24 Akbar Road
There is always more than one version of how events unfold in the Grand Old Party of India and 24, Akbar Road, presented as a short history of the people behind “the fall and rise of the Congress” is the version of its author, journalist Rasheed Kidwai. This account is based on the information provided to the writer by those who have been close to the corridors of power at different times, but not close enough to perhaps know the truth. So there are bound to be question marks over some of the not fully substantiated ‘facts’ that find their way into the book.
This book comes out at a time when there is a controversy over the publication of a multi-volume history of the Congress compiled at the behest of the party leadership to mark its 125th year of existence. Kidwai has a wide experience of covering the Congress, not an easy beat considering the complex nature of the party’s functioning and even more because of the complex personalities of its leaders. So it is not surprising that even someone like Kidwai has described the events in the party’s modern history in a manner that can be contested.
As someone who has seen the Congress from extremely close quarters, I would think that it would have been apt if Kidwai had obtained some direct quotes from the likes of RK Dhawan, Makhan Lal Fotedar, Vincent George and Ahmed Patel, the quadrumvirate close to the Gandhis in different eras, to corroborate his findings. For instance, Kidwai’s version of how the Congress got its ‘hand’ symbol gives too much credit to Buta Singh, while there are many in the party who have, over the years, acknowledged that the symbol came into being through the close relationship which a Delhi Congressman and long time All India Congress Committee (AICC) member Bansi Lal Mehta had with the then Chief Election Commissioner SL Sankhdher. Mehta persuaded Sankhdher after Indira Gandhi had chosen the ‘hand’ symbol. Buta Singh and AR Antulay had only conveyed the choices offered to her.
There is no doubt that Buta had become one of Indira’s trusted aides. But he again gets excessive acclaim in this book for organising the Asian Games in 1982 when it is common knowledge that the troika of HKL Bhagat, HKL Kapoor and Jagmohan along with Lt General HN Sethna, had a huge role to play.
There is a mention of the close equation of 10, Janpath with 24, Akbar Road, thereby giving the impression that the two buildings remained with the party or its functionaries since the late 70s. Yes, 10, Janpath was the headquarters of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) during the Emergency. But after the Janata Party takeover, the IYC subsequently shifted to a new address. There was no relation between the two addresses for quite a while — until Rajiv Gandhi, much against the advice of many of his close friends, moved there in 1990 as the leader of the Opposition. Since then, 10, Janpath resumed its importance, but lost it temporarily when PV Narasimha Rao was prime minister.
It is natural that Kidwai has a soft corner for Madhya Pradesh politicians since he knows many of them very closely and has relied on their perceptions on various issues. He also tends to get carried away with Mohsina Kidwai, whom he describes at one place as being very close to Indira Gandhi — in his words, as close as Teji Bachchan and Pupul Jayakar. The truth is that Mohsina was a junior leader then who was made to contest against her original mentor Chandrajit Yadav in 1978 from Azamgarh on the seat vacated by Ram Naresh Yadav who had got elected as the UP chief minister.
There are some interesting pages devoted to the relationship of the Bachchans with the Gandhis and also about the close friendship among Amitabh, Ajitabh, Rajiv, Sanjay and Adil Shahryar, Mohammad Yunus’ son. However, there is no mention of Indira Gandhi’s advice given to Rajiv in the presence of two top politicians of the time that he should never bring Teji’s son (Amitabh) into politics. There is no reference in the book of how Amitabh had gone to Bombay seeking to break into the film industry with two letters from Indira Gandhi — one for KA Abbas (quoted in the book extensively) and the other for Nargis Dutt.
Kidwai tends to be cautious while talking about Maneka Gandhi and, therefore, gets into an overtly politically correct mode by playing down her role and being extremely subjective about it in the Sanjay Gandhi era and beyond.
The author is rather lavish in his praise for Sonia Gandhi (his first book is her biography). He relies on Harish Khare and Vir Sanghvi to substantiate many of his assumptions. He should have known that Sonia’s statement to the press in 2004, a day after she renounced the office of prime minister while backing Manmohan Singh for the top job, was drafted and emailed by Sanghvi who was abroad at that time.
Another significant detail missing is that before going to attend her first day in office at 24, Akbar Road as the Congress president on March 14,1998, Sonia rehearsed her speech at 10, Janpath in the presence of her daughter Priyanka and nephew Feroze Varun. Rahul was out of town.
As I mentioned before, it is not easy to write on the Congress. But overall, Kidwai’s is an effort that needs to be appreciated. It is a book that will be a talking point in Congress circles — and beyond — for a long time to come.