BOOK EXCERPT

Pranab Mukherjee on why Rajiv Gandhi dropped him from the Cabinet and expelled him

From his autobiography: 'All I can say is that he made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience.'

After addressing the first meeting at Ramnagar, Rajiv Gandhi reached Contai (Kanthi) where he began addressing his second meeting of the day. It was here that I received a message on the police wireless at 9.30 a.m.: ‘Indira Gandhi assaulted. Return to Delhi immediately.’

I immediately passed Rajiv a note, even as he was addressing the meeting, asking him to cut short the speech. He did so, and as soon as he sat down, I told him about the message. I suggested that we cancel all other engagements and return to Delhi immediately, and he agreed.

~~~

Immediately after take-off, Rajiv went into the cockpit. After some time, he came back and announced, “She is dead.” There was absolute silence. Tears started rolling down my face, and I wept inconsolably, managing to compose myself only after some time and with great effort.

Rajiv was exceptionally calm and displayed total control and fortitude, possibly a trait he had inherited from his mother.

Once we were able to regain some semblance of composure, we began discussions on what was to be done next. Balram Jakhar, Ghani Khan Choudhury, Shyamlal Yadav, Uma Shankar Dikshit and Sheila Dikshit started discussing the future course of action amongst themselves, and I joined in a bit later. I cited precedents from the time when Prime Minister Nehru and, later, Shastri passed away while in office (27 May 1964 and 11 January 1966, respectively).

In both instances, an interim government was formed with Gulzari Lal Nanda, the senior-most minister, as the interim Prime Minister. However, that took place when the incumbents died a natural death. This was an extraordinary situation when an incumbent Prime Minister had been assassinated. Apart from a political void, a lot of uncertainties, too, had been created.

At the conclusion of the discussion, it was decided that we should request Rajiv Gandhi to take over as the full-fledged Prime Minister to meet the challenge posed by this extraordinary situation. Somebody suggested that I formally make this request to Rajiv and work out the modalities to be followed. I took Rajiv to the rear of the aircraft and requested him to take over as Prime Minister. His immediate question to me was, “Do you think I can manage?”

“Yes,” I told him, “we are all there to help you. You will have everyone’s support.”

I told Rajiv that he should go back into the cockpit and relay a message to Delhi that Mrs Gandhi’s passing away should not be officially announced till a new government was sworn in. To avoid any confusion or uncertainty we had decided that both Rajiv’s appointment as Prime Minister and Indiraji’s assassination should be announced simultaneously. Later, I learnt that Vice President R Venkataraman had also given similar instructions in Delhi earlier.

Our plane landed in Delhi at around 3 pm and we were received by Cabinet Secretary Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib, along with the Home Secretary and other officials. Arun Nehru, an MP as well as Rajiv’s cousin and close confidant, was also present. Rajiv and he immediately rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) where Mrs Gandhi had been taken after the attack.

Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib apprised me of the prevailing situation. He counselled me that I would have to take over as Gulzari Lal Nanda had done in the past. I told him that Rajiv Gandhi would be sworn in, and then I, too, headed to AIIMS.

~~~

Rajiv had, in the meantime, decided that he would take the oath along with three others – PV Narasimha Rao, Shiv Shankar and I. I suggested to him at Rashtrapati Bhavan that Buta Singh should also be included, keeping in mind the sentiments of the Sikh community – a recommendation that he accepted.

~~~

Some people had proposed that Rajiv Gandhi should be sworn in by the Vice President without waiting for the President to return. I had ruled out this course of action, citing the constitutional provision that this power lay with the President unless, in his absence, he had delegated it to the Vice President. There had been no such delegation by Giani Zail Singh. Therefore, if the Prime Minister was sworn in by the Vice President, it would have been unconstitutional. Moreover, politically, it would have conveyed the wrong message.

~~~

Finally, many stories have been circulated that I aspired to be the interim Prime Minister, that I had staked claim and had to be persuaded otherwise. And that this created misgivings in Rajiv Gandhi’s mind. These stories are completely false and spiteful.

