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‘Mediocre loner’ to Emergency bad boy, Sanjay Gandhi is the big ‘what if’ in Indian politics

Entitled and 'outstandingly mediocre,' Sanjay didn’t have the makings of an ideal political successor. But there are perks to being your mother’s favourite.

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Sanjay Gandhi died suddenly one fateful Monday morning on 23 June 1980 in a plane crash. When his mother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, saw his mangled remains, the Iron Lady of India broke down and wept — her second son, her scion, was dead.

June is the cruellest month when it comes to Sanjay Gandhi’s memory—it is the month that underlines his controversial role in the 1975 Emergency, and also his untimely death at 33.

At one point, he was poised to succeed his mother at the height of her power during the Emergency. Instead, his death altered the course of Indian history and the Congress party by forcing his elder brother, future Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to step into the vacuum.

Vinod Mehta’s The Sanjay Story, published originally in 1978 and then brought back in print in 2013, chronicles Sanjay Gandhi’s short but eventful life. The book carries remembrances from those who knew Gandhi at school—he was “outstandingly mediocre,” a “loner” with a reputation for kleptomania and stealing cars for quick, short drives.

His mother was more indulgent towards his character. In a 1966 letter, Indira Gandhi wrote that Sanjay is “a different type from Rajiv — more practical in some ways but yet more shy and diffident in others.”

In less than ten years, his shyness and diffidence would be replaced with confidence and entitled authority. His taste for power, and the free pass he received from his mother for exercising it, looms over his legacy within the Gandhi family.


Also read: Emergency-era censorship affected films so badly that even a spot of blood was cut out


Emergency bad boy

Sanjay was practically anointed as Indira Gandhi’s successor, becoming his mother’s adviser and exercising vast influence over her. He was not an elected member to Parliament, and never occupied any official position— but it didn’t stop him from acting with authority.

High-profile government officials actually resigned in protest over Sanjay’s interference in government. I.K. Gujral, for example, resigned as Cabinet Minister of Information and Broadcasting after Sanjay reportedly tried to control the ministry. In an interview after Sanjay’s death, Gujral spoke about the clear shift of power from mother to son during the Emergency. After Sanjay chastised him for not carrying Indira Gandhi’s speech on one of the channels of All India Radio, Gujral told him that he needs to “learn how to be polite” and “learn how to behave with his seniors.”

“I’m your mother’s minister, not yours,” said Gujral. Ultimately, Gujral was replaced with Vidya Charan Shukla, who has been called a propagandist for Gandhi’s government during the Emergency.

Sanjay’s involvement in the forced sterilisation campaign during the Emergency has also come under the scanner. Described as a “gruesome campaign,” the forced sterilisation was part of a push towards family planning that caused widespread chaos and led to infections and health crises.

Historians have flagged his encouragement of the campaign, the free license given to those who were in his favour, and the tacit support he received from his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, as draconian — and a foreshadowing of authoritarianism if he were ever to come to power. His death is an unanswered “what if?” moment in Indian history and politics.


Also read: Kissa Kursee Ka: A parody that sent Sanjay Gandhi to jail and laid bare Indian politics


The dream that didn’t take off

But Sanjay’s first brush with power came even before the emergency, in 1971. He was only 25 when his mother made him managing director of Maruti Motors, where her government tasked him to produce the ‘people’s car.’

Sanjay had no prior experience with automobiles or management — only one, unfinished internship at Rolls Royce in the United Kingdom — and was still awarded an exclusive contract to manufacture cars. When Indira Gandhi was accused of misusing her power to get Sanjay’s project off the ground, she reportedly said that if she didn’t encourage Sanjay, how could she justify her policy of encouraging the country’s youth to be enterprising?

Maruti did not manufacture any cars during Sanjay’s lifetime. But he had stepped into public life and there was no turning back.


Also read: Karan Thapar on how his childhood friend Sanjay Gandhi took him on a daredevil jeep ride


From sudden power to sudden death

If his rise to power was sudden, the plane’s nosedive into his death was even more surprising.

Parliament met in “stunned silence” as the Speaker Balram Jakhar announced Sanjay’s demise with a “quivering voice.” His death was followed by wild speculations and conspiracy theories, the most popular of which is that Indira Gandhi had something to do with her son’s death, in order to prevent him from overshadowing her politically. But as the story goes, Indira Gandhi was nervous about Sanjay’s proclivity towards aerobatics while flying a new aircraft acquired by the Delhi Flying Club. He had spent the three days before his death frequenting Safdarjung Airport to fly the plane. Indira had also received complaints from Civil Aviation authorities that Sanjay was ignoring safety requirements during his flights.

Sanjay loved to fly high. On the morning of his death, however, he was flying dangerously low — after making loops around Ashoka Hotel, his aircraft crashed less than 500 yards from his own residence at 12, Willingdon Crescent. He had been flying with Capt. Subhash Saxena. It reportedly took eight surgeons four hours to stitch up their corpses.

His funeral was attended by huge crowds — one report estimates that at least three lakh people were on Delhi’s streets for the funeral. His funeral was also attended by all the political personages of India. “You’ll have to admit,” said Mohd Arif Khan, current governor of Kerala who attended the funeral, “that this man achieved at 33 what eludes most political leaders in their entire careers.”

As Rajiv Gandhi lit the funeral pyre, all eyes were not on Sanjay’s wife Maneka, but his mother Indira. She wore dark sunglasses to hide her face, her lips “tightening” and her neck “straining.” Journalist Sunil Sethi sums up the moment in an article: “No one would now ask where the son will be without his mother. They would rather ask where the mother will be without her son.”

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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