Three things about Union minister Kamal Nath have remained unchanged in the past thirty years: chewing gum, collecting matchboxes and his loyalty to Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi's younger son.
The last first: Nath and Sanjay were Doon School buddies. If manufacturing India's first small car, the Maruti, was Sanjay's dream, for Nath the project was a sound proposition. An air crash killed Sanjay before his dream car rolled out, and Nath was left to fight for its nationalization.
His plunge into politics was a rocky transition, “from classes to the masses”, as he says. A scion of a business family, Nath had his future charted for him. Politics happened because of Sanjay. It took a while but he adjusted, just as he did to wearing khadi.
“Kamal Nath,” says his school buddy Gautam Vohra, a publisher and an organic farmer, “is an unconventional guy. He focused on everything but studies. Ask him to climb mountains and he was the first; mention parties and he would take the lead.
Like he would to bunk classes to catch a movie. Often he would take us to places none of us could afford. But then Nath came from an affluent family. He was very generous. His other side: when he came to stay with me in London, he slept on the floor.”
Two things are erroneously attributed to Rajiv Gandhi: the style he lent to khadi and the generational change he brought into politics.
Even in the Seventies, Nath wore a fabric that looked like khadi but was not. It is difficult to say if he had it specially spun. Rajiv was credited with ushering in youth power, but Sanjay did it much earlier. The seventh Lok Sabha in 1980 was
perhaps the first to have a group of young MPs, decried by the Opposition as “Sanjay ke chokre” (Sanjay’s hoodlums).
Till Sanjay lived, Nath was seen as Mrs Gandhi’s third son. The slogan “Indira Gandhi ke do haath, Sanjay Gandhi, Kamal Nath” drives home the point.
Short on patience, Nath chews gum as fast as he speaks. Offering tea means an extra 15 minutes, so it is served in the ante room. “I was a heavy smoker. Tried giving it up and chewed gum instead,” he says.
His collection of matchboxes runs into hundreds — one from each country he visits.