MAKHAN Lal Fotedar was the one who tipped me of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s new year holiday in Lakshadweep. The entire political class was aghast when The Indian Express broke the story about his previous week-long revelry in Andamans in 1987. In the Gandhian tradition, a holiday for a politician was a sin. Swatantra Party leader Piloo Modi was derided for his elitism and lavish lifestyle. Indira Gandhi was a 24/7 prime minister. It was such grounding that made it a cultural shock for the Congress traditionalists.
“They will finish the Congress,” Kamalapati Tripathi, at his bungalow opposite 10 Janpath, told us the next day. Congress workers will not tolerate such “angrezi” culture, he burst out in sheer desperation. The same sentiment had prompted Fotedar to leak the story. When asked for details, he told us to contact E Ahamed, who later became deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha. Ahamed confirmed Rajiv Gandhi’s visit. AICC joint secretary Mullappally Ramachandran, who was deputed to make arrangements for Rajiv Gandhi’s party, said the PM’s programme in Lakshadweep had three components. First was a meeting of the annual Islands Development Authority. Then, there was a Union cabinet meeting, also attended by Narasimha Rao. The rest of the time was for the New Year celebrations by the PM’s group.
Delhi’s grapevine had juicy stories about Rajiv’s friends, family and foreign in-laws revelling aboard INS Viraat. Some talked of security risk. After the event, we continued to chase the story for a month – from the party apparatchik, naval sources to local organisers. Each source denied it. While the PM and his wife travelled aboard Viraat, the other guests were ferried by Pawan Hans airline: This was confirmed by the airline. Some in the entourage chose to go by the regular ferry service. Then we had the version of a most unlikely source — an attendant at the mess who was present onboard. His assertion made us abandon the wild goose chase.
Things changed 11 years later when the 12th prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, broke the tradition. For him, the annual holiday was a right. He went to Kumarakom and Manali, often with his controversial son-in-law. The holiday stigma briefly returned once again, in 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi mocked “Pappu” for enjoying holidays abroad after every election campaign.
However, Rajiv Gandhi’s fishing expedition in Lakshadweep had another dimension. It symbolised the Congress old guard’s dislike for the way the GenX had hijacked the party. It was clearly a clash of generations. Rajiv’s “Doon pals”, some of them with professional management background, had taken control soon after he was sworn in as PM. Arun Nehru rode roughshod over the AICC campaign committee for the 1984 elections. He rejected truckloads of printed posters made ready for distribution. Under him, for the first time, a political party assigned the advertisement job to a professional agency — Rediffusion. AICC’s publicity committee chairman, Shrikant Verma, called this writer to his home to narrate how the “computer boys” were messing up things. They produced two dozen cassettes and flooded constituencies with bindis, billas and badges. In Rajasthan, he said, women who wore the bindis developed allergy. For, much of this was novelty, and the old guard dismissed them as commercialisation. Despite all such outbursts, the “computer boys” had the last laugh. It was a landslide victory for the young PM in 1985.
After the election, Arun Nehru joined the cabinet, Arun Singh worked with Rajiv as parliamentary secretary, and Suman Dubey became additional secretary in the I&B ministry. Mani Shankar Aiyar resigned from foreign service to be with Rajiv. All this disturbed the traditional Congress leaders. True, the old guard continued to occupy positions in AICC, parliamentary party and PCCs. The “wiz kids’” presence was limited to Delhi’s corridors of power. Yet, their presence was strong. In hindsight, none of this led to any serious policy schism within the party. An embarrassing situation did occur on the eve of the Talkatora AICC. A resolution drafted by a wiz kid was found objectionable by the Congress Working Committee (CWC). Arjun Singh and Sanat Mehta were told to redraft it before placing it before the AICC.
From the beginning, Rajiv seemed keen on balancing both sides. He did not disturb the old guard. For instance, along with Arun Singh, traditionalist Oscar Fernandes was also made a parliamentary secretary. By early 1988, the old guard had firmly re-established themselves both in the Congress organisation and the government. Even before Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic death in 1991, the “Doon pal” phenomenon was on the wane.
The writer was special correspondent with The Indian Express covering the Congress when he broke the story in 1987