Managing Sonia Mino by Narasimha Rao – Extract from ‘Half Lion’


How P.V. Narasimha Rao transformed India


Managing Sonia

Sonia Maino was born in Italy in 1946, the year Narasimha Rao was an earnest twenty-five-year-old fighting the Nizam. Her family was intensely Catholic; her father was a building contractor who had spent World War II fighting for Mussolini’s army. In 1964, Sonia travelled to the city of Cambridge in the United Kingdom to learn English. It was here that she met Rajiv Gandhi, a student at Cambridge University. They married in 1968, and Sonia Gandhi moved to New Delhi. Rajiv was an Indian Airlines pilot with no interest in the family profession.

Sonia and Rajiv moved in anglicized circles in Delhi—light years removed from the world of Narasimha Rao. Rajiv Gandhi joined politics only in 1981. Rao had by then spent close to four decades in active politics, had served as state legislator, chief minister, party general secretary, and was at the time foreign minister of India. Sonia Gandhi was afraid of politics. She had taken her bullet-riddled mother-in-law to hospital in 1984, and was worried that her husband and two children would suffer the same fate. She had begged Rajiv not to become prime minister.

When he was killed in 1991, the crown was summarily placed on her head. She declined to wear it. When her party surprisingly won the 2004 national elections thirteen years later, Mrs Gandhi listened to her ‘inner voice’—or son Rahul’s voice, depending on whom you believe—and again refused to lead the world’s largest democracy. The evidence is clear. Sonia Gandhi never wanted to sit on the throne. She preferred, instead, to be the power behind it. Sonia Gandhi selected Manmohan Singh as prime minister in 2004 precisely because he lacked a power base. Manmohan Singh’s press secretary, Sanjaya Baru, writes that Manmohan confessed to him: ‘There cannot be two centres of power . . . I have to accept that the party president [Sonia Gandhi] is the centre of power.’

Sonia’s choice of Narasimha Rao as prime minister in 1991, on the advice of P.N. Haksar and Satish Sharma, was for much the same reason. As with Manmohan, Rao’s virtue was that he threatened no one—not her, not her coterie, not any of the party factions. This was also why Indira Gandhi had ‘nominated’ Narasimha Rao as Andhra Pradesh chief minister in 1971. That Rao had failed to grasp the paradox inherent in his selection: he was chosen because he was powerless, but implementing Indira’s will required him to be powerful. Prime minister Narasimha Rao now faced a similar conundrum with Sonia Gandhi. If he roared, she would remove him. If he whispered, he would lose his prime ministerial authority and achieve little. To manage Sonia, Rao needed to project weakness as well as strength.

The prime minister’s first action to please Mrs. Rajiv Gandhi was to link his reforms to her husband’s legacy. Most economic policies that Rao and Manmohan Singh pushed in the first months of their government had Rajiv’s name associated with it. They took care, however, not to let this rhetoric change the substance of their policies. On 22 August 1991, Rao released the fifth volume of the collected speeches of Rajiv. The prime minister was all honey, implausibly crediting Rajiv with pushing for global disarmament and the ‘idea of a non-violent world’ for the first time since Mahatma Gandhi. At the same time (and as we shall explore in detail in a later chapter), Rao met with V.S. Arunachalam and Naresh Chandra—architects of India’s nuclear programme—and ordered them to continue with weaponization.

A year later, the prime minister spoke on the release of the book Rajiv written by Sonia Gandhi. ‘I had occasion to see Soniaji with our late prime minister Rajivji,’ Rao said. ‘I sensed how unique and perfect their union was.’ Rao announced that Rajiv Gandhi would be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award. This was a curious honour for someone even Narasimha Rao privately considered a ‘praise addict’ who was too inexperienced to run India. As we saw earlier, the government even donated 100 crore rupees to the newly formed Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, which was being run by Sonia Gandhi. Rao complemented this public demonstration of respect for Rajiv with private discussions with his widow. Rao usually spoke on the phone with Sonia Gandhi twice a week. Once in a while, Sonia’s aide would make the prime minister of India wait on the line for a few minutes. Rao complained to his secretary P.V.R.K. Prasad, ‘I do not mind. It is the prime minister who minds.’

Every week or so, Rao would meet Sonia Gandhi in person. His secretary, R.K. Khandekar, would coordinate with Sonia’s secretary, Vincent George, and the prime minister would make the short journey to 10 Janpath. Narasimha Rao’s son Rajeshwara says, ‘Whether he talked to his own family, we don’t know. But every time, he used to talk to Rajiv Gandhi’s family.’ Mrs. Gandhi does not appear to have spoken much during these conversations. She was withdrawn and aloof during her entire first year in mourning. Delegations visiting her were warned to avoid talking politics.

