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Indira Gandhi 101, And Still in ‘Charcha’

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By Raj Kanwar

MY first meeting with Indira Gandhi happened sometime in mid-1950 when the Gandhi boys, Rajiv and Sanjay, were in the Doon School and their mother was a frequent visitor to Dehra Dun to meet them. Sometime she came alone, while on other occasions she accompanied her father, Prime Minister Nehru. Indira Gandhi was my sister Neel Kamal’s idol; she admired Mrs. Gandhi’s dress sense and the elegant way she draped her sarees. “You are a journalist and could easily meet Indira Gandhi,” and she insisted that I took her to see Mrs. Gandhi. I had met Nehru earlier on a couple of occasions but somehow didn’t have the chance to meet Mrs. Gandhi.

The opportunity came a week later on 19th November when both Nehru and Indira Gandhi were visiting Dehra Dun and were staying as usual at the Circuit House. So that morning, my sister and I cycled to the Circuit House a little before 10 a.m. Neel Kamal was farsighted enough to knit a blouse for Mrs. Gandhi. She had nicely gift wrapped it, ready to be presented in style to her. Those were the balmy days when the dreaded word, “security”, had not made its entry in the political jargon. If you wanted to meet a VVIP, you just went and met him or her. Ram Prasad, Circuit House’s man Friday greeted me in the verandah, “Aap Pandit ji se milna chahate ho,” he asked. “Nahin, mein or meri behan Indira ji ko happy birthday karne aayen hein,” was my answer.

Mrs. Gandhi had not by then come out of her suite. Fifteen minutes later, she appeared in a graceful splendour. It was our first face-to-face meeting with Indiraji. Holding her nerves, my sister first introduced herself and then me in Hindi. We duly presented the knitted blouse to the “birthday girl”.

How we were able to break the ice, spend nearly half an hour with her over a cup of tea and even got ourselves photographed with her is a long story that I have repeatedly told over the years. Thereafter, she left for the Doon School to fetch her sons, and to take them out for an ice cream treat at KWALITY, that was then the popular rendezvous in Dehra Dun.

Subsequently, I met Indiraji whenever she visited Dehra Dun, and also did a few stories about her. From being an acquaintance, I had become a ‘friend’ of sorts. My high academic background and the fact that I was a prominent student leader had obviously impressed her, and I suspect that in a general sense, she started liking me and talked about this and that. Once she had even invited me to join the Youth Congress, presumably in a position of responsibility. But as was my wont, I declined the proffered offer. Ideologically, I was then more inclined towards Praja Socialist Party, that in retrospect, appeared foolhardy.

Indira Gandhi’s link with Dehra Dun had become stronger because her two sons studied here. They were first put in Dehra Dun’s Welham Preparatory School for Boys and thereafter they moved to the Doon School. In the process, she had developed very good personal relations with Miss Hersilia Susie Oliphant, Welham’s Founder and the principal. She had also become equally friendly with the Doon School Headmaster John Martyn, as also with KC Joshi and Dr. Hari Dutt Bhatt, the successive Housemasters at the Kashmir House, where the two boys were housed. However, it went to her credit that she did not ever throw her weight about, and was very polite, courteous, and observed all the schools’ rules and regulations. Never once did she break the schools’ protocol or sought favours. At one time when the Doon School’s Headmaster Martyn sought withdrawal of Sanjay for telling a lie, she quietly withdrew the ‘admonished boy’ without demur or ill-will.

In the meantime, I had become like a rolling stone. First, I moved to Delhi as a reporter on the staff of the INDIAN EXPRESS. Thereafter, I joined the Himachal Pradesh government as the editor in its directorate of public relations and tourism. My next job was as the first Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Oil & Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) and was posted in Baroda to help start operations in Gujarat. My next posting was in Sibsagar in Assam. Scared of spending all of my life in a government company, I resigned and came to Calcutta where I immediately found a job in a leading private company as its advertising manager. Though the job was lucrative and provided me many social opportunities, I direly missed my hometown. The green valley repeatedly beckoned me. So I again put in my papers resigning the top executive job in Calcutta and returned to Dehra Dun. I was then a bachelor and homesick. My father had passed away in 1962 and the ‘home’ was only my younger brother.