President Zail Singh has pointed out clearly in his memoirs that PV Narasimha Rao and I both gladly agreed that his decision to place the mantle of prime ministership on Rajiv Gandhi was correct.

~~~

In the two months leading up to the elections of December 1984 I had Rajiv’s full trust. My name had been included in his letter to President Zail Singh proposing the list of ministers he had wanted sworn in along with him on 31 October 1984. Not only that, as the reader may have noticed, he had clearly placed my name at the top. Interestingly, the initials of all three, except Buta Singh, start with P.

~~~

The results to the 1984 Lok Sabha elections were declared on 24 December 1984. The Congress swept the polls, winning 404 seats out of 514, while the BJP got only 2 seats. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) got 30 seats, the CPI(M) 22, the AIADMK 12 and the Janata Party 10 seats.

~~~

On the morning of 31 December 1984, Rajiv was elected leader of the CPP at 11 am in a meeting held in the Central Hall of Parliament. I chaired the meeting and stood next to him when he announced to the media that the swearing-in would be held at 3 pm. Even then I was clueless about the manner in which the day would unfold.

I kept waiting for the call. Being dropped from Rajiv’s Cabinet was not even peripherally in my mind. I had heard no rumours, nor had anyone in the party ever vaguely hinted at it. As it happened, PV Narasimha Rao, too, was on tenterhooks, calling me several times to check if I had received a call.

When I learnt of my ouster from the Cabinet, I was shell-shocked and flabbergasted. I could not believe it. But I composed myself, and sat alongside my wife as she watched the swearing-in ceremony on television. As soon as it concluded, I wrote to the Ministry of Urban Development asking to be allotted a smaller house in place of my 2 Jantar Mantar residence (which was a ministerial allocation), pointing out that I had ceased to be a minister – this was something I had done in 1977, too. I then went off on a holiday with my family who had long suffered my neglect.

~~~

To return to the question of why he dropped me from the Cabinet and expelled me from the party, all I can say is that he made mistakes and so did I. He let others influence him and listened to their calumnies against me. I let my frustration overtake my patience.

Overall, the difference in age between Rajiv and I was only nine years. When I was dropped from the Cabinet, I was not even fifty years old. But we were clearly of very different backgrounds and temperaments. Rajiv was a reluctant politician. He was forced by circumstances to become Prime Minister at the age of forty. He was ahead of his times. He wanted rapid change and saw the old guard in the Congress as an obstacle to his vision. He was forward-looking, tech-savvy and welcomed foreign investment in India as well as an enlargement of the market economy. In contrast, I was a conservative, conventional political leader who favoured the public sector, a regulated economy and wanted foreign investment only from NRIs.

~~~

People have often asked me whether I bear a grudge against Rajiv. My response is to refer to an interview Rajiv gave Aroon Purie, Editor of India Today, just before his assassination:

AP: Earlier, you tended to do away with people Mrs Gandhi had used, people like Pranab Mukherjee and Dhawan and then, you reverted to them. Is that some learning process you went through?

RG: Many things said about them I found weren’t true.

~~~

Rajiv’s death shattered me. India had lost one of its most dynamic leaders at a young age and in a gruesome manner. Charismatic, amiable and full of new ideas, he endeared himself to those he came in contact with. His support base was truly pan-Indian. He should have lived and led our country and politics for many more years. There was so much more he could have contributed. But that was not to be.

~~~

However, it is true that no one is perfect. Rajiv has been criticised for his excessive reliance on some close friends and advisers who installed a so-called “babalog” government. Some of them turned out to be fortune seekers.

Rajiv’s actions on the Shah Bano judgement and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill drew criticism and eroded his modern image.

The opening of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple site on 1 February 1986 was perhaps another error of judgement. People felt these actions could have been avoided.

The Bofors issue proved to be one of the causes of his undoing in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, though no charge has been substantiated against Rajiv till date.

Excerpted with permission from The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996, Pranab Mukherjee, Rupa.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.