In October 1991, Sonia Gandhi refused to contest the Amethi by-election, necessitated by the death of the sitting MP, Rajiv Gandhi. It was a signal to Rao’s detractors in the party that Mrs. Gandhi was not planning to challenge the prime minister any time soon. Sonia Gandhi’s one concern in those early months was the lives of her two children, Priyanka and Rahul. When she voiced her anxieties to Rao, he amended the law and extended SPG-level security—meant to protect the sitting prime minister—to former prime ministers and their family. Sonia and Priyanka, who lived in Delhi, now enjoyed the same protection as Rao did. The prime minister then turned his attention to the security of Rahul Gandhi, who was studying at Harvard in faraway United States. In his archives lies a letter written by the prime minister on 19 September 1991—three months after Rajiv’s funeral. The letter is addressed to George H.W. Bush, the President of the United States, and relates to the ‘security of Rahul Gandhi, the son of our late Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’.’

‘I had ventured to do so,’ Rao wrote, ‘knowing the warmth of your friendship as also the affection that Mrs. Bush and you had for Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and his family.’ He noted that the US authorities had‘been most helpful in providing a certain level of security assistance to Rahul Gandhi . . . In normal circumstances, these arrangements would have been deemed satisfactory.’ But Rao went on to write that Indian security agencies believed that Sikh extremists were plotting to kill Rahul. He then requested the US President for more security. ‘The minimum, I believe, would be the availability of one trained person with him, who has also the necessary intelligence backing of various agencies, and effective means of communication.’

This request for tighter American security for Rahul, enhanced protection for Sonia and Priyanka, regular visits to Janpath, and ritualistic invocations of Rajiv’s legacy—all had the desired effect. A close friend of Rao says that in early 1992, Mrs. Gandhi trusted Rao enough to tell him, ‘People are asking me to come to politics. If I was your daughter, what would you advise?’‘Since you are asking as my daughter, I would say don’t come.’

In April 1992, Narasimha Rao presided over the Tirupati session of the Congress, the first non-Family prime minister to do so. With Sonia Gandhi still in mourning, Rao had a free hand. As recounted in the previous chapter, the Tirupati session marks the moment when Rao’s rivals within the congress realized that he was more fox than mouse. They began taking their complaints about Rao directly to Sonia. Salman Khurshid, then a junior minister, remembers that ‘Rao was seen as an intruder into what was seen as an exclusive Nehru-Gandhi preserve. Sonia consciously opted out. The trouble was you can take a noble decision, but in the daily functioning there will be any number of people who will say that enough respect was not being paid to 10 Janpath.’

Rao knew that his adversaries were telling tales. His regular conversations with Sonia Gandhi, in person and on phone, were aimed at fighting those fires. The prime minister also went out of the way to address the few requests of the taciturn Sonia, on Rajiv’s legacy, on her family’s security—and on Bofors. When it came to the Bofors corruption scam, a senior Congressman says that even though Sonia believed in Rajiv’s innocence, she wanted the new government to lighten the taint on her dead husband. Just how keen the Narasimha Rao government was to oblige was revealed in the early months of 1992, when foreign minister Madhav Singh Solanki was found to have given a misleading letter to his counterpart in Switzerland asking him to scuttle the Bofors probe.

It is improbable that Solanki was acting without the knowledge of his prime minister, who had every incentive to please Sonia Gandhi. For a year and a half, Rao’s relationship with Mrs. Gandhi remained without incident. She refrained from interfering in politics; he obliged her few requests. All of this changed on 6 December 1992, when the Babri mosque was demolished. Sonia Gandhi issued a statement condemning the destruction. It was her first political act. Though Sonia’s statement did not blame the Rao government, the prime minister took note. He asked the intelligence bureau to keep tabs on 10 Janpath.

On 18 December 1992, twelve days after the demolition, the IB replied, ‘The important visitors of Smt. Sonia Gandhi, since December 7, included Arjun Singh (Dec.7 & 14), Digvijay Singh, MP . . . (Dec. 7 & 8) . . . N.D. Tiwari . . . Madhavrao Scindia . . . and Ahmed Patel.’ The report went on to say, ‘During the course of the discussions without. Sonia Gandhi, Arjun Singh, Digvijay Singh, A.K. Jogi, Salamutallah and Ahmed Patel . . .reportedly expressed their unhappiness with the handling of the situation, including by the prime minister . . .’ Narasimha Rao realized he was facing a revolt within his party. As we saw in the previous chapter, Rao responded by turning crisis into an opportunity to consolidate his position. He rallied the non-BJP opposition behind him, reshuffled his Cabinet, and eased out critics.

