Out of the ashes of democratic functioning, phoenix-like rose Sanjay Gandhi and his cabal, soon dubbed ‘the Emergency caucus’, of Bansi Lal, R.K. Dhawan, Om Mehta, V.C. Shukla and others. Sanjay’s hold over his mother was now total. Rumours about the mother-son equation flew about. A foreign correspondent quoted an anonymous dinner guest at the Gandhi household to report that Sanjay had once slapped his mother across the face six times and ‘she just stood there and took it. She’s scared to death of him.’ However, the slapping story was emphatically denied by Maneka Gandhi and the writer Ved Mehta quoted a family friend as saying, ‘not even God could slap Mrs. Gandhi across the face six times’.
These bizarre rumours only reflected the anomaly of Sanjay’s position. He was not in politics or government, not even a member of the Congress party, but dominated decision-making and seemingly dictated Indira Gandhi’s moves. ‘She herself was a victim of Sanjay,’ says Dr Mathur, ‘she was a victim of the tyranny of the excessive love she had for her younger son.’
Indira Gandhi announced a twenty-point programme aimed at national regeneration during the Emergency, including cancelling debts of the rural poor and making bonded labour illegal. Shop windows were required to display her picture prominently and pledge their support to the programme. Sanjay Gandhi introduced his five- point programme, which enthused the public more. His aims were adult literacy (with the slogan ‘Each One, Teach One’), abolition of dowry, abolition of the caste system, beautifying the environment (by clearing slums and planting trees) and, most controversially, a radical programme of family planning. Perverse yet futuristic, ruthless, impractical, lumbered with a complete lack of understanding of the social processes that enable real change, Sanjay managed to captivate many with his new way and a new coterie gathered around Sanjay, of bureaucrat Naveen Chawla, police officer P.S. Bhinder, politician Ambika Soni, socialite Rukhsana Sultana, Dhawan and Dhirendra Brahmachari. In Delhi’s durbar, a city where ambition always trumps moral values, many bowed before the new regime. ‘I was upset . . . at the dreadful manner in which men and women denigrated themselves for fear of jail or losing their jobs . . . my own self-respect demanded that I should protest,’ Vijayalakshmi Pandit told her daughter Nayantara.
Sanjay’s famous slogan ‘Talk Less, Work More’ was illustrative of his harsh, let’s-clean-up-the-mess approach, of a man in a hurry, contemptuous at one level of slothful India, the ‘doer’ who would show his ‘Mummy’ how to get the job done. He believed shock treatment and dictatorial methods were needed to lick into shape the dreadful mass of humanity for whom he had scant respect, indeed to pulverize people into consenting to the leaders’ wishes. The Emergency was Sanjay’s political coming-of-age moment; he was its face. He even put his mother in the shade at this time and his power, influence and confidence surged. He was twenty-nine years old when the Emergency was declared, a young man now convinced that his inheritance, India, was finally, and rightfully, his. He could set it right as he pleased because he was his mother’s son and this was a country his family ruled by birthright. Sanjay Gandhi set about creating the reign of Sanjay.
A revealing incident in August 1975 shows how fearful Indira Gandhi was of Sanjay and how little she could do to control him. In a no-holds-barred interview, Sanjay, who had always hated his mother’s left-leaning friends and advisers, told Uma Vasudev of Surge magazine that the socialist economy was all wrong for India. He poured scorn on communists, said that as far as the communist bigwigs were concerned, ‘I don’t think you’d find a richer or more corrupt people anywhere,’82 and said the public sector should be allowed to die a natural death. He said all economic controls should go, praised big business and MNCs and suggested that the entire structure of the Nehruvian economy which his mother was protecting needed to be destroyed. It was even reported that he had called his mother’s cabinet a bunch of ‘ignorant buffoons’.