Thereafter, I started a newsweekly called WITNESS on 15 August 1964 that became a big hit. It was then that I resumed my contacts both with Nehru and Indira ji. Rajiv had left the Doon School in 1960 and Sanjay in 1961. Mrs. Gandhi’s visits to Dehra Dun had become minimal. During those days, I only met her two or three times, and the old warmth seems to have returned. I told her what I had been doing during the interregnum, and she looked at me as if in a reproach.

My last meeting with Indira ji was in May 1964 when Prime Minister Nehru had come to Dehra Dun for “rest and recuperation” after the stroke that he had suffered on the previous 8th January at the Bhubaneshwar AICC session. She had accompanied her Papu to Dehra Dun to look after him. One day when I met her, she expressed her concern and anxiety about her Papu’s health but I reassured her that he was quite happy in Dehra Dun and would soon regain his normal health.

Nehru and her Indu spent four days in Dehra Dun’s salubrious climate; Nehru had met one of his old friends Sri Prakasa, and seemed to be in good spirits. As the sun set yonder beyond on the evening of 26 May, Nehru and Indira took off for Delhi. None in the assembled gathering at the helipad could imagine that it was to be Nehru’s last sunset. India’s first Prime Minister and “darling of the masses”, Nehru did not wake up the following morning. It was just befitting that Nehru had spent his last four days in Dehra Dun, the city he had loved immensely.

Indira’s own life had truly been like a roller coaster ride. Ups and downs, downs and ups – that in nutshell was her undulated life journey spanning 67 years. At times, she was at the pinnacle of her glory and power, and then one day suddenly rolling down as if from a precipice. She remained the Prime Minister of India for a total of 5,829 days spread over three tenures. The declaration of Emergency on 25 June 1975 was a black spot on Indira Gandhi’s otherwise bright image. However, on the whole, she was considered as one of the most competent Prime Ministers that India has had. India’s victory over Pakistan that led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was her crowning glory. That was proved to the hilt when she returned to power with a massive majority in the 1980 elections.

The Indira Gandhi that I knew was suave and courteous, and never imperious. She was very polite with the staff at the Circuit House where she lived; she was greatly respectful to seniors as also the masters at the Doon School. That was the Indira Gandhi I had known. I did not have the opportunity to meet her after she became India’s Prime Minister. I sent her a few letters which remained unanswered, and probably not even delivered to her. When she was assassinated on 31 October 1984, I shed many tears and wondered what would have happened if our friendly relations had continued.


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Opinion

The Michel gambit

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By Manini Chatterjee

Narendra Modi is the biggest vote catcher for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its most indefatigable election campaigner. But in his zeal to perform these roles, he sometimes forgets that he is also the prime minister of India.

A particularly egregious instance of this memory lapse was on display last week. Addressing an election rally at Sumerpur in Rajasthan on December 5, Modi made headlines with his reference to the extradition from Dubai of Christian Michel — the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal.

In his trademark theatrical style, the prime minister said, “Brothers and sisters, you must have heard of the VVIP helicopter scam of thousands of crores… you must know about the letter, Madame Soniaji’s letter… After we came to power, we kept searching for it in the files and finally found a raazdar [keeper of secrets] who served powerful people. He was a dalal [middleman]… He was a citizen of England and lived in Dubai where he served the friends of the naamdar [dynast — Modi’s latest epithet for Rahul Gandhi]…”

The government of India had brought him from Dubai, Modi said, and added with a snigger: “Abhiraazdarraazkholega, patanahinbaatkahantakpahunchegi, kitni door takpahunchegi(Now the keeper of secrets will spill the beans and who knows how far it will reach).”

Political mud-slinging is par for the course during elections. But rarely, if ever, has the head of a government resorted to such a pastiche of lies, half-truths, innuendoes and insinuations on a complex matter with international ramifications which is still under investigation. His speech prompted many to suspect that the extradition — just before the final day of campaigning in Rajasthan and Telangana — was timed to suit the ruling party’s political agenda. Worse, it cast a shadow on the entire process of investigation and delivered a further blow to the already tattered credibility of agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI.

Modi may think that he managed to fool the villagers of Rajasthan (and the millions who saw the speech on their TVs or mobiles) into believing that he was the sole crusader against corruption who had unearthed a massive scam. But anyone who has even cursorily followed the chopper scam knows that it broke and was dealt with before Modi came to power.

