Review: The Rajiv I Knew by Mani Shankar Aiyar - Hindustan Times
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Review: The Rajiv I Knew by Mani Shankar Aiyar

ByChinmaya R Gharekhan
Apr 19, 2024 09:53 PM IST

Mani Shankar Aiyar worked constructively with Rajiv Gandhi over a long period. Consequently, his book reveals several sides to the former prime minister

Mani Shankar Aiyar, the author of The Rajiv I Knew and I overlapped in Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO for about 18 months. (I served twice as long in Mrs Indira Gandhi’s PMO.) But I have known him for a much longer period. I have no hesitation in saying that he is a person of absolute integrity. I mean intellectual integrity. He does not say or write anything that he does not believe in. He will not write for the sake of playing to the gallery. But he can be gratuitously offensive at times, as for example, when he describes a colleague as “pompous”.

Rajiv Gandhi and Mani Shankar Aiyar in the 1980s. (Courtesy Juggernaut)
Rajiv Gandhi and Mani Shankar Aiyar in the 1980s. (Courtesy Juggernaut)

336pp, ₹595; Juggernaut
336pp, ₹595; Juggernaut

Having been three years senior to RG (Rajiv Gandhi) at Doon School, Aiyar, to many of his colleagues in PMO, appeared to be talking to the PM in a familiar way. None of us others ever did so. to. He spoke to the PM casually and was completely at ease. For him, being comfortable in RG’s company came naturally, without any effort.

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My interaction with RG was strictly limited to foreign policy issues. I never travelled with him on his domestic tours, as the author did. RG never discussed with me Assam or Mizoram or Punjab or Kashmir. The PM once told me that he would like to surround himself with young persons, and promptly added that I did not qualify to be in that group!

Easily, the best chapter in the book is the one detailing the initiative for ushering in the Panchayat system in the country. I had left the PMO by the time work on the system started and hence was fascinated by Mani’s sincere, devoted and constructive role in what he is careful to describe was the PM’s initiative. That the PM took the author with him on all his tours to study the subject, making him chair discussion groups, even asking him to win over “Doubting Thomases” within his party suggests that he had complete trust, not only in Mani’s commitment to the cause but also in his ability to bring around those who were sceptical about it. The Panchayat initiative is perhaps the most important legacy of Rajiv Gandhi. If it has not worked fully as envisaged, it is not the fault of the system of local self-government.

Regarding the controversies surrounding Bofors, I was convinced at the time that the PM would never have accepted illegal payments. Nevertheless, his image of “Mr Clean” took a hit because of the public’s perception of bribery, which the opposition as well as the media did everything to encourage.

On Shah Bano, I felt disappointed by RG’s stance. I felt that he tried to nullify the Supreme Court’s judgment to appease the Muslims. This perception was shared by many. I am not even sure if it helped the PM electorally. I am glad the author has effectively shown that this was not the case and that the Act that was eventually passed by the Parliament in fact benefited Muslim women.

On both these controversies, Aiyar has rendered a much needed service by setting the record straight in minute detail.

Like his mother, the PM too was greatly interested in foreign policy issues. But he did not have the grasp on those that Mrs Gandhi did. He preferred oral presentation to reading long briefs. Though new to international relations, he exuded confidence while talking with much senior and more experienced interlocutors. He was inclined to trust them a bit too much. He did not always follow President Reagan’s advice, “Trust but verify”. Personally, I believe in “Verify and still not trust”.

President Zia of Pakistan came to Delhi to attend Mrs Gandhi’s funeral. A call on the PM was arranged. The PM met him alone. After the meeting, the PM told me he could “do business” with Zia. I was surprised. How could he, after one encounter lasting a few minutes, form such an assessment, and that too of the dictator of Pakistan who invariably was at his charming best while meeting with Indians? The same Zia tried to smuggle in a postage stamp showing entire Jammu and Kashmir as part of Pakistan at the founding session of SAARC in Dhaka in December 1985. We were able to prevent the stamp being displayed because an alert officer of the Indian postal department spotted it and brought it to my attention.

The PM’s visit to Pakistan and his talks with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto were trumpeted as a breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations. We, professional diplomats, tend to exaggerate the “achievements” of our leader. Nothing lasting came out of the visit. Later, during my visit to Delhi with Boutros Ghali, the Secretary General of the United Nations, I called on Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. He said to me: “I cannot talk with this hysterical woman (referring to Benazir Bhutto) as I could with Nawaz Sharif.” My short point is that we, that is our leadership, would be wise not to be carried away by sweet talk by the Pakistani leadership. The author’s views on Pakistan are well known; he has aired them multiple times. His sojourn in Karachi as consul general has made him love Pakistan and its people. But how can you love a neighbour who covets your territory and harms India through supporting and organising terrorist attacks against the nation? I still remember the advice given to my batch by a senior secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, YD Gundevia: “Remember, no foreign diplomat is your friend.”

