It is a well-known fact that in the unchanging Congress culture, the party leadership values two basic qualities in those allowed entry to its inner circle – personal loyalty and complete discretion.

And Rajinder Kumar Dhawan, the 81-year-old Congress veteran who died in Delhi on Monday, had both these attributes in plenty. Which explains how he managed to win Indira Gandhi’s confidence and rose from the humble post of a stenographer to become the most important man in her office as her personal assistant when she was prime minister.

Described variously as her close aide, man Friday and confidante, Dhawan, at one stage, attained the status of a family insider, especially after he was befriended by Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay Gandhi. Dhawan’s special position did not just give him a ringside view of the developments that unfolded during the 1970s and 1980s when Indira Gandhi was in power, but also allowed him to play a key role in executing her decisions in the 22 years he worked with the former prime minister.

Congress leaders of that generation recall how Indira Gandhi trusted him implicitly and depended on him to carry out her instructions. “Indira Gandhi knew that if she entrusted Dhawan with a job, however difficult, it would be done,” said a veteran Congress leader who did not wish to be identified. “She would often hand out a list of assignments to him and then forget about them.” And when she enquired about the status of the list days later, he added, Dhawan’s stock reply would be, “Woh to kab ka ho gaya.” (It has been done already).

Power centre

Dhawan’s proximity to Indira Gandhi gave him the distinct advantage of controlling access to her. Senior Congress leaders and bureaucrats would queue up at his office to persuade him to grant them an audience with the prime minister. It was Dhawan who called up chief ministers and other senior leaders to inform them about their appointments, elevations or sacking.

When Sanjay Gandhi acquired the status of an extra-constitutional authority in the prime minister’s office in the early 1970s, he worked in tandem with Dhawan. It was Dhawan who advised him on key government appointments. In fact, it is a well-documented fact that during this period, Indira Gandhi was often not involved in these matters as most decisions were taken by Sanjay Gandhi and Dhawan.

Unlike many senior Congress stalwarts, Indira Gandhi kept Dhawan in the loop when she decided to declare an Emergency – a 21-month period starting in June 1975 during which elections were suspended, political opponents jailed, civil liberties curbed and the press censored. It was Dhawan who carried the proclamation to President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed for his signature. After the Emergency was declared, the list of persons to be arrested was drawn up by Om Mehta, the junior home minister at the time, in consultation with Dhawan, who also ensured the local authorities carried out these instructions. Officials who had the temerity to cite rules to point out difficulties in executing the arrest orders were given an earful by Indira Gandhi’s all-powerful personal assistant.

Though Rajiv Gandhi’s personal assistant V George (who later served Sonia Gandhi) also wielded immense power, Dhawan was in a different league altogether. His clout made him feared by both Congress leaders and the administration as he did not hesitate to call them up and order them around. It was assumed that Dhawan was acting on behalf of Indira Gandhi.

RK Dhawan played a key role in the Emergency, helping draw up the list of persons to be arrested and ensuring the arrest orders were carried out. (Photo credit: via Twitter)
RK Dhawan played a key role in the Emergency, helping draw up the list of persons to be arrested and ensuring the arrest orders were carried out. (Photo credit: via Twitter)

Fall and revival

Dhawan was virtually Indira Gandhi’s shadow and only a few steps behind her when she was assassinated by her security guards at her Safdarjung Road residence in 1984. However, his loyalty came under question when Rajiv Gandhi took over as prime minister as it was whispered that Dhawan’s role in the assassination was suspect. Rajiv Gandhi appointed Supreme Court judge MP Thakkar to enquire into the assassination and Thakkar’s report hinted at the same. This was said to be the handiwork of Arun Nehru and Arun Singh, who were the new movers and shakers in the party. Dhawan was essentially marginalised to ensure that he did not continue as a power centre in the new prime minister’s office.

Rajiv Gandhi subsequently rehabilitated Dhawan as the two Aruns had deserted him and he needed an experienced hand to steer him through the troubled times he was going through. Dhawan became a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1990, was given a seat in the Congress Working Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, and was also appointed minister by Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. Sonia Gandhi also retained Dhawan in the party organisation as he had stood by her when she came under attack from her colleagues on account of her foreign origins. By then, Dhawan was a pale shadow of his former self and did not enjoy the same clout in the party. But his loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family did not waver. When Dhawan made a public statement that he planned to write a tell-all book, he was persuaded by Sonia Gandhi to abandon these plans.