By July 1993, Rao had survived his third and final no-confidence motion in Parliament. The economy was doing well, and the prime minister felt he was finally in control. Rao’s greatest skill was that he could dispassionately analyse his faults and frailties, objectively assess the precariousness of his own position. But political success in 1993 clouded his judgment. It led him to the principal misstep in his relationship with Sonia Gandhi. Until 1993, Narasimha Rao met Sonia Gandhi almost once every week. Their conversations were brief, but they ensured that Rao could clear any doubts expressed to Sonia by disgruntled Congressmen. These meetings were, however, criticized by opposition parties. Why should a duly elected prime minister brief a private citizen, they asked Rao had ignored the jibes during his first two years in office. Now, he appeared to listen.

In mid-1993, he stopped visiting Mrs. Gandhi in her house. For Rao to end his visits to 10 Janpath merely because he had gained temporal power seems uncharacteristic. He had spent his career bowing before Jawaharlal, then Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv. Unlike most other senior Congressmen, he had never once rebelled against the party’s first family. He had even accepted his own forced retirement with equanimity. But perhaps it is not in human nature to always play second fiddle, especially when absolute power seems within grasp. Narasimha Rao always had little respect for Sonia’s political abilities, as his diary entries soon after Rajiv’s death inMay 1991 reveal. Rao was opposed to Sonia Gandhi running the party and country. Finally in control by the middle of 1993, the prime minister was perhaps beginning to imagine the unimaginable. That he could severe the engine from the train and finally rid himself—and the party—of the Nehru-Gandhis. If this was the intention behind Rao’s decision to stop briefing Mrs. Gandhi in her house, it had the opposite effect.

Rao’s absence created a situation where his many detractors—Arjun Singh, Natwar Singh, M.L. Fotedar, Sheila Dixit and Vincent George, among others—would incessantly complain to Sonia, while the prime minister lacked a forum to present his side of the story. Far from excluding Sonia Gandhi, it made her an alternative power centre. Kalyani Shankar says, ‘[Sonia’s] chamchas, the middlemen and touts, also wanted to be important. Unless someone depended on them, they couldn’t be reliable. As long as they [Sonia and Rao] were meeting regularly, the chamchas could not do much. Once they stopped [meeting], these middlemen created distance.’

Rao increased that distance by sidelining bureaucrats and politicians close to Rajiv. An aide remembers, ‘The prime minister was careful to follow rules, but he ensured [that] no bureaucrat close to Rajiv was given an extension.’ Mani Shankar Aiyar was Rajiv’s schoolmate and close friend in the congress. Rao was polite to Aiyar but never gave him a job in government. As a senior bureaucrat remembers, ‘Anybody associated with Rajiv Gandhi, he saw to it that none of them got anything.’ As dissent within the party increased through 1994, Rao’s rivals flocked to Sonia Gandhi. Arjun Singh wrote her letter after letter. Sonia was led to believe that Rao was deliberately going slow on the investigation into her husband’s death. She suspected he was subtly removing her family from its central position in the Congress.

By 1995, she was ready to speak out. In May 1995, Narasimha Rao sent for K. Natwar Singh. The PM was a worried man. Sonia Gandhi had been sending him heated letters on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Apart from the criminal probe headed by a special investigation team, the Verma and Jain judicial commissions had been set up to investigate the lapses that led to the killing. Sonia felt these efforts were inadequate. Rao had tried to meet Sonia Gandhi to convince her otherwise. He even suggested installing a special RAX phone at 10 Janpath so he could speak to her on a secure line. After initially agreeing, Mrs Gandhi turned down the idea. “It was like a slap on my face,” Rao told K. Natwar Singh. ‘I can take on Sonia Gandhi. But I do not want to do so. Some of her advisers have been filling her ears against me. I don’t take them seriously. Sonia’s case is different. Her attitude towards me is affecting my health.’

