Absolute Khushwant

Those I Respect And Admire

A undated family portrait of the Gandhis: Left to Right (front): Sonia, Rahul, Indira, Priyanka and Maneka. Left to Right (back) Rajiv and Sanjay. DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES
01 September, 2010

The following chapters are excerpted from

Absolute Khushwant: The Low-Down on Life, Death & Most Things In-Between

by KHUSHWANT SINGH (with Humra Quraishi)

Penguin Books India, August, 2010

I BELIEVE MANMOHAN [Singh] is the best prime minister we have had. I would even rate him higher than Nehru. Nehru had vision and charisma, but he had his faults. He was instinctively anti-American and blindly pro-soviet and socialist. He could also be impatient with people and had favourites. Manmohan has a free and extremely good mind. He can’t be accused of nepotism. Nehru could, Indira could.

No one would say that of Manmohan Singh. He had the courage to disagree with Nehru’s socialist vision and turn away from Mrs Gandhi’s legacy. He pursued a pro-America policy. He opened India to the world, championed the private sector and set us on the path of economic progress without compromising India’s interests. He has completely turned around our sick economy. He is also very humble and simple. He grew up in a small village in a family of very modest means and struggled to get an education. Initially his ambition was only to be a college professor, find a small flat and settle in Chandigarh. Then chance changed the course of his life and took him to Cambridge and Oxford, the UN and the highest positions in India’s financial institutions; and now he is prime minister. But he remains grounded.

I really got to know him at the election he lost from South Delhi. This was in 1999. I was surprised and impressed because his son-in-law, whom my family knew, came to borrow some money—just two lakhs—to hire taxis that were needed for the campaigning. They didn’t even have that much to spare! I gave the money, in cash. Only days after he had lost the election, Manmohan Singh called me himself and asked for an appointment. He came to see me with a packet. ‘I haven’