The only time I have been less than sorrowful at a premature death was when Sanjay Gandhi perished in an air crash. He was truly a nasty piece of work. Having dropped out of the Doon School, and then dropped out of an apprentice scheme in the Rolls Royce factory in the United Kingdom, he used his mother’s connections to start a car factory. A sycophantic journalist, Khushwant Singh, claimed that Sanjay’s factory would produce 50,000 cars a year, which would soon ‘be seen on the roads of Haryana and Delhi, and a month or two later they will be running between Kalimpong and Kanyakumari.’
Sanjay himself knew better. He realized before his chamchas that no cars made by him would ever be fit to run on Indian streets. So he turned his interest to politics instead. In June 1975 his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, imposed a state of Emergency. All opposition politicians were arrested, and the press censored. Sanjay himself quickly emerged as the second most powerful person in India. Chief Ministers and Cabinet Ministers took orders from him. Khushwant Singh thought this entirely legitimate. In choosing Sanjay Gandhi as the ‘Man of the Year’ in the magazine he edited, Singh told this readers that ‘Sanjay has taken a heavy load on his young shoulders. He has a long and arduous road ahead of him. Do not strew banana skins on his path. Help him to reach his goal of a prosperous and happy India.’
In the context of the Emergency, it was impossible for an ordinary citizen of India to come close enough to Sanjay to lovingly offer him a whole banana, let alone bar with path with a banana skin. On the other hand, Sanjay had the power to do far nastier things to the ordinary citizen, to break his house, for example, or sterilize him against his will, or put him in jail—all of which he did, with relish, using the entire might of the state apparatus that his indulgent mother had now put under his command.
The crimes of Sanjay Gandhi against the Constitution of India were many and varied. They have been documented by historians, and by those who lived through those times. Contrast Khushwant Singh’s effusions with an article written by a more clear-eyed journalist, which was published in the Delhi weekly Mainstream on the 26th of March 1977. The article was actually written towards the end of the Emergency, but could only be published when censorship had been lifted. Still, knowing the vengeful nature of his target, the journalist was prudent enough to use the pseudonym, ‘Analyst’.
The nom-de-plume was anodyne, but the contents of the article were anything but. On the basis of his own, first-hand, experience, ‘Analyst’ wrote of how the regime of press censorship was imposed on the direct instructions of Sanjay Gandhi. When the Emergency began ‘none of the people at the top, even the Minister [of Information and Broadcasting] I. K. Gujral, seemed to know anything and we were all waiting instructions from some other place.’ Soon, it became clear that the Censor was getting orders from the Prime Minister’s second son. At the latter’s initiative, two independent news agencies, the Press Trust of India and the United News of India, were merged to form a sarkari-controlled company called Samachar. This new agency was then used to print stories ‘aimed at building up the personality of Mr Sanjay Gandhi.’
Living in Delhi, and close to the corridors of power, this senior journalist was able to see how Sanjay Gandhi was instrumental in effecting key changes of personnel in the Government and the public sector. Thus, during the Emergency, ‘the entire nationalised banking system was mercilessly abused to benefit Sanjay Gandhi’s corrupt friends….’ The Chairmam of the Central Bank, a Mr Taneja, ‘was worried at the persistent demands of Sanjay Gandhi for more loans.’ When he resisted he was sacked, and replaced with a more pliant man. ‘
The Reserve Bank itself was put in charge of a half-drunk, amiable insurance man, K. R. Puri, with no knowledge whatsoever of the banking sytem but endowed with the virtue of subservience to Sanjay Gandhi.’
A hurdle to this manipulation of the financial system was the capable and experienced Finance Minister, C. Subramaniam, who represented the best values of the old-style Congress of Gandhi and Nehru. To circumvent Mr Subramaniam, key departments in his Ministry—such as Banking, Income Tax, and Customs—were, wrote ‘Analyst’, ‘taken out of the control of the Finance Minister and put in charge of a novice, a political adventurer with roots nowhere, having no standing except as a lackey of Sanjay Gandhi. This is Pranab Kumar Mukherji [sic], who is today known in his home state of West Bengal, [and] in the business and financial circles all over India, as a servile waiter of Sanjay Gandhi.’
In another section of his essay, ‘Analyst’ detailed the siphoning of money to London from steel contracts awarded to contacts of the Prime Minister’s younger son. The journalist further claimed that Sanjay’s ‘Doon School pal, Kamal Nath, has made piles through the dealings of his EMC enterprise with the West Bengal State Electricity Board, getting contracts worth huge amounts for which no tender was called, nor the prescribed rules and procedures followed.’
Sanjay Gandhi also interfered grievously with the civil services. Previously, ‘the appointment, transfer, promotion of Joint Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries and other executive officers of the Government of India was made by a Senior Establishment Board of the Cabinet Secretariat.’ Now, however, these duties were ‘usurped by Sanjay Gandhi’s man, R. K. Dhawan,’ a stenographer in the Prime Minister’s office. ‘Analyst’ wrote that under Dhawan’s supervision, ‘practically all the appointments of civil servants was made contingent on the confession of personal loyalty to Sanjay Gandhi.’
During the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi was allowed to do more or less what he wanted in the Union Territory of Delhi. This was his particular bailiwick, where his experiments in slum clearance and sterilization were first carried out. A problem for Sanjay was that the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi was an upright man named Baleshwar Prasad. So he was removed, and ‘in his place, a spineless civil servant of no distinction was inducted; the new Lt Governor, Kishan Chander, has been supplied by Sanjay with an Adviser, Navin Chawla, a pathological case of an administration officer with total subservience to Sanjay Gandhi personally.’
To the best of my knowledge, the charges made by ‘Analyst’ were not contested or disputed when his article was published. Four of those he mentioned are still active in public life. Two are senior Ministers in the Government of India; a third just demitted office as Chief Election Commissioner; the fourth was till recently an M. P., and remains an active and influential Congressman.
In fact, some other members of the Union Cabinet also first entered politics as acolytes of Sanjay Gandhi. Nor does the influence run only on one side of the fence. Two senior leaders of the principal Opposition party, the BJP, owe everything to Sanjay Gandhi. One is his wife, Maneka; the other his assistant in the brutalizing of Old Delhi, Jagmohan.
Indian democrats live in hope. The particular hope here is that these protegés of Sanjay Gandhi have rejected, in spirit and in deed, the profoundly anti-democratic methods of their one-time mentor.