Janpath, 1991: when ‘snooping’ led to the collapse of a government

27 years before the four Intelligence Bureau operatives were arrested outside Alok Verma house, Haryana cops outside Rajiv Gandhi home

Written by Pradeep Kaushal | New Delhi | Updated: October 26, 2018 7:07:51 am
Janpath, 1991: when ‘snooping’ led to the collapse of a government Rajiv Gandhi with Chandra Shekhar, whose government fell in 1991when Rajiv decided not to support it in a no-confidence motion. (Express Archive)

On Thursday, the arrest of four Intelligence Bureau operatives outside the official residence of CBI Director Alok Verma, whom the government has “divested” of his powers, triggered allegations of snooping. The Home Ministry, however, has defended the four men by maintaining that they were on “routine, covert” duties in the high-security area of Janpath.

Janpath had witnessed a high-profile precedent 27 years ago, one that would lead to huge repercussions. In March 1991, two Haryana policemen were found sipping tea near the residence of then Leader of Opposition Rajiv Gandhi at 10 Janpath; this eventually led to the fall of the then Chandra Shekhar government.

The Congress alleged that the two plainclothes police personnel, belonging to the Haryana CID, had been snooping on Rajiv Gandhi. This soured relations to the extent that the Congress decided not to support Chandra Shekhar’s government in a confidence motion in Lok Sabha.

Chandra Shekhar with Rajiv Gandhi (Express Archive)

All this happened after Chandra Shekhar had taken over as Prime Minister, with the support of Rajiv Gandhi himself. The Congress was the largest party then, but not in government. The 1989 Lok Sabha elections, held in the wake of the Bofors scandal, a revolt by Vishwanath Pratap Singh and terrorism in Punjab, had led to the defeat of the Congress, with its 197 seats way short of a majority. Initially, the Janata Dal (143 seats), backed by the BJP (85) and Left parties (52), formed a government under V P Singh. This government fell in less than a year as the BJP withdrew support and Chandra Shekhar walked out of the Janata Dal with 64 MPs and floated the Samajwadi Janata Party. Rajiv Gandhi now propped Chandra Shekhar as Prime Minister, supporting him from outside. Four months later, he would pull the plug.

Rajiv Gandhi was so enraged by the alleged snooping that he spurned all overtures by Chandra Shekhar who sought to clarify the matter. The Congress took note of the fact that Haryana was ruled by Om Prakash Chautala, a prominent figure in the Samajwadi Janata Party, and concluded that the alleged surveillance must have been commissioned by Chautala at the instance of Chandra Shekhar. Various rumours went into circulation. In Haryana, one rumour among political circles was that Ranjit Singh, Chautala’s estranged brother, had tipped Rajiv Gandhi off about the snooping. Ranjit, who had been a minister in the previous Haryana government headed by his father Devi Lal, was credited with having used his own network in the establishment for information about the alleged snooping.

With Rajiv Gandhi deciding not to back Chandra Shekhar during the confidence motion, the Prime Minister resigned on March 6, 1991. Elections were declared for June, for Parliament and several states.

Subsequently, no government pursued the alleged snooping or tried to get to the bottom of the matter. Not even Bhajan Lal, who became the Haryana Chief Minister four months later, after the Congress won the Assembly elections.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated during the election campaign.

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