As my term in the central government drew to a close, five years after I’d sallied forth from Srinagar to serve as a director and then joint secretary in the PMO, Rajiv talked to me of my plans. I asked for a posting to Lakshadweep. “Be careful what you ask,” he grinned and said, “I might just do it!” Because of its abysmal connectivity and primitive facilities, this union territory that had been classified by the home ministry as a hardship posting was, I expected, the last place that Rajiv thought I might ask for.
I was to learn later from Farooq Abdullah that Rajiv had already sounded him on my return to my parent state J&K of which he was then chief minister. Farooq told me that Rajiv wanted me to be chief secretary, to which he had replied that I didn’t have the seniority for the position. I do know that those posted in what was considered a powerful PMO would have, upon completion of tenure, thought to secure for themselves plum postings in India or abroad, preferably in the USA either with the United Nations or the World Bank. And here I had the prime minister asking me personally what I would like.
His amusement at my response was understandable. But a tour of duty in a hardship posting allows for a renewal of deputation to the Centre within two years instead of the otherwise mandatory three. I had little desire to return to my parent cadre J&K. We agreed that when my term in Lakshadweep ended in 1989, I would revert to the PMO.
My farewell gift to Rajiv was a sherwani tailored by Goodfit of Lalbagh, Lucknow, to encourage him to adopt his grandfather’s comportment. In a letter of 4 August 1987, Rajiv thanked me for what he called an “achkan” of “perfect fit, elegantly tailored”. “Thank you also for your hard work and cheerful assistance over the last five years,” he wrote, “first with my mother and then with me. We shall miss you, especially in our forays into the countryside. You are going to an important assignment. I look forward to seeing you in Lakshadweep at the winter meeting of the Island Development Authority.”
‘I was brought up near the sea’
Of the 1985 visit, I recall also one of my few conversations with Sonia, with whom conversations of mine or indeed any other officials were rare. We found ourselves standing together on a jetty gazing at a setting sun. The coruscating colours of a Lakshadweep sunset over a heaving ocean fringed by the waters of a lagoon is a sight unmatched perhaps anywhere. Inspired, I turned to Sonia and waxed lyrical on the spectacle before us. “Yes,” she said.
I explained that having been brought up in a school at the foot of the mountains and served among the mountains after my secondment to the J&K cadre, the sea held a special fascination for me. “I was brought up near the sea” was all the response that I got.
I mused at the time of how rewarding it might be to serve in the island territory. And as my term at the Centre drew to a close in 1987, and because I had been privy to the conceptualising and then involved in overseeing the implementation of an array of Rajiv’s development initiatives for an ecologically fragile territory, this dream grew to be a conviction that I could use an assignment to the islands as a crucible for the actual execution of these initiatives and assess their outcomes first-hand, fondly hoping that their successful programming might serve as a benchmark.
Hence, my request to Rajiv when he asked me where I would like to be posted after my tour of duty at the Centre expired. Under government rules, a deputation to the Centre by an officer of my seniority in the service was limited to five years to be followed by a three-year reversion to the parent state. But to encourage secondment to hardship postings, under rules, reversion could be substituted by assignment to such hardship posting for a term of two years followed by another stint at the Centre. As mentioned, this was a course that Rajiv agreed I might take, transporting me to an assignment that was easily the most fulfilling in my entire career.
‘Like chewing gum’
And so, well before the seventy-third and seventy-fourth amendments to the Constitution of India, which made Panchayati Raj the third tier of government mandated by the Constitution, Lakshadweep had her own island councils, with the UT Island Development Council at the apex in Kavaratti. The inauguration was scheduled to coincide with Rajiv’s travel to Lakshadweep with his entire cabinet of ministers to chair the meeting of the Island Development Authority in 1988. And while the official visit lasted but two days, Rajiv was to stay on with family and friends for a holiday in Bangaram, an uninhabited island rich with coconut trees and coral reefs.
There, in a tropical resort with no television, no air conditioning and fed only with solar energy but offering a range of sea water sports, Rajiv was to indulge his favourite hobby – photography. One result of this, published in Rajiv’s World, is an almost worshipful photograph of his adored Sonia silhouetted against Lakshadweep’s fabled sunset. And there, young Rahul developed a fancy for eating octopus. When I asked him what he liked about what was a local delicacy, he told me shyly that it tasted like chewing gum.
During Rajiv’s official visit, Sonia had spent her time with Shahila, escaping the bevy of officials’ wives. On Sonia’s suggestion, they had lunched at home, where she had insisted that my sons Amar and Saif, then sixteen and fourteen, on summer holiday from the Doon School, who were under strict instructions to be seen and not heard, join her at the table.
Shahila escorted Sonia to the aquarium, which had been set up by Lakshadweep’s administration under the eagle eye of then Director of Fisheries George Varghese, and was the highlight attraction for any visitor to Lakshadweep. She also spent time at the children’s nurseries (balwaris) set up by the local branch of the Indian Council for Child Welfare, and with the women at the bookbinding centre of the State Social Welfare Board, both chaired by Shahila ex-officio as wife of the administrator.
We then flew to Minicoy where I had arranged for the prime minister and his consort to be seated at the helm of a racing boat in a regatta from the helipad at one end of the island to the jetty at its populous heart for a rapturous public reception and the inauguration of a zonal cultural festival. And when I returned home after having seen the guests off, including the PM and Sonia, to Bangaram, I was to find waiting for us a carton of delectable sweets and snacks including chocolate and shortbread, Fortnum & Mason jams, a variety of nuts and a Christmas cake that had arrived with the PM’s instructions that these be delivered to me personally. “Did you get the package?” asked Rajiv when I next went calling in Bangaram. “It is for you.”
Excerpted with permission from My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy, Wajahat Habibullah, Westland Publications.
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