When Natwar told Rao that Sonia thought the investigation into Rajiv’s assassination was being delayed, Rao snapped. Natwar remembers Rao saying that ‘he had sent P. Chidambaram to her with the necessary papers. He had also sent Home Minister S.B. Chavan to brief her . . . he said he himself had gone with the necessary files and explained to Mrs. Gandhi the legal difficulties in hastening the trial. According to him, she had listened and said nothing.’ That Rao took Sonia Gandhi’s charge seriously is proved by a note that the director of the central bureau of Investigation sent Narasimha Rao on 22 May 1995. The note is titled, ‘Comparative study of the assassination of Smt. Indira Gandhi and Shri Rajiv Gandhi’. It points out that despite Rajiv’sassassination being much harder to solve, progress on the case, in terms of charge sheets filed and suspects arrested, was far better. Sonia Gandhi remained unconvinced.

On 20 August 1995, she gave a speech in Amethi, her dead husband’s constituency. ‘You can understand my anguish,’ she told the assembled crowd of 10,000.‘My husband has been dead for four years and three months, but the inquiry into his assassination is moving at such a slow pace.’ She tellingly added that a ‘vacuum’ in leadership had developed since her husband’s death. It was her first political rally, and the crowd responded with cries of ‘Remove Rao, bring in Sonia.’ Was there any truth to the accusations against Rao? Satish Sharma dismisses the charges. ‘The Jain commission and Verma commission were well implemented,’ he says. ‘[Her advisors] were poisoning Sonia’s mind against Rao.’ One of the senior-most policemen at the time—who is also close to Sonia—says that the charges are ‘ridiculous’. ‘It was all done by Arjun Singh. I think the entire discord between him and Sonia was because of Arjun Singh. He is the chief villain.’

Meanwhile, the Congress formally split, with N.D. Tiwari, Arjun Singh, K. Natwar Singh and Sheila Dixit forming a new party. ‘The Congress Tiwari faction was Sonia’s creation,’ a Rao supporter alleges. ‘She wanted the rest of Congress to migrate there, and then kick out Rao.’ In her book on female Indian politicians, Kalyani Shankar says that Sheila Dixit put it slightly differently. ‘Those days Sonia used to keep very quiet. She was a wonderful listener. She understood everything but spoke very little. I can’t say she was the one who had given the signal to break away. She never said anything to me, but these people claimed they had her blessings. I had no reason to believe that I should check the facts.’ K. Natwar Singh agrees with Sheila Dixit. ‘Sonia never gave any express support.’ Rumours swirled that Sonia Gandhi had asked Narasimha Rao for his resignation.

Around this time, there was an iftar party in Delhi’s Hyderabad House. Rao’s astrologer N.K. Sharma was invited. Sonia walked in and stood quietly in a corner, unwilling to engage with anyone. Sharma says he walked up to her and asked, ‘Do you want Rao’s resignation.’ ‘No, no, who asked you?’ Mrs Gandhi replied, ‘Please continue supporting Mr Narasimha Rao.’ When Sharma reported back to the prime minister, he was not believed. Rao was paranoid that Sonia Gandhi was plotting a coup. Subramanian Swamy claims that Rao began collecting material on Sonia, especially her citizenship documents. There is no way to confirm this, and Rao’s private papers contain no evidence to support this assertion. What they do contain is a booklet published on 21 May 1995 by one Brahm Dutt Tiwari. The booklet is titled Vatican-Teresa-Sonia’ and argues that Sonia is part of a Catholic conspiracy to destroy India.

At around the same time, Rao was provided a curious note by the intelligence bureau. It provided a list of twenty-one aspirants who wanted to become ministers, as well as the names of nine party leaders. Next to the names are details of the person’s ‘state’, ‘caste’, ‘age’, ‘loyalty’, and comments’. Under the heading ‘loyalty’, there are two categories, ‘pro-High Command’ [i.e. pro-Rao] and ‘pro-10 Janpath’ [i.e. pro-Sonia]. For example, next to ‘M.S. Aiyar’, it is written: ‘tamil nadu, brahmin, 52, pro-10 janpath, was critical of handling of the Ayodhya Issue by the PM. Took care of party interests in JPC on Bank scam.’ Next to ‘Pawan Bansal’, it is written, ‘Chandigarh, bania, 47, pro-high command, enjoys good reputation for character and integrity.’ Next to ‘Smt. Margaret Alva’, it is written, ‘Karnataka, Christian, 53, pro-high command, political lightweight. Could be dropped if adjusted suitably in the organisation other-wise Christians of Karnataka may react adversely.’

The note ends with a list of leaders to be considered for ‘appointment to organisational posts’. Topping the list is ‘Sharad Pawar’, who is ‘Maharashtra, maratha, 54, doubtful, a good organiser and influential leader. Does not enjoy good reputation for integrity. Could prove useful.’ Rao had used the IB before to further economic reforms. He was now using it to keep tabs on support for Sonia Gandhi within the party. By late 1995, Rao had become wary of Sonia, very wary.