It was in 1999, during the Vajpayee regime, that the Indian Air Force first made a proposal to buy 12 high-end helicopters for the use of the president, prime minister and other VVIPs. AgustaWestland, the British arm of the Italian firm, Finmeccanica, secured the deal for Rs 3,600 crores in 2010. Soon after, investigations in Italy led to the arrest of the chairman of the Finmeccanica group, Giuseppe Orsi, and the CEO of AgustaWestland, Bruno Spagnolini, on charges that they bribed middlemen to secure the deal.

The Manmohan Singh government put the deal on hold in February 2013 and cancelled it in 2014 on the grounds that it had violated the integrity pact. It also recovered most of the money that had been paid for the choppers. The CBI investigation into the deal also began in February 2013 — leading to the naming and eventual arrest of former IAF chief, S.P. Tyagi, his businessman cousin, Julie Tyagi, and Delhi based lawyer, GautamKhaitan, on charges of receiving bribes.

Apart from members of the Tyagi family, the FIR filed by the CBI in March 2013 also named three middlemen — Carlo Gerosa, Guido Haschke and Christian Michel. The Enforcement Directorate too started investigations to track the kickbacks that were allegedly paid through a network of companies floated by the middlemen. According to the Indian agencies, while Gerosa and Haschke dealt with the Tyagi family, Michel — an old India hand — dealt with bureaucrats and politicians.

During the trial in Italian courts, Haschke turned approver. It is Haschke’s dairies and notes — which he claimed to have written under the instructions of Michel — that form the basis of the allegations levelled at the Congress leadership by Narendra Modi. Haschke’s notes included a “Budget Sheet” in which abbreviations such as AP and FAM figure — referring, according to the BJP, to Ahmed Patel and the Gandhi “Family.”

In interviews to the Indian media from his Dubai residence, Michel has repeatedly dismissed the notes and papers as fake. Michel has said he never got along with Haschke and that is the reason why Haschke sought to falsely implicate him. Haschke, he has alleged, used the Tyagis as a front to siphon off most of the kickback money back to Italy. “The real problem lies in Italy,” Michel told an Indian TV channel in May 2016.

But it is not Italy but an Indian of Italian origin that has obsessed the Modi regime — and her name is Sonia Gandhi. In July this year, after Christian Michel was arrested in Dubai at India’s request, his lawyer, Rosemary Patrizi, and his sister, Sasha Ozeman, gave interviews to India Today alleging that Indian investigators wanted him to name the then Congress president in the chopper deal.

Michel, his lawyer said, was being coerced to make false claims that he knew Sonia Gandhi. “This year, they (investigators) went to Dubai to interview him. What they wanted really was a signature. They wanted that he corroborated telling things that were not true. He said no, I am not going to sign. After that the people went back to India and he was arrested.”

His sister said much the same thing. “They want him to admit that he knows Sonia Gandhi, but he doesn’t. They want him to admit that he is helping these people, these very big politicians, but he’s not. He is just trying to clear his own name,” she said.

Earlier, in 2016, Michel himself had alleged that the Modi government had offered to free the two Italian marines in Indian custody in exchange for evidence linking Sonia Gandhi to the chopper scam. Michel had made these allegations in letters to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg and the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague where India and Italy were arguing the marines issue. Michel’s claim that Modi had made this offer at a “brush by” meeting with his Italian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN general assembly meeting in September 2015 had been dismissed as ridiculous by the foreign ministry in India. But subsequent developments on the marines issue as well as the chopper scam case in Italy makes those claims seem less outlandish in retrospect.

In January this year, an Italian appeals court acquitted both Giuseppe Orsi and Bruno Spagnolini of all charges. The other two middlemen hold little interest for India. The focus has only been on Christian Michel. The Modi government has doggedly pursued his case — first with the Italian government and then with the UAE. In its eagerness to please the UAE leadership, India even helped “abduct” — according to a UN body — the princess, SheikhaLatifa, from a boat off the Goa coast and return her to Dubai. She was said to be fleeing from her repressive father who happens to be the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the UAE.

So important was the extradition of Michel that the National Security Adviser, AjitDoval, skipped the G 20 summit and went to Dubai instead — and triumphantly brought the fugitive to India just in time for Modi’s campaign-end flourish.

