Sonia, who had seen R.K. Dhawan serve the Gandhi family from close quarters, had reasons to be indebted to him.
Two years ago, Congress president Sonia Gandhi was meeting senior party leaders at 10 Janpath when she suddenly turned to R.K. Dhawan and asked, “So you are also writing a book”. Dhawan was speechless and his book, an autobiographical account, was shelved. This was a time when M.L. Fotedar, Natwar Singh, Salman Khurshid, Pranab Mukherjee, Margaret Alva and a host of other Congress leaders had written books and memoirs that had caused embarrassment to Sonia and the party.
In October 2014, Dhawan had gone public saying he was “inclined” to write a book that would “reveal a lot” about former prime minister Indira and her son Rajiv. Dhawan had told Ritu Sarin of The Indian Express, “My book will not be like that of Natwar Singh, which says nothing. It will reveal a lot. This is because I strongly feel a leader should not appoint any friends or relatives to posts like that of a minister. This is the mistake Rajiv Gandhi made with the likes of Arun Nehru, Arun Singh and M.L. Fotedar, all of whom poisoned him against me.”
Dhawan, addressed as RKD in party circles, was a curious mix of a die-hard Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist, a gatekeeper and an executioner who installed and removed duly elected chief ministers of Congress-ruled states, almost at will. He was ‘Dhawan Saab’ for many rich and powerful who wanted to get an audience with Indira.
In the initial years, Indira’s steno-typist shot to fame for being the Prime Minister’s messenger. In the early 1970s, Indira used to avoid giving direct instructions to her ministers, chief ministers and state party heads. Dhawan was her conduit to convey unpleasant and often awkward decisions. The game-plan was that if things go wrong, Dhawan would get the blame. This arrangement placed great power in Dhawan, the henchman.
Dhawan is credited with spotting Sanjay Gandhi’s political ambitions. The young man was back from Crewe, UK, after an internship at Rolls-Royce. As Indira’s personal assistant (PA), Dhawan started introducing Sanjay to Congress bigwigs. He started advising some Congress leaders to praise Sanjay in Indira’s presence. Within months, Indira was somewhat convinced of Sanjay’s political acumen, and by the time Emergency was imposed, Dhawan was enjoying the confidence of both mother and son.
Three days before Emergency was imposed, the Dhawan-Sanjay duo had managed to shift union home secretary N.K. Mukherjee out and replace him with S.L. Khurana, then-chief secretary of Rajasthan. A core team consisting of junior home minister Om Mehta and Bansi Lal was in place to ensure that electricity supply to newspaper offices was cut on the night of 25 June 1975 when Emergency was declared.
However, post Emergency, Dhawan tried to distance himself from the excesses committed during the period. He had told author Coomi Kapoor, “The real culprit of the whole Emergency was S.S. Ray. Afterwards, he (Ray) tried to disown responsibility, and put the blame for everything on Indira in the Shah Commission.”
Dhawan has been quoted by Kapoor in her book The Emergency: A Personal History as saying that during the Shah Commission hearings “Ray once went up to Indira and remarked, ‘You are looking fit’. She replied coldly, ‘You are doing your best to keep me fit’. She never spoke to him again”.
“Ray, like so many of those who were party to the Emergency excesses had, post-March 1977, tried to deny his involvement and pin the blame entirely on Sanjay and Mrs Gandhi”.
The Thakkar Commission of Inquiry into the conspiracy angle in Indira Gandhi’s assassination, however, was a huge setback for Dhawan. The report that was selectively leaked in The Indian Express pointed the needle of suspicion at Dhawan. Rajiv, who was the Prime Minister and the Congress president, did not waste any time in removing Dhawan from all the key posts and positions.
For years, Dhawan would visit the Hanuman temple at Baba Kharak Singh Marg in Delhi, seeking divine intervention. By 1988, Bofors and the exit of Arun Nehru had shattered Rajiv politically, and Dhawan was back in favour.
Sonia, who had seen Dhawan serve the family from close quarters, had reasons to be indebted to him. On 15 May 1999, when virtually everyone was getting restless to watch India’s World Cup cricket opener against South Africa in England, a Congress Working Committee meeting was convened.
The meeting was supposed to be brief because everyone was in a hurry to finalise the list of candidates for the Goa assembly election and then return to their television sets to watch the match.
As the meeting started, Sharad Pawar smiled and P.A. Sangma stood up. The rebellion in the Congress had begun, signalled by the mighty Maratha and executed by the diminutive samurai with a swish of his razor-sharp tongue. Sonia and the rest of her council were stunned.
As recounted by those present at the meeting, Sangma slowly built a case for how the BJP campaign against Sonia’s foreign origins was seeping down to even remote villages. Then came the unkindest cut. “We know very little about you, about your parents,” Sangma told her.
Those present at the meeting claim that Sonia was shocked by Sangma’s bluntness – Sangma was drafted into the CWC as her nominee. “When people ask us why the Congress has failed to get a qualified Indian among [India’s] 980 million citizens as its prime ministerial candidate, we have no answer. I think they are right,” Sangma said.
Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, Jitendra Prasada, Madhavrao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot, Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Arjun Singh, Ambika Soni and other “loyalists” kept hearing Sangma till Dhawan lost his cool. He rubbished Sangma’s theory and said, “Bhai, you seem to be taking up the BJP-RSS agenda”.
Seated next to Pawar, who was the kingpin of the rebellion, Dhawan had told Sonia, “Madam, you are not alone in this battle. We are all with you”.
Congress insiders had told this correspondent then that Dhawan’s act of loyalty had left a deep mark on Sonia. She had kept wondering why the likes of Scindia, Mukherjee and Soni could not do what Dhawan had done – countering Sangma and asking him to shut up.
In personal life too, Dhawan was known for his loyalty. A confirmed bachelor till the age of 74, Dhawan married his long-term companion, Achla, 59, in 2011. He and Achla were known to each other since 1970s. Achla was married to a pilot and moved to Canada but got divorced in 1990. Dhawan had told journalist Ritu Sarin why he decided to marry Achla. He had to be admitted to a hospital when he suffered from viral fever. Achla was taking care of him, but the hospital authorities insisted that a blood relative should sign the necessary consent form. “I felt very bad that she has taken so much care of me but could not sign the form,” Dhawan said.
Rasheed Kidwai is an ORF visiting fellow, author and journalist. The views expressed here are his own