Makhan Lal Fotedar, who was initiated into the Congress by Jawaharlal Nehru and who went on to become political adviser to Prime Ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, died on Thursday when his six-decade association with the family had begun to fray.
The Congress veteran, 85, died in a Gurgaon hospital. Towards the end of his life, Fotedar was no longer called to the Congress Working Committee meetings.
Some attributed his isolation to his 2015 political memoir, The Chinar Leaves. Fotedar had said in his account that Indira Gandhi had wished to see granddaughter Priyanka join politics. Fotedar’s revelation that he had informed Sonia Gandhi about Indira’s desire soon after she took over as Congress president and that she did not seem happy because she had made up her mind to induct son Rahul did not go down well with the family.
Fotedar also questioned Rahul’s leadership ability. He saw in the current Congress vice-president a certain stubbornness and a lack of motivation to lead.
Congress president Sonia, whom Fotedar advised when she entered politics, said: “In his long and active political career spanning over five decades, he tirelessly fought for the rights of people and served them with utmost integrity. Fotedar was one of the guiding lights for the Congress party and has left behind a void which can never be filled.”
Fotedar was never a king-maker or a mass leader but an important cog in the durbar wheel of the party during its heyday of political dominance in the 1980s and in the tumultuous 1990s when the Congress went through an upheaval.
Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit said Fotedar was the link between the party and its Prime Ministers. After Indira Gandhi died, he became a trusted adviser of Rajiv Gandhi.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was influential in the PMO of Rajiv Gandhi, said Fotedar among the few leaders who survived the Indira-to-Rajiv transition. Rajiv made him an MP and inducted him into his cabinet. In his years as Indira Gandhi’s adviser, Fotedar was the synonym for power and influence in the Congress.
Fotedar’s career in the Congress started after he came in contact with fellow Kashmiri Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He travelled to Phoolpur to be a campaign worker for Nehru.
Between 1967 and 1977, he was the member of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly representing Pahalgam. After Nehru died, Indira brought him to Delhi.
“I would not call it political secretary, but just like a secretary. But it was political work that I used to do. She asked me to stay in Delhi and I stayed in Delhi till she was alive,” Fotedar said once about his association with Indira.
Old-timers said that nothing in the Congress happened without Fotedar’s knowledge and he had a say in Indira’s ministerial choices. After her assassination, Fotedar became one of the trusted advisers of Rajiv and prodded him to become Prime Minister. Fotedar also wanted Sonia to take over as Congress president after Rajiv’s assassination.
Although he became a minister in the Narasimha Rao government, he often complained to Sonia about him. He resigned after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and flirted with Rao’s detractors Arjun Singh and N D Tiwari when they formed the Tiwari Congress. Fotedar was suspended from the Congress.
Singh and Tiwari returned to the Congress after Sitaram Kesari became the party president. Fotedar’s suspension was revoked. In later years, Fotedar nursed a grudge that he was overlooked for junior leaders. The estrangement was complete when The Chinar Leaves was released.
Rahul Gandhi in his condolence message said: “Fotedar ji was a pillar of strength in the Congress party. His demise is a big loss to us.”