But Modi’s speech gave the game away. Everything Michel and his lawyer had alleged in the past, and which Indian authorities had vociferously denied, was vindicated by that speech. Modi, in fact, went much further than any CBI or ED charge sheet has by claiming the existence of “Madame Soniaji’s letter” and that Michel provided services to friends of the naamdar. Even before the CBI could begin its interrogation of Michel, Modi was already sure that many “secrets” would tumble out.

Yet regardless of the damage his speech has caused to the credibility of India’s investigators and diplomats, the prime minister is unlikely to retreat. Whatever be the “semi-final” results tomorrow, Modi is readying himself for an even more belligerent battle in 2019. The “confessions” of Christian Michel, he thinks, will provide him just the weapon he needs to tarnish the Congress again and make the people forget the debris of broken promises they are mired in today. There’s a hint of desperation in that hope…

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Opinion

The BJP has a real problem in the Hindi heartland

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By Rahul Kanwal

A deep dive into the comprehensive exit poll done by Axis My India for the India Today Group suggests that the BJP has lost significant support among key sections of voters who had played an important role in propelling the BJP to power in the 2014 general elections.

In these assembly elections, voters in rural areas, farmers, Dalits, tribals, first-time voters and the unemployed have voted for the Congress much more than they have for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan as well as in Chhattisgarh.

Out of the 230 Assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh, 187 are classified as rural seats. Here, the Congress has a 3% lead over the BJP — 42% of voters on rural seats said they had voted for the Congress, while 39% said they had voted for the BJP. Whereas, on the 43 urban seats of MP, the BJP enjoys a 5% lead over the Congress. A lead in urban seats was enough to save the BJP in a highly industrial state like Gujarat — but it is not enough to bail out the BJP in primarily rural states like MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

In the 90 Assembly seats of Chhattisgarh, the Congress’ lead over the BJP on the 82 rural seats is a whopping 10%. 46% of the respondents said they voted for the Congress versus 36% who voted for the BJP. In the 199 seats where elections were held in Rajasthan, the gap between the Congress and the BJP on the 169 rural seats is 4% (Cong: 41%, BJP: 37%).

First-time voters were among the main pillars of support for the BJP in the 2014 general elections and in the Assembly elections in the following years. However, across all three Hindi heartland states, more first-time voters have voted for the Congress than the BJP. In Chhattisgarh, the gap is 10% (Cong: 44%, BJP: 34%), in Rajasthan, the gap is 9% (Cong: 42%, BJP: 33%) while in MP as well, the gap between BJP and Congress is 3% (Cong: 41%, BJP: 39%).

The BJP will hope that the disillusionment among first-time voters is more a factor of state level anti-incumbency — and not a verdict on the performance of the Modi government at the centre.

A lot has been said in the build-up to these elections about agrarian distress. Farmers have staged major rallies in the national capital as well as in many states.

The BJP leadership has dismissed the notion of agrarian distress as an opposition-sponsored attempt to sully the government’s image. The India Today-Axis My India data suggests that agrarian distress could really be a serious problem for the BJP. Amongst farmers as well as farm labourers, the Congress enjoys at least a 4% gap over the BJP.

The gap amongst the farming community is highest in Chhattisgarh, where 47% of the farmers indicated that they supported the Congress while 36% said they supported the BJP. Among farm labourers, the gap was even wider — 44% farm labourers said they supported the Congress while 36% supported the BJP. That’s a massive 8% gap between the two parties. In Rajasthan there is a 5% gap among farmers between the Congress and the BJP — and a 13% gap among farm labourers. In MP, there is a 4% gap between the Congress and the BJP among farmers (Congress: 43%, BJP: 39%).

Similar trends can be seen among unemployed voters as well.The BJP trails the Congress by a whopping 15% margin among unemployed voters in Madhya Pradesh (Congress: 48%, BJP 33%). In Rajasthan, the gap is 13% (Congress: 45%, BJP: 32%) while in Chhattisgarh, the gap is 7% (Congress: 43% and BJP 36%).

Dalits and Tribals are the two other important vote banks where the BJP has been trying hard to make inroads. In states like Uttar Pradesh, some sections of these communities had cast their mandate for the BJP. However, in all three heartland states, the Congress has done much better than the BJP. In MP, 43% of the Dalit respondents indicated they voted for the Congress, while 35% said they supported the BJP. In Rajasthan, there is a huge 30% gap between the Congress and the BJP (Congress: 54%, BJP: 24%). In Chhattisgarh, there is a 17% gap between the two parties (Congress: 42%, BJP: 25%). There are 33 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes in Rajasthan, 10 in Chhattisgarh and 35 in MP.

