an insider, Gandhi’s prodigious contribution to the evolution of India as a modern nation. The value of this work lies in placing his premiership in its historical perspective, and perhaps even more, in placing the man himself on the pedestal that he so richly deserved as harbinger of a modern India, which for reasons described in the book, has never been fully acknowledged in public discourse. This is a work closely centred on the personality of its principal character and thus does the memory of Gandhi a great service as a rational, reasoned human being, who, in taking the decisions, even those that might today, in hindsight, be considered flawed, was driven always by what he felt was best for the nation, overriding his own person and party.

An example would be the deep analysis to which Aiyar has put Rajiv Gandhi’s thinking on what remains known in recall as the Shah Bano amendment to the Muslim Personal Law of 1939. On the need for this law, Aiyar and I have contrary views, his based on the fact that the law was progressive as held by the courts, and mine based on the argument that I’d presented to the PM then, that the political authority had best avoid meddling in religious matters, fearing as I did, with prescience as it turned out, that it would be projected by the PM’s opponents as ‘appeasement’. Aiyar has reflected deeply on what made up the PM’s mind in moving the law, grounds which can be contested on their assumptions, but not on rationale.

 Aiyar with Rajiv Gandhi in Ladakh
Aiyar with Rajiv Gandhi in Ladakh

Political compulsions

The book is very much a testament to the affection and regard in which Gandhi was held by those that he worked with. But it is also an exposure of the deceitful nature of contemporary Indian polity, with friendships and even family relations held hostage to political compulsion. Aiyar’s is a tale that abounds in villains, but there is only one hero.

For myself therefore, although there is much reasoning with which I do not agree, this is an apposite, indeed, necessary companion volume to my own memoir of My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy (Westland), for although our accounts of different developments described therein, deal with different threads resulting in the conclusions arrived at, they give to the reader a wider perspective and hopefully a better understanding of what is now history, with a continued bearing on evolving events not only in India but across the world — most importantly the abjuration of the nuclear option in wars fought between nations into the present day. In this context lies Gandhi’s stellar contribution to nuclear disarmament.

I cannot but agree with Aiyar when he says: “He (Rajiv Gandhi) was intelligent, intellectually alive, tireless, and dedicated to improving the moral tone of our democracy. Essentially a good man, a trusting human

being, honest with a high sense of probity and integrity.” But then Aiyar proceeds forthwith to assert that he was “felled” (he repeats the dramatic word in the introduction and in the conclusion) by “allegations of financial corruption”, I cannot agree.

The misrepresentation of the Bofors purchase, the biggest weapons contract entered into by the government until that time, which Aiyar has authoritatively dissected in some detail, although it sullied Gandhi’s reputation, did not fell him, and as Aiyar has pointed out, a host of judicial proceedings on the issue initiated by his opponents came to a universal nought with, finally, a total exoneration by the courts, years thereafter for him and his family. Besides the gun is to this day the star weapon in India’s armoury.

Bofors to Babri and IPKF

Gandhi lost the 1989 election not because of Bofors but from the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue brought to a head with the shilanyas with which Gandhi initiated his1989 election campaign. And he lost his life because he trusted too much in his urge to do what was right by the people of Sri Lanka, as also acknowledged by Aiyar in his very extensive discussion on the IPKF deployment, although this was an issue with which he was not associated by the PM, leading Aiyar to exclaim, “The Gandhi family never explain why they say yes, or why they say no.” I personally might find this witticism true of the self-effacing Sonia Gandhi, with whom also I have had the pleasure to work, but not of Rajiv.

Workings of the PMO

Aiyar finds that civil servants in the PMO, in which he served, were placed in “water tight compartments”, which has led him to base his work on stray conversations with Gandhi, records of meetings taken by the PM in which he was in attendance or, in one distinct case of a meeting held in Srinagar in imploding Kashmir in 1990, when Gandhi was LOP. So, The Rajiv I Knew in demonstrating accurately Rajiv Gandhi’s own thinking on various issues addressed by him, fills a void in the general assessment of the dynamics leading to policy determination, but lacks, other than Aiyar’s own understanding of the issue, in providing an explanation of the requirements and need for the government to proceed as it did.

Curiously, I never found the PMO to have been so divided. That is why, although all the elements of government policy under PM Rajiv Gandhi are covered by Aiyar, I consider that it sits so well with my own account of the period for an exhaustive grasp on the momentous nature of what were in fact revolutionary steps in governance reform, and why they fell short in Gandhi’s own eyes, in becoming as pervasive as he intended.

Bolstering democracy

A good example is Panchayati Raj, on which Aiyar was instrumental in bringing the Amendments to the Constitution in 1992, under which institutions “of self-government constituted under Article 243B” became a constitutional provision. Aiyar refers to Gandhi’s ‘metronomic invocation’ of the “proposals for making our district administration more representative, more responsible and therefore more responsive (p 219) (emphasis mine). He goes on to say elsewhere that Gandhi’s “focus was on setting up the third tier of government”(emphasis mine).

Based on my having worked with Gandhi as he came around to identifying Panchayati Raj as his basic tool in making democracy real for every Indian, the objective was not to supplement the district administration with inputs from the citizenry, but to supplant it with popular government. There has, as Aiyar points out, been much greater public participation in governance initiated by the 73rd and 74th Amendments, but there is still much to do in bringing Rajiv Gandhi’s dream for India to its intended co summation.

Wajahat Habibullah, a 1968 batch IAS officer who served in both Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s PMOs, has served as First Chief Information Commissioner of India and Chairman, National Commission for Minorities

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