Veteran Congress leader Rajinder Kumar Dhawan, who passed away on August 6 at the age of 81, came into the spotlight after he was appointed as Indira Gandhi’s personal assistant and remained close to the Gandhi family through thick and thin. Dhawan had a long association with Indira and is said to have enjoyed unparalleled power and influence in her government. A member of the Congress Working Committee, Dhawan was with Indira Gandhi from 1962 until the day she was assassinated in 1984.
Dhawan was also a part of her innermost circle during the Emergency years (1975-77). Along with Ambika Soni and Kamal Nath, Dhawan was among the key characters of that period. A graduate of Punjab University, Dhawan was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1990 and served as a member on various parliamentary committees.
The power that Dhawan wielded is, perhaps, best documented in the book “With Great Truth & Regard: A Story of the Typewriter in India” written by senior journalist Rama Lakshmi. “Since he (Dhawan) controlled access to Indira Gandhi, even political stalwarts from the Congress Party regarded him reverentially. Such was his power that Dhawan could call up chief ministers and give them a piece of his mind,” the book mentions.
Dhawan was witness to the generational shift in the Congress. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi appointed a sitting Supreme Court judge, Justice MP Thakkar, to probe the incident. Within just two months after assuming office as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi had shunted Dhawan out as speculations about his role in Gandhi’s assassination were growing by the day.
“I wish one of the bullets had hit me so that I wouldn’t have had to face the wrath of a sitting Supreme Court judge. Obnoxious comments and remarks were made about me,” Dhawan was quoted as saying in a Caravan article. He and his family were put under surveillance, and every visitor to their house was questioned. Overnight, Dhawan was reduced to a national pariah in a city in which he had been one of the most powerful men for decades.
The manner in which the former Union minister was shunted out is well documented in the second volume of former President Pranab Mukherjee’s memoir “The Turbulent Years: 1980-96”, where he shares an insider’s account of several significant events during the 1980s and early 1990s. “RK Dhawan, Indira Gandhi’s trusted private secretary of twenty-two years, had also been summarily dismissed. He was literally thrown out of 1 Safdarjung Road, and not even allowed to take his papers with him; rather, he was told that they would be bundled and sent to his residence,” Mukherjee wrote.
By 1989, Rajiv brought Dhawan back into public life and absolved him of all charges. Dhawan remained a prominent Congress leader under Sonia Gandhi too and also made it to the Rajya Sabha. On July 16, 2012, Dhawan got married at the age of 74.