Around this time, Gopalkrishna Gandhi was heading the Nehru Centre in London. One evening, he was told that Narasimha Rao wanted him to serve as high commissioner to South Africa—an unusual honour for an IAS officer. Gopalkrishna Gandhi—the man whom Rao had called just hours after Rajiv died in 1991—was the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari. He represented a lineage that was even more central to the freedom struggle than that of the Nehru-Gandhis.‘I do not think that the political significance of that was lost on Narasimha Rao,’ Gopalkrishna Gandhi recalls. ‘This was the first time a member of the family with a political heritage which is very different from the Nehru-Gandhi family was being honoured.’

Years later, in 2004, when Gandhi was appointed governor of West Bengal, an ailing Rao sent a message of delight through the loyal Khandekar: ‘I think he had some political ambitions for me. It is possible that he was trying to wean off the Congress from the Nehru-Gandhi family.’ Despite his private misgivings about Sonia, Narasimha Rao was careful to maintain a public façadeof respect. They met at least four times at public functions in the last months of 1995. Each time, Rao greeted Mrs. Gandhi with the appearance of regard. On 23 November, he even drove to 10 Janpath—breaking a tradition he had ended two years ago—for a twenty-minute meeting. Though the visit was ostensibly to invite Sonia to his granddaughter’s wedding, it was actually to neutralize disgruntled Congressmen such as ‘Sharad Pawar, K. Karunakaran, Rajesh Pilot, Ahmed Patel, Balram Jakhar’ who ‘want[ed] to rope in Sonia Gandhi to force Rao to step down from party presidentship’.

On 9 December 1995, Rao sent a letter to Mrs Gandhi on her birthday, wishing her ‘success in all your endeavours to fulfill Rajivji’s dreams’. She replied two days later, on a simple thick white paper. A perfunctory sentence of thanks. The national elections were scheduled for May 1996. As we saw in the last chapter, Narasimha Rao realized the importance of winning Tamil Nadu. Electoral logic dictated that the Congress tie-up with the popular DMK, which was expected to sweep the state. But, in Prabhakara Rao’s words, ‘A case was being built up [by his enemies in the Congress] that Rao was trying to support the people who killed Rajiv Gandhi.’ It is a sign of how sensitive Rao was to this charge that he sided with the unpopular AIADMK instead of the DMK. ‘He would have come back to power in 1996,’ P.V.R.K.Prasad says, ‘but he chose to follow his principles. It cost him.’ In his five years as prime minister, Rao had kowtowed to Sonia Gandhi, yet never altered government policy to please her.

Even when their relationship deteriorated after 1993, prime minister Rao discarded Rajiv’s associates and contemplated sidelining Sonia, but he did not publicly challenge her. He had imagined a Congress without the Nehru-Gandhi family, but had never fully acted on his imagination. Unlike chief minister Rao’s misreading of Indira in the 1970s, prime minister Rao had simultaneously played both lion and mouse with Sonia. Rao was less successful in managing his post-prime ministerial relationship with her. When Rao presided over his party’s worst-ever (at the time) result in the 1996 national election, his partymen began to look back towards the Nehru-Gandhis to rescue them. When Sonia Gandhi became Congress president in 1998, Rao’s enemies also returned.

Narasimha Rao was not given a ticket to contest the1999 elections. As he lay ill in his house on 9 Motilal Nehru Marg, few Congressmen came visiting, terrified of what ‘Madam’ would say. Worried that Rao’s legacy would compete with her family’s within the party pantheon, Rao was not cremated in Delhi, his body not allowed to enter the Congress headquarters. Egged on by Sonia’s sadvisors, Rao was even erased from official Congress history. The party version of the history of economic reforms does not mention the name of the man who did it.

Sonia Gandhi’s relationship with Rao was therefore complex. She suspected that Rao had made attempts—however feeble—to fashion a Congress without the Nehru-Gandhis. This view was intensified by those around her, who deserve much blame for ruining Rao’s relationship with Sonia Gandhi. For all her anger towards him, however, Sonia Gandhi was too apolitical in those early years after her husband’s death to interfere with the policies of his government. It was only after Rao’s premiership that she began dismantling his legacy. While maintaining the veneer of civility, Mrs. Gandhi made it known that Rao was persona nongrata, Latin for ‘unwelcome person’. The party to which Rao devoted six decades of his life heard the message loud and clear. He remained unwelcome since.


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