Reminiscing two untold stories in Indian politics
Bhishma Narain Singh and “King” Mahendra are no longer with us. But the trajectory of politics is full of such unknown stories
A fixture in the lounge at the India International Centre in New Delhi, before his death in 2018, was the veteran Congress politician from Bihar, Bhisma Narain Singh. During his career, he was governor of many states, and a minister holding several important portfolios in Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet. He was a good raconteur, and over a cup of tea, shared many a fascinating story about his life and politics.
One of them pertained to the uncanny political acumen of Indira Gandhi. After losing the elections post the Emergency in 1977, Mrs Gandhi was justifiably targeted by the incumbent Janata Dal government. On December 19, 1978, the Janata Dal passed a resolution in the Lok Sabha for her arrest. She preferred to be arrested in Parliament, and rallied her supporters and the media, while the government took three hours to get an arrest warrant.
She was sent to Tihar jail. Charan Singh was the home minister, and Indira was aware that the ruling coalition was seriously unstable with growing fissures between him and PM Morarji Desai. Bhisma Narain Singh said that on December 23, Indira called him early in the morning from jail. Her instructions were precise. She told him to go to a particular florist on Janpath, buy the biggest bouquet of flowers available, and reach Ram Lila Maidan by the time of Charan Singh’s rally to celebrate his 76th birthday. Once there, she asked him to get past the police barriers (“You have been a Cabinet minister and would have some contacts in the police,” she advised) and reach the stage. Then, just before Charan Singh spoke, he instructed him to ensure that her greeting for Charan Singh is publicly announced, and the bouquet personally handed to him.
Bhisma Narain Singh followed the instructions exactly, and succeeded. Charan Singh thanked Indira for her good wishes, while the massive crowd cheered on. The ice was broken. Three days later, in December 1978, Indira was released from jail. The Congress now offered support to Charan Singh to become the PM if he split the party, and he took the bait. He was appointed PM in July 1979, with Congress support from outside. The very next month, Congress withdrew its support, and the government fell without even Charan Singh even getting a chance to prove his majority in Parliament. President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections. In January 1980, Gandhi swept back to power with an absolute majority.
The person who accompanied Bhisma Narain Singh on this delicate mission was a gentleman called “King” Mahendra Prasad. Owner of Aristo Pharmaceuticals, he was elected from the Congress to the Lok Sabha from Bihar in 1980, and was the richest member in Parliament. A good friend, he too had stories to tell.
When Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash on June 23, 1980, his wife, Maneka, inherited his political legacy, since Rajiv, Indira’s elder son, an Air India pilot, had no interest in politics. Prasad says that one day, when he met Indira at her public durbar soon after her return to power, he told her he wanted to talk about Rajiv. She asked him to stay back and meet her later. When they met, Prasad told her that a daughter-in-law cannot really be trusted to become her political heir, and that she must ensure that Rajiv enters politics. According to him, Indira listened quietly but intently. She must have received this advice from others too, but Prasad claimed that this was the turning point. Rajiv, much against his own and his wife Sonia’s wishes, was requisitioned into politics. In 1981, he won the Lok Sabha seat from Amethi, earlier held by Sanjay, and was soon thereafter appointed general secretary of the party. Maneka, sidelined, did not take it lying down. The breaking point came when she stormed out of the PM’s residence with her young son Varun on March 28, 1982.
Both Bhishma Narain Singh and “King” Mahendra are no longer with us. But the trajectory of politics is full of such unknown stories, and the role they perhaps played in its making.
Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers The views expressed are personal