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The two branches of the legacy

People are baffled by the phenomenon that of the two rival branches of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty ? one headed by Sonia, the other by Maneka. Khushwant Singh takes a look.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2006 01:00 IST

People are baffled by the phenomenon that of the two rival branches of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — one headed by Sonia Gandhi, the other by Maneka Gandhi — the general public has come to accept the Sonia branch as legitimate heirs in preference to Maneka’s. Why? Descent-wise both have equal claims; as a matter of fact, while Sanjay Gandhi was alive everyone assumed that he would become the Prime Minister because he was active (perhaps hyper-active) in politics with a wife fully sharing his aspirations and perhaps becoming more than an equal sharer of power. On the other side, his elder brother Rajiv, and his wife Sonia, made no secret of their distaste for politics. The scenario underwent a dramatic change the day Sanjay killed himself in an air crash. The focus shifted back to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Sonia was her favourite daughter-in-law. She made no secret of her dislike for Maneka, whose manners and brash tongue riled her. She ultimately expelled her from her house.

Though saas-bahu feuds are common, the bahu  that keeps her saas  happy is better regarded. Indira cajoled her elder son and succeeded in bringing him to politics. He did so, reluctantly, but was an instant success. He was handsome, spoke with dignity and inspired hope in people’s minds. When Mrs Gandhi was assassinated, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Rajiv Gandhi was the most suitable heir to the Nehru-Gandhi legacy. Sanjay’s memory bore the stigma of Emergency rule. Even his widow disowned it. Very few, amongst whom I count myself, still maintain that when first imposed, the Emergency was justified to prevent the country from sliding into chaos because leaders of Opposition parties simply watched the spectacle of the Gandhi’s discomfiture. The danda-therapy worked a miracle in restoring law and order in the land. However, it continued for too long and was grossly abused by people in power, including members of Maneka’s family to settle personal scores. It is ironic that they should try to wash their hands of all guilt.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the question of dynastic succession went into the doldrums. But the wave of sympathy for the tragic ends of mother and son flowed towards Rajiv Gandhi’s side. Maneka tried to build herself as a possible successor. She created a niche for herself as the spokesperson for animal rights with a Parliamentary constituency of her own. She realised that the Congress party would have nothing to do with her. So she began flirting with the Opposition BJP — a blatantly Hindu chauvinistic party. Both thought they would use each other to advance their interests: On either side it was an unprincipled, opportunistic alliance. Maneka not only sank her own chances of being accepted as a national leader, but also that of her son Feroze Varun, a bright and gifted young lad. He has yet to get round unscrupulous leaders like LK Advani to find a constituency which will elect him as a BJP member. His cousin, Rahul, had no difficulty in getting himself elected.

How did Sonia Gandhi emerge as the leader of the Congress and hope of the Indian masses? Many Indian leaders dismissed her for not knowing the simple ABC of politics. She soon proved to everyone that she had mastered the alphabets of Indian politics from A to Z: She never made a false move. Others insinuated that since she was not born in India, she could not possibly feel the way Indians did.  The latest to join the gang of Sonia-baiters is Natwar Singh. They don’t know their countrymen. Sonia proved that assumption wrong. Most Indians feel that no matter where she was born — whether near Turin (Italy) or Timbuktoo (Africa) —  she was reborn in Delhi as one hundred per cent swadeshi. That is why she has been able to keep the disparate elements in her party together, sycophants at bay and provide the petrol that keeps the UPA government going. And she keeps smiling all the time.

Making of hijras

For quite some time I have been wondering why civil servants, particularly those in the Foreign Service, become increasingly uninteresting and dull. They have no small talk, no spicy gossip, and no bawdy jokes; little wit or humour. It does not happen to men in the Defence Services or to their wives; they continue to be full of vim and vigour and make lively companions.

I have come to the conclusion that over the years, civil servants are trained to speak in measured tones; restrict their vocabulary to avoid frivolous remarks which might be misconstrued. The more straight-laced they are, the better. In due course of time they become hijras. That is unfair to hijras, who at least have their own style of clapping their hands, making lewd gestures, singing in unmelodious voices and gyrating. Civil servants can’t do any of these. Their role models are spokesmen of the Ministry of External Affairs: Dead pan faces, no smiles or frowns, no raising or lowering of voices, simply reading out carefully worded statements of policy, answering questions in the same tone and manner, while they say: “Thank you ladies and gentlemen.” They are not fit to be invited to mehfils where the cup goes round as Urdu couplets are recited and anecdotes with double meaning recounted.

I have known quite a few performers at mehfils. They happened to be all women of which only one survives. On top of my list was Dharma Kumar, wife of Lovraj Kumar, Secretary of the Petroleum Ministry. She had a vitriolic sense of humour that could tear the reputation of anyone she did not like to shreds. But she giggled and laughed while she talked, which took away some of the fun of listening to her. And she wanted to be the sole performer. If anyone else came out with a wittier anecdote, she could take offence and turn nasty. One by one, her admirers dropped her. The second was Sheila Dhar, the singer of classical Hindustani music and wife of professor PN Dhar, one time personal secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She was a great mimic and could imitate people’s voices from Indira Gandhi to her chaprasis and sweepers. She was great company. Now there is Ira Pande who is in charge of publications of the India International Centre. I have met her only twice. She did an excellent biography of her mother Shivani. At our second meeting, she recounted her experience of being interviewed by a panel of selectors for her present job. It had me in splits of laughter as I happened to know some of them. Ira is married to a senior civil servant and is the mother of three children. I often wonder how they get along.

Initial truth

Banta: What does MCD stand for?

Santa: Malaria, Chikungunya, Dengue.

(Contributed by Rajeshwari Singh, Delhi)