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KC Singh’s book is history recorded by an insider

It is normal now for political commentators to remark on the similarities between Indira Gandhi’s style of functioning and that of the current regime.

But what often passes without comment is that both Mrs. Gandhi and Narendra Modi liked the same sort of approach to appointing Presidents.


As KC Singh points out in this informative and extremely readable book, Presidents were never intended to be rubber stamps or mere ceremonial figures. They were expected to be figures of substance who contributed to national discourse.


   Singh draws on the relationship between India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and its first President Rajendra Prasad to demonstrate that the PM and the President were always meant to be equals. Mrs. Gandhi, on the other hand, disregarded her father’s approach and chose as President figures who would not regard it as their business to dispute anything that the Prime Minister said. This approach persists to this day and has received a new fillip with the election of this government.


   To be fair, the Modi government has tried to go beyond politics to find figures who can be symbols of minority achievement. But Mrs. Gandhi, who did see the need to use Rashtrapati Bhavan to showcase India’s diversity, looked for a little bit more than just minority status.


   You could argue that her decision to elevate Giani Zail Singh to the office had something to do with his minority status as a Sikh. But there was more to it than that. Zail Singh was a shrewd and cunning politician who had been Chief Minister of Punjab and Home Minister of India.  He was unfailingly loyal to Mrs. Gandhi and in keeping with her way of doing things, drew some of his political power from his proximity to Indira’s Private Secretary RD Dhawan. It is a measure of how much Mrs. Gandhi subverted our institutions that Dhawan was the second most powerful person in India, a man to whom even senior cabinet ministers deferred.


   It seems likely that the decision to make Zail Singh President emerged out of a combination of factors: a desire to give representation to Sikhs, RK Dhawan’s influence and Singh’s years of faithful service to Mrs. Gandhi. But mostly it was the certainty that he would do as he was told.


   Nothing about the circumstances of Zail Singh’s selection as the Congress candidate for the post dispelled that impression. Asked how he felt about being President he famously replied that he would accept whatever job his leader asked him to take. If she had asked him to pick up a broom and sweep the floor, he would have done that too.


"The Rajiv-Nehru faction believed that Dhawan and his allies were misleading Mrs. Gandhi and had contempt for all of Dhawan’s protégés."

   The problem with appointing politicians to high constitutional offices is that, all too often, their political baggage moves in with them. In Zail Singh’s case, this problem took many forms. The first was that the Chief Minister of Punjab was his old political rival Darbara Singh, and the two men despised each other. Till the end, Zail Singh blamed Darbara Singh for fabricating what became the dominant narrative --- that Zail Singh had propped up Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and blocked any solution to the growing militancy in Punjab. This is the narrative in Mark Tully and Satish Jacab’s influential Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle and Zail Singh objected strongly to the book's version of events.


   The second problem was that, as powerful as Dhawan was, he was not without enemies. KC Singh suggests that Dhawan was opposed by another faction in Mrs. Gandhi’s circle, one led by ML Fotedar. This faction saw Zail Singh as Dhawan’s man.


   He is right but I suspect there was another faction at work too. Contrary to popular wisdom. Arun Nehru was not brought into politics by Rajiv Gandhi but by Indira. Nehru and Fotedar often made common cause (on such subjects as Kashmir) but by the time Rajiv entered politics, Nehru cosied up to him and tried to function as his Chief political advisor.


   The Rajiv-Nehru faction believed that Dhawan and his allies were misleading Mrs. Gandhi and had contempt for all of Dhawan’s protégés.


   My sense is that they carried this hostility into Rajiv Gandhi’s term as Prime Minister. Pranab Mukherjee, a key Dhawan ally was sacked. (And I don’t believe that it was because he was suspected of having tried to become Prime Minister himself.) Dhawan himself was relentlessly persecuted and even accused of complicity in Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination. (Both men were rehabilitated after Rajiv and Arun Nehru fell out).


   That left Zail Singh. KC Singh suggests that Zail Singh was perfectly willing to transfer his loyalties to Rajiv but the new Prime Minister consistently snubbed and insulted him. It could be that Rajiv had also accepted the line that Zail Singh had played a negative role in the Punjab militancy. (And Rajiv certainly believed that). Or it could just be that Rajiv had never liked him from the days when he was seen as a Dhawan stooge.


   Whatever the reason, there followed a battle between South Block and Rastrapati Bhawan, unparalleled in the history of modern India, where a wily Zail Singh uncomplainingly bore the insults heaped on him by a popular Prime Minister before finally making his move just as the Prime Minister’s popularity was slipping. We have read some accounts of this battle before but never one from someone who was at the centre of the action in Rashtrapati Bhawan. (KC Singh was Zail Singh’s key aide during the months of that confrontation.)


   At one stage even Rajiv seriously believed that the President intended to dismiss him as Prime Minister. This should have been unthinkable: how could a President, seen as a political hack and time-server, have manoeuvred things to a stage where he could strike fear into the heart of a Prime Minister who, only two and half years before, had been elected with the largest majority in history?


   This is the inside story of how it happened and while Singh does not claim to be a dispassionate observer, he fills the book with historical precedents and an overview of the political situation to offer an accurate account of what transpired.


   A personal note: he quotes from my memoir where I mention that Rajiv had accused Zail Singh of interfering in Bangladesh politics. He points out that the factual position is at variance (to use KC’s own famous formulation) with what I have written. He is right. It is possible that Rajiv got it wrong but much more likely that I misremembered our conversation of early 1987.


   This is history recorded by an insider. Nobody who cares about Indian politics can afford not to read this book.



Posted On: 21 Mar 2023 07:36 PM
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