THIS BOOK UNDER review, The Rajiv I Knew: And Why He Was India’s Most Misunderstood Prime Minister (Juggernaut; 336 pages; ₹799), is a sequel, or as author Mani Shankar Aiyar says, “a companion volume” to his Memoirs of a Maverick: The First Fifty Years (1941-1991) (Juggernaut; 400 pages; ₹899) in which Aiyar spoke about the first five decades of his life until 1991, covering his childhood, youth, life as a career diplomat, stint in the PMO under Rajiv Gandhi, entry into politics in the late 1980s and so on. You find the quintessential Aiyar in there, regaling us with anecdote after anecdote and riveting prose. Even in private conversations, he is charming and scholarly. You often leave feeling intellectually refreshed, better informed, and glad to have met him.
Reading Aiyar is a rewarding experience, even when you know that his stance about certain people or subjects is predictable, you don’t want to put the book down. An apocryphal story goes that when Aiyar was asked to write a column in 1,000 words, he quipped, “It takes me 1,000 words just to clear my throat”. Perhaps he is only too aware of his capability to hold the reader’s attention, irrespective of the word count of an article or the size of a book.
Memoirs of a Maverick explains the trajectory of Aiyar’s growth and gives a fair idea of where he comes from and why he is what he is: a secular fundamentalist. He admits that his best stint was as consul general in Karachi where he was a celebrity, and still has life-long friends.
In the introduction to The Rajiv I Knew, which he dedicates to his three daughters, Aiyar explains how this sequel came about, and how it became a separate book. “I believe that what makes my life a possible matter of public interest is my six-year association with Rajiv Gandhi. To remove these reflections on what made him India’s most misunderstood prime minister would, I felt, mean a disservice to the central catalytic relationship in my public life. I also felt that I should stand up for him and be counted rather than pretend all was hunky-dory during those turbulent times.”
Aiyar puts the spotlight in this book on many issues that Rajiv Gandhi had to face in his only term as Prime Minister, as head of a government that had the biggest majority to date in the Lok Sabha, 411 seats out of 542, before he was voted out in the next election. They include problems in Assam, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, the Bofors scandal, the Shah Bano case, the unlocking of the gates of the Babri Masjid, myriad rebellions within, a resounding electoral loss and so on.
Interestingly, Aiyar refuses to find much fault in Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to yield to the Muslim clergy in 1986 when he pivoted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, which nullified the Supreme Court’s progressive judgment in the Shah Bano case a year earlier. Aiyar writes, “RG’s (Rajiv Gandhi’s) handling of the Shah Bano controversy typified his style of working, that of carefully listening to all points of view and only then rising to his responsibility as PM to make a final decision. It is a decision that was endorsed by the Supreme Court’s judgement in 2001. That ought to have been the end of the matter.” Aiyar avers that Rajiv was fully convinced he would gain no electoral advantage from doing what he did. Then why did he do it? Rajiv told him, Aiyar recalls, that it was done to “preserve the secular ethos of the nation”. Well, it is for the readers to decide how convincing that sounds!
Following that, Rajiv Gandhi made a desperate move to appease the Hindus by green-lighting the opening of the gates of the Babri Masjid for Hindu prayers. It had remained locked since 1949 on the orders of his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru.
Aiyar comes to his Prime Minister friend’s rescue: “Since it was in power, the Congress was responsible for the unlocking of the gates. But who in the Congress? The Congress chief minister of UP (Veer Bahadur Singh) or the Congress president and prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi? Stray remarks to me by the PM indicated that he had nothing to do with this tragic farce and was deeply disturbed.” Finally, the suspicions of all misdeeds fall on the likes of Arun Nehru, ML Fotedar, and others.
Mani Shankar Aiyar’s book is gripping thanks to how and when he uses anecdotes to substantiate his arguments over a range of issues that Rajiv Gandhi had to handle
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The problem here is not about Aiyar’s secular beliefs but about his obstinacy in projecting Rajiv Gandhi as someone who shared those values. Let’s bring into context politician Arun Nehru’s statement in this regard in 1989—and his pointing of fingers at Rajiv Gandhi who never responded to those accusations. Nehru said in an interview published in the Statesman in August 1989, “In early 1986, the Muslim Women’s Bill was passed to play the Muslim card; and then came the decision on Ayodhya to play the Hindu card. It was supposed to be a package deal. I knew it was a dangerous thing to do and I did not agree.” He went on, “When I asked Mr Rajiv Gandhi who is showing the worship in the disputed shrine at Ayodhya on Doordarshan two days after it was unlocked, he did not reply; he merely smiled and observed it was tit for tat the Muslim Women’s Bill.”
Aiyar’s book is gripping thanks to how and when he uses anecdotes to substantiate his arguments over a range of issues that Rajiv Gandhi had to handle and the information and meetings to which Aiyar had access. Glimpses into how the author played a crucial role in drafting speeches for Gandhi, which the prime minister was gracious to admit even among friends and colleagues at times, makes the book a valuable reference resource for scholars and writers alike.
There are some insights, too. For instance, Aiyar says that among the colleagues Rajiv Gandhi inducted into politics, only one let him down. He names Arun Singh here. “He inherited from her (slain mother Indira Gandhi) all those who let him down (and formed a new anti- Congress government later): Arun Nehru, Arif Mohammed Khan, VP Singh, Gopi Arora, et al.” Aiyar also has numerous complaints about several people who had worked closely with Rajiv in his early days in power.
The last chapter should be read between the lines. It is a brief evaluation of Rajiv’s political life by his friend and colleague Aiyar, who, unfortunately, was not treated well by those who survived Rajiv in the Congress’s first family. He was instead relegated to being a Congress backbencher.
Aiyar writes, “Rajiv Gandhi’s brief five-year stewardship of the nation, followed by eighteen months as leader of the Opposition before he was cruelly assassinated, is but a wink in historical time. I have dealt in detail in this book with the accords he signed, the controversies he waded through, his foreign policy initiatives, and his innovative domestic initiatives, above all, Panchayati Raj. I propose in this concluding chapter, to sum up the main points of the events of his time, in and out of office, and my impressions of the man himself.”
The book doesn’t disappoint as a former aide and friend’s chronicle of a former prime minister.