I returned to the constituency. It was apparent that the shock of Rajiv’s assassination – and that too on the sacred soil of Tamil Nadu – had altered the entire milieu. I shall never forget one old woman on a distant village road coming up to my jeep and, putting her head on a poster of Rajiv’s, crying her eyes out. Victory was certain. The only question was the margin. I was hoping against hope for 35,000; the actual margin was over 1,50,000.
Fittingly, the results were declared on June 17, my late mother’s 81st birth anniversary. If it had not been for her drilling Tamil into my unwilling ears, this moment would have never come. I, therefore, dedicate my parliamentary life of nearly a quarter century to her memory. And to my father, whom I called Appa, I say: “It was because of your Brahmin identity that you had to leave the banks of the Cauvery. Now, 65 years later, I have brought the family back.”
There was an analysis done in 2007 of my dark horse election win by Professor MMS Pandian of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. In his magnum opus, Brahmin and Non-Brahmin, he presented an interesting take on how I became one of the very few Brahmins in at least a generation to win a Lok Sabha seat from rural Tamil Nadu:
As we have seen, Brahmins were steadfastly preoccupied with authenticity during the colonial period and claimed the Brahminic as the national. In the 1990s, the political context had so dramatically changed that the chances of a Brahmin’s political survival hinged on his denial of his Brahmin identity . . . Mani Shankar Aiyar was carefully demonstrating in public that his Brahmin identity was essentially false.
That is true. I was born a Brahmin, but since my early adolescence I had denied my “twice-born” caste. It is that denial which enabled me to make it to Parliament.
I found myself in a confused state of mind and emotion. On the one hand, I had fulfilled my life’s ambition of making it to Parliament. On the other, my benefactor who had wrought this miracle was dead. I did not know how much further I could get without his patronage. At the same time, I was determined to make the most of this opportunity. That I was on my own from now was a challenge; there was no one to help if I stumbled.
I knew there were very many in my party who considered me an upstart. At the same time, I knew the aura of having been closely associated with Rajiv Gandhi would be my biggest asset. I also knew Sonia Gandhi would be around to help me in extremis. I had the self-confidence to expect that I would make it. It was thus for me “the best of times and the worst of times”. Meanwhile, I must hoe the field my father had been compelled to abandon. I had to work towards my mother’s earnest hope that I would learn the Tamil language that she had loved. I also had before me the example of the times without number I had seen Rajiv Gandhi trudging the rural roads and interacting empathetically with villagers and farmers, prioritising solutions to their problems over his own comfort or convenience.
I could perhaps use these memories as a beacon to signal my own way forward in this still unfamiliar rural milieu in a language in which I was woefully deficient and with a people I knew only as voters. I had now to rediscover them as living, breathing human beings with problems that I barely understood and had certainly not lived through, and do what I could to alleviate their suffering.
Above all, I had to replicate the sincerity, honesty and integrity I had seen and experienced in RG. So long as I kept in mind his example, I would not walk alone. I also knew Suneet would always be there, and so would my hugely talented daughters, Suranya, Yamini and Sana. More than anything else, it was this which gave me the confidence to soldier on. I had just turned 50. Apart from about 20 years as an infant and then a student, I had been a diplomat for a quarter century. I was now embarking on a new, unfamiliar path for which I had no training, no experience. I knew I had to succeed, if only to get my daughters educated at Oxbridge and beyond, and my own and Suneet’s life steadied and on an even keel.
I little anticipated the roller-coaster ride that lay ahead. I took what came in my stride and hoped it would all work out.
What actually happened, my rising and falling like a wave in a stormy sea, is the story of the rest of my life. I call it a “half-life” in politics, much like the radioactive half-life discovered by Ernest Rutherford, the father of atomic physics – that is, the phenomenon of radioactivity growing for a while and then slowly petering out. In a similar way, my life in politics rose in spurts to its highs and then spluttered out to the point where I find myself sidelined by Rajiv Gandhi’s heirs and marginalised even in the party. But that is another story for another book.
Excerpted with permission from Memoirs of a Maverick: The First Fifty Years (1941–1991), Mani Shankar Aiyar, Juggernaut.