When news of the interview came out in the agencies Indira Gandhi flew into a panic. Her very own son pouring public scorn on the socialist inheritance of Nehru and on her leftist allies was political dynamite. ‘Sanjay has made an exceedingly stupid statement about the Communists . . . what are we to do? I am terribly worried. . . I am really upset. What excuse do we find or concoct? I am frantic,’ she wrote in a hastily scribbled handwritten plea to Dhar. She requested Dhar and the information and broadcasting minister, V.C. Shukla, to help her withdraw copies before the magazine reached the public. The interview was withdrawn and Sanjay issued a half-hearted clarification. But the CPI was outraged and the Soviets expressed their displeasure.
Rather than Sanjay being scared of his mother’s wrath, it was she who scurried around trying to do damage control as if she was afraid of angering him. Indira Gandhi’s inability to stop Sanjay from doing and saying exactly what he wanted was a reflection of the sickness of the Emergency. This fearful mother was the insecure wielder of overwhelming power.
During the Emergency, the Youth Congress became Sanjay’s chosen platform for political action. At the December 1975 Chandigarh (at Komagata Maru Nagar) session of the Congress, Sanjay officially became a politician, for the first time appearing on stage at a Congress session. Thunderous cheers and applause established him as his mother’s successor. Sanjay began to work on re-energizing the so far moribund Youth Congress and make it a rival power centre vis-à-vis the Congress. Thirty-five-year-old Ambika Soni, a Sanjay acolyte and wife of a diplomat who had been brought into politics by Indira, became president of the Youth Congress.
The Emergency brought good days for the Youth Congress. Young bloods whom Sanjay recruited toured the countryside in his shadow, not on a mission to humbly discover India like Gandhi and Nehru had once done but to stride around and issue commands, basking in the reflected power of the omnipotent Gandhi son. The Youth Congress consisted of some dynamic political talents, many of whom were Sanjay’s chosen commandos in politics, but the outfit also sheltered some who were seen as thuggish, known for extorting money from shopkeepers and generally using muscle power. Indira Gandhi looked on, seemingly deeply impressed by Sanjay’s organizational skills, calling him a ‘doer not a thinker’. The November 1976 Guwahati Congress session established Sanjay as the supreme leader of the Youth Congress and he was seen to have replaced the Congress president in importance and clout. Indira Gandhi declared with maternal pride, ‘our thunder has been stolen’. That someone who had witnessed the evolution of the Congress from the days of Motilal to Jawaharlal was now gasping in admiration at Sanjay’s helmsmanship says a great deal indeed of the transition Indira had made over the years.
A parallel government rose at the PMH, or the prime minister’s house, to rival the PMS, or the prime minister’s secretariat. Sanjay’s associates Om Mehta and Bansi Lal were already installed as ministers in the home and defence ministries. The PMH came into repeated conflict with the PMS because Sanjay and his men demanded a controlling say in appointments, often marginalizing veteran officers.85 ‘It was a time when the centre of gravity shifted to her residence. To comfort themselves people in South Block would say this [her office] is the water works, that [her residence] is the sewage works,’ recalls Moni Malhoutra. Despondent and frustrated, Dhar wanted to resign but was dissuaded by Haksar. ‘We must stay in the system to prevent its further degeneration. Outside the system you will count for nothing,’ Haksar advised.
In late 1975, on a visit to India, B.K. Nehru, now a Bheeshma Pitamaha in Indira’s court, confided to P.N. Haksar that he wanted to speak to Indira Gandhi and tell her that it was ‘highly dangerous and highly objectionable that the rule of law was being replaced by the rule of Sanjay Gandhi, when he had no official position of any kind either in the party or in the government. The sole basis of his authority was that he was his mother’s darling boy.’
However, Haksar advised him not to say a word to Indira because she regarded Sanjay with a ‘curious mixture of awe, admiration, respect’, she regarded him as perfect, and in her eyes he could do no wrong. The slightest expression of doubt about Sanjay was resented. Haksar told him if he said anything at all to Indira, his access to her would be barred. ‘Babboobhai [Haksar] could speak with experience because the reason for his [own] dismissal was . . . Sanjay.’
This is an extract from Indira by Sagarika Ghose.