Sri Lanka was a sad story in RG’s prime ministerial tenure. Mrs Gandhi thoroughly distrusted Jayawardene whereas RG evidently trusted his assurances. RG did not appreciate being reminded of his mother’s policy. He disliked being told that his mother’s policy was different. I was a witness when the PM told the senior diplomat G Parthasarathy, “eminence grise” as some of us referred to him: “From today, this is our policy on Sri Lanka. We are for the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, we do not support a separate Tamil Eelam.” This was absolutely the right policy. The Sri Lanka accord was concluded much after I had left the PMO. I was sitting with MK Razdan of the Press Trust of India in the Delegates’ Lounge at the United Nations when I learnt about the accord. I remember telling him that I was not happy about the development. A few months later, I was in Delhi for consultations. I called on the PM at his office in Parliament House. I told him I had one concern about the Sri Lanka accord. He encouraged me to share my concern with him. I said: I have a feeling that the very people to save whom we had sent a military contingent – the IPKF – might turn against us and we might end up fighting with and killing them. He assured me, “Don’t worry, we have gone into it most carefully and your concern is totally misplaced”. What Aiyar has narrated about the failure of intelligence and how the then chief of RAW as well as the chief of the Army misled the PM was certainly the case, but the responsibility had to lie with the PM.

About nuclear disarmament and the PM’s carefully laid out three-stage plan to make the world nuclear-weapon-free, I was, as Aiyar has described me, a “sceptical realist”. The draft plan was sent to me for my comments in New York where I was serving at the time as Permanent Representative to the United Nations. I expressed reservations about the plan but was told that the PM had personally worked on it for many hours. He, perhaps, was sincere in his effort but I don’t believe that impressed anyone. Was he naïve enough to believe his plan would be welcomed by others? It went nowhere.

Writing about the economy, Aiyar has observed that the West was almost convinced that the new, western-educated, young prime minister would drag India out of the socialist camp. On the political side too, that was the West’s expectation. Senators from Washington descended on Delhi to convince the PM that, as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, he was the only one who could persuade the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan. RG did indeed try his hand at it. Senator Pell offered to carry messages from the PM to President Zia. I tried to dissuade the PM from accepting Pell’s good offices, but he saw nothing objectionable about it. He had either forgotten about how the Americans had treated Mrs Gandhi at the time of the Bangladesh war or had taken a conscious decision not to let that come in the way of improved relations with the US, which was a much better source for new technology, etc.

Mani Shankar Aiyar paying homage to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on his 75th birth anniversary at Veer Bhumi in New Delhi, India, on August 20, 2019. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)
Mani Shankar Aiyar paying homage to former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on his 75th birth anniversary at Veer Bhumi in New Delhi, India, on August 20, 2019. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)

I agree entirely with Aiyar. RG was a charismatic leader, warm and charming. The Bangladeshi ladies fell over one another to shake his hand at the reception that our High Commissioner Indrajit Chadha organized in the PM’s honour in 1985. But he could also be short tempered, which I had occasion to witness a couple of times. In his desire to take quick decisions, he would, at times, be unfair. When Sam Nujoma, the leader of SWAPO (future Namibia), came to Delhi for the special non-aligned conference on Namibia, the chief of protocol did not assign him a Mercedes car as he had to other foreign ministers. The PM was so upset that he immediately wanted to sack the chief of protocol and asked me for a name to replace him. When I did not suggest a name, he got upset with me and said, “You are protecting your friend”. He sent for the Foreign Secretary who managed to calm the PM and persuaded him against insisting on his decision.

The Rajiv that Aiyar knew was not the Rajiv that most people knew. Aiyar was privileged to have worked with Rajiv Gandhi intimately and constructively over a long period. Travelling with the prime minister on all his tours, domestic and foreign, gave him a unique insight into RG’s personality and character. The book makes it evident that Aiyar adored RG and why not? RG had several adorable attributes. He wanted to take India to the 21st century and turn it into a modern, industrialised and technologically advanced nation. Rajiv became prime minister by accident – a tragic accident involving the death of his younger brother – but he was not a reluctant prime minister. He enjoyed the job, perhaps mainly because it gave him the opportunity to mould the country in his image. He certainly would have achieved a lot in his second term. He once told me: “Chinmaya, I have learnt a lot; the second term will be much better”. I am certain it would have been. Aiyar’s book will convince most people of it.

Chinmaya R Gharekhan was advisor on foreign affairs to the prime minister of India from 1981 to 1986. He was India’s permanent representative to the United Nations. His last book was Centres of Power: My Years in the Prime Minister’s Office and Security Council.

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