An “informal” consensus on former West Bengal governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi’s name for the opposition nominee for the post of vice-president of India had in effect been achieved even before the opposition meeting on Tuesday. However what moved all 18 parties to sign the proposals – apart from his surname – were the facts that he has never been in active politics and, unlikely as it may sound, his current city of residence is Chennai.
For Gandhi who had been sounded out earlier, the surprise element of the final confirmation call made from Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s mobile was the presence of the 18th party – JD(U). He was in teaching a class in Ashoka University when Azad, Yechury and O’Brien walked out of the opposition meeting to tell him that his candidature had been endorsed by 18 parties. His immediate query was who the 18th party was. He was informed about the presence of JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav in the meeting and the fact that he had signed as a seconder in one of the four forms. In the meeting when Samajwadi leader Naresh Aggarwal said that his party would have preferred a person from South India, he was told, “He is from South India, he lives in Chennai”.
Interestingly one of the proposers for the former bureaucrat – grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari – is CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury. Gandhi’s strident criticism of the police firing on protestors agitating against alleged forcible acquisition of land by the then Left Front government of West Bengal had bucked the trend of incumbent governors refraining from criticism of the state government – it is more common now – sending his relations with the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government spiralling. In March 2007 after the death of 14 people in police firing, Gandhi had said that the news filled him with a “sense of cold horror.”
‘Was this spilling of human blood not avoidable? What is the public purpose served by the use of force that we have witnessed today?” Later that year he had described as “totally unlawful and unacceptable” the attempt to seize control of the agitating Nandigram villages. Gandhi was at the Calcutta Raj Bhawan from 2004-2009. It was, unsurprisingly, Trinamool leader Derek O’Brien who formally proposed Gandhi’s name as a candidate in Tuesday’s meeting of opposition parties.
A prolific columnist, an author – he wrote a novel on the plantation workers of Sri Lanka, translated Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” into Hindi and wrote a play on Dara Shikoh in verse – Gandhi is not known to mince words, taking on the Left and right alike. In January this year, delivering the 2nd Justice VR Krishna Iyer Memorial Lecture at Thiruvananthapuram in the wake of the ruling on the national anthem, he had said: “I love my national anthem. It is among the greatest anthems in the world. And I will sing it with full heart…but to be asked to sing it under an order is to turn the passionate hymn into a humdrum chant of official lining.”
In November last year when the opposition had created sustained noise on “intolerance”, beef lynchings etc, Gandhi while delivering the Tenth V M Tarkunde Memorial Lecture said: “It is easy to work against the State than it is to work against an intolerant society. I say this in the knowledge of the fact that we are now living in a country where the State is extremely sensitive to criticism and where intolerance seems to a miasma that rolls down from the houses of power in Delhi to the gullies of all its cities. But yet I would say this that an intolerant State can be opposed with great difficulty, but an intolerant society has to be opposed with even greater difficulty.”
Days after the NDA government was voted to power with the biggest mandate since Congress in 1984, in an open letter to PM Narendra Modi he wrote: “India’s minorities are not a segment of India, they are an infusion in the main. Anyone can burn rope to cinder, no one can take the twist out of it. Bharat mata ki jai, sure, Mr. Modi, but not superseding the compelling urgency of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s clarion — Jai Hind!”
It is not as if he did not take on the Congress government that appointed him governor. Speaking at a CBI function while the UPA was in power, he had described the agency thus: “It is seen as Government’s hatchet, rather than honesty’s ally.” In that same speech he also said: “Dictators have been wafted up by people voting democratically…beneath the surface stillness, there is a great frenzy astir, a frenzy to bring to India’s helm, the reign of an ethnic majority, of a sectarian bigotry, of a denominational autocracy. And all in the name , the very specious name, of ‘strength’.”
The date of the speech is April 15, 2014.