Among tribals, the Congress enjoys a 9% lead over the BJP in MP, a 21% lead in Rajasthan and an 18% lead in Chhattisgarh. There are 25 Tribal seats in Rajasthan, 29 in Chhattisgarh and 47 in Madhya Pradesh.

The Exit Poll done by Axis My India for the India Today Group has a total sample size of 1,97,612 respondents. In Madhya Pradesh, the sample size was 71,125. In Rajasthan, the sample size was 63,041. And in Chhattisgarh, the sample size was 23,964.

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Opinion

In the swirl of change

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By Sohail Hashmi

One is increasingly coming across all kinds of claims of ownership; most are aimed at proving that the “other” has no claim and, therefore, no business to be where s/he is currently located. People are increasingly being told that if you do not speak a specific language or do not follow a given set of rituals or do not eat a particular type of food you have no business to be in a specific place and you should in fact be in some other part of the country or preferably in another country altogether. Those setting up these standards have little idea of how civilisations evolve, how things and ideas travel and how identities are created.

Let us take Delhi as an illustration to underscore this formulation. According to current estimates, Delhi is a city of approximately 1.9 crore people. In 1947 the figure was under 900,000. This almost 20-fold increase is certainly not a result of natural growth. Please keep in mind that a very large population of the city, the Muslims, constituted 30 per cent of the population of the city in 1947. Some of them had migrated to Pakistan. So Delhi, that had about 300,000 Muslims out of a population of about 900,000, had lost all but 6 per cent of its Muslim citizens. Into the newly created India, poured in more than 500,000 refugees from the newly created Pakistan and suddenly the city of Urdu became the city of Punjabi.

Hidden within this larger picture were the numerous other languages that we rarely think or speak about when we talk of the influx of Punjabis into Delhi. With the Punjabis came the Multanis, the Sindhis, the speakers of Saraiki, Pashto and those who spoke the many dialects of these and other languages.

In the East, there was a migration from what was then East Pakistan into what came to be known as West Bengal. Many of those who had worked with the government of British India in East Bengal, travelled all the way to Delhi and were eventually but much later allotted land to build their houses in the 1960s.

So the Delhi that came into being in the late 1940s and early 1950s was very different from the city that had existed prior to that.

The change was all pervasive —the ubiquitous chicken and paneer were unknown as common ingredients of food in Delhi before 1947, the practice of eating on the street is also a post-Partition import. Language, attire and music also underwent a change. New festivals were introduced, Lohri and Baisakhi for instance, and with these came the dhol to replace the dholak and it brought with it the bhangra and the Gidda, and so on and so forth.

In all respects, pre-1947 Delhi was very different from the Delhi of 1977 and the Delhi of today after its transformation in the last 25 years is very different from the Delhi before the early 1980s. This latest change has also been induced by migration, but this time it is neither sudden nor cataclysmic, though its overall impact is as fundamental as the change that Delhi had gone through in the immediate aftermath of Independence and the accompanying disorder and disarray.

Just as chicken and paneer had made a place for themselves in the menu 70 years ago, litti-chokha is quickly moving in from two directions, from the top through fine-dining experiences at places like Pot-Belly near Yashwant Place, and from push-cart stalls outside metro stations. Phrases of Bhojpuri have begun to creep into the conversations on the streets and very soon many of these will become part of the language of the city, just as Punjabi had started more than 70 decades ago.

The point that is being made is culture and its constituent elements — language, attire, food, music, dance, and rituals — that are markers of our identity are in a state of flux. We are constantly changing, adapting, absorbing, appropriating, accepting and discarding things and in that process we give birth to a way of life and a system of values and ethics. It is in this dynamic, in this constant renovation, innovation, even reinvention that identities are fashioned and refashioned and, therefore, to talk of categories such as culture or identities as frozen in time, as unchanging categories, spanning across centuries is flying in the face of facts of history.

We must remember that the city known as Delhi has been in the making for more than a thousand years. We must remember that the linguistic, cultural, gastronomic, sartorial, musical and creative identities of Delhi have drawn as much from the Jats and Gujjars who inhabited the plains in scattered villages as they have from the diverse range of migrants who came and continue to come and reshape the city in their image. And yet the city retains its Delhiness, even as it constantly renews itself.

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