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‘Chandrashekhar Doesn’t Change His Mind Three Times a Day’
FRIENDSHIP AND POLITICS DO not necessarily go arm in arm. It’s good as long as it lasts, as they say. As long as there is no conflict of interest. A practising politician has to be prepared for any eventuality.
During my long innings in politics I had to wade through several such unsavoury situations. My relationship with Rajiv Gandhi is a case in point. Elsewhere in this book I have written about how we dealt with each other when my government in Maharashtra was sought to be sabotaged in 1990 at the behest of the party high command. Here is another example of how our equations came close to the brink.
After being expelled from the Congress, V.P. Singh went hammer and tongs at the Rajiv Gandhi government on the issue of corruption. In October 1988 Singh merged his party, the Jan Morcha, with the newly constituted Janata Dal which tied up with some other non-Congress political parties and regional parties to form an omnibus alliance called the National Front.
In the November 1989 elections to the ninth Lok Sabha, the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi emerged as the single largest party with 197 seats, while the V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal bagged 140 seats. However, the National Front, backed by the BJP (eighty-five seats), the CPI (twelve seats) and the CPM (thirty- three seats) from outside, formed the government at the centre with V.P. Singh as the prime minister.
The National Front regime couldn’t complete even a year in office. Singh couldn’t get along with stalwarts such as Devi Lal and Chandrashekhar. This posed a big question mark about the government’s longevity right from the start. Then, within days of the government being formed, home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s daughter Rubaiya was abducted by Kashmiri militants. They released her only when the Centre gave in to their demands and released five jailed militants.
Challenges became graver after Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal commission recommendations for backward-caste reservations on 13 August 1990. Two months after this, senior BJP leader L.K. Advani embarked on a ‘rathayatra’ from Somnath to Ayodhya on the issue of Ram Janmabhoomi, demanding that a Ram temple be built where the Babri mosque stood.
Each was an explosive issue in itself. As the events unfolded in quick succession, Singh’s future as prime minister became more and more shaky.
The Congress smelt an opportunity to dislodge him. Both V.P. Singh and Chandrashekhar were leaders from the Rajput community and therefore many attributed their rivalry to the all-too-known intra-community fracas for supremacy. However, it wasn’t quite so simple. While Singh, the Raja of Manda, was seen as a representative of the Rajput land-owning royalty, Chandrashekhar was seen as one who identified with the common people from the Rajput community. Notwithstanding Singh’s image as a champion of the backward castes (due to his decision to implement the Mandal recommendations), his attitude towards Chandrashekhar often smacked of condescension.
The Congress felt Chandrashekhar had made up his mind to part ways with Singh whose relations with the Gandhi family had, to put it mildly, turned sour. Since Gujarat chief minister Chimanbhai Patel and I had excellent equations with Chandrashekhar, Rajiv Gandhi asked us to hold discussions with him and draw up a strategy.
Chandrashekhar and Devi Lal walked out of the Janata Dal with 52 member of Parliaments in tow, including Mulayam Singh Yadav, H.D. Deve Gowda, Maneka Gandhi, Yashwant Sinha and Om Prakash Chautala. This left Singh with no option but to seek a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha. He lost the trust vote and resigned on 7 November 1990.
The splinter group headed by Chandrashekhar had a measly tally of sixty-four member of Parliaments. But the Congress supported him to form the next government. He was to be sworn in as prime minister on 10 November 1990. This was the political scenario when things started going wrong between Rajiv Gandhi and me.
On 9 November, my wife Pratibha, daughter Supriya, my (then would be) son-in-law Sadanand Sule and I went to Delhi to greet Chandrashekhar on the eve of his swearing in as prime minister. He had been our family friend for a long time and had been particularly fond of Supriya since her childhood. ‘Uncle, would you join us for lunch after the swearing in?’ Supriya asked him.
Pat came the reply: ‘Yes, why not? I will come tomorrow.’
The question was innocent as was the answer. But unbeknownst to us, it sparked a misunderstanding between Rajiv and me. People attributed political motives to the ‘move’ and began to view all subsequent developments through that prism.
Chandrashekhar had a mind of his own and did not care much for diplomatic niceties. Soon after taking oath as prime minister he drove down to the Maharashtra Sadan to have lunch with us. This was unheard of in political circles. The prime minister at Maharashtra Sadan for a private lunch! Political pundits and the media went into a tizzy.
Let me recount another incident to substantiate my point that Chandrashekhar never allowed political considerations to come in the way of personal friendship. The incident happened during his very first visit to Mumbai after assuming office as prime minister. I have a personal driver who has been working with me since 1967. Gama has been more than a driver for me, although he never transgresses the limits of his professional assignment. Because he has put in a number of years as my driver, many of my friends and formal acquaintances know him well.
Chandrashekhar emerged from the Mumbai airport. ‘Where is Gama? Call him here,’ he ordered as soon as he reached the car. Members of the reception party looked perplexed because they had never ever heard of Gama. However, there was much commotion among members of Gama’s fraternity—the scores of drivers of politicians and other VIPs present at the airport. One of them spotted Gama and pushed him towards the prime minister.
‘How are you Gama? Good to see you after a long time. Come here,’ Chandrashekhar spoke with his characteristic warmth.
Overwhelmed, Gama fumbled for words. The prime minister put his arm around Gama’s shoulder and asked photographers to click pictures. To hell with protocol! That was Chandrashekhar for you.
Whenever a prime minister visits Mumbai, he or she stays at Raj Bhavan, the governor’s residence at Malabar hill. However, during his Mumbai visits Chandrashekhar would always stay with me at my official bungalow, ‘Varsha’, whenever I held the chief minister’s post.
Neither Chandrashekhar nor I made any attempt to conceal our friendship, even though my well-wishers in Delhi always cautioned me against making our friendship ‘public’. This added to the unease of the Congress high command. In any case, the Chandrashekhar government was hanging by a slender thread, surviving solely at the mercy of the Congress party’s 197 member of Parliaments. There were enough indications that the alliance would not last long.
On 4 March 1991 Supriya got married to Sadanand Sule in my home town Baramati. In keeping with my credo the wedding was simple—no pomp, no razmatazz. Baramati was literally swarming with people who came from all parts of the state and from other regions as well to greet the newly-weds.
Prime Minister Chandrashekhar, Congress President Rajiv Gandhi, Bhairon Singh Shekhavat, Farooq Abdullah, Janardhan Reddy, S. Bangarappa, B. Shankaranand, Chimanbhai Patel, N.D. Tewari and some industrialists and close friends were present too.
Busy with the wedding preparations, I had no inkling of the latest political developments in New Delhi. All that I knew was that the Congress had been exerting pressure on the Chadrashekhar government in order to undermine it and thus prepare the ground for its own return to power.
Rajiv and Chandrashekhar were seated next to each other at the reception venue in Baramati. As I went up to them I heard Chandrashekhar asking Rajiv what were his plans about going back to New Delhi. Rajiv said he had no particular plans. The prime minister then invited the Congress president to accompany him in his official Boeing. Baramati is about 100 kilometres from Pune. Hence, those who wished to fly to New Delhi had to drive down to Pune to take the New Delhi flight. After some ‘gupshup’, Chandrashekhar was ready to leave. Rajiv told him that he wanted to spend some more time with my family and that he would join the prime minister in Pune.
For the next two hours I kept getting calls from the prime minister to know if Rajiv had left for Pune. I could see that Rajiv was taking it easy. I, as host, couldn’t remind Rajiv to leave for Pune. However, when calls from Pune turned frantic I asked Rajiv what was on his mind. I was taken aback when he said, ‘You see, I don’t wish to accompany him to New Delhi. You may ask him to go ahead.’
Embarrassed as I was, I had to convey the message to the Pune collector, Shrinivas Patil. It was only after the prime minister’s aircraft had taken off from Pune that Rajiv left Baramati. The episode was a clear indication that there was something seriously wrong between the two leaders.
The very next day, Congress members created a ruckus in Parliament, claiming that Rajiv was being spied on by two Haryana police constables posted outside his house. The accusation was unconvincing, even ridiculous, and it threw the political situation in a tailspin.
On 6 March 1991, a livid Chandrashekhar sent his resignation to the president. Rajiv had apparently not anticipated that things would take such a serious turn. He summoned me to New Delhi and asked me if I could placate Chandrashekhar and make him withdraw the resignation.
Knowing Chandrashekhar I was doubtful about my fire- fighting mission. Nevertheless, I went to see him. Chandrashekhar was in his old house and not at the prime minister’s official residence.
‘What has brought you here?’ he asked me in a huff.
‘I want to speak to you,’ I said.
‘Has that fellow asked you to call on me?’ he enquired in a
rather disparaging tone.
He sensed my awkwardness and was silent. I pressed on.
‘There is some misunderstanding. Congress doesn’t want your government to fall. Please withdraw your resignation from the prime minister ’s post. We would like you to continue.’
He was still seething with anger. ‘How could you treat a prime minister in such a manner? This is not about my personal ego. It is about the sanctity of the prime minister’s post. Your party president too has held the prime minister’s post in the past. Does the Congress really believe that I would depute police constables to snoop on him?’
And then came the parting shot. ‘Go back and tell him that Chandrashekhar does not change his mind three times a day. I am not the one to stick to power at any cost. Once I decide on something, I carry it out. There shall be no rethinking on my part. The president may not have accepted my resignation as yet, but he will have to accept it.’
The Baramati episode two days earlier had clearly been a percursor to the high drama that unfolded in the national capital. Ties between Chandrashekhar and Rajiv Gandhi snapped for good, and the nation stood once again at the crossroads. Fresh elections were announced within just sixteen months of the previous ones to elect the Tenth Lok Sabha.
Clearly, Rajiv Gandhi had propped up the Chandrashekhar government merely as an ad hoc arrangement. He was only buying time so that the Congress could gear up for the next general election.
The rug was to be pulled from under the government’s feet when the Congress thought that the time was ripe to call for fresh polls. Earlier, Indira Gandhi had played the same trick on Chaudhary Charan Singh with great success.
However, Rajiv went wrong in his assessment of Chandrashekhar. The Congress’s intention was to only humiliate Chandrashekhar and not to remove him from office yet. But Chandrashekhar was made of a different cloth. He believed in calling a spade a shovel. He promptly gave up the prime ministership, and the Congress party’s political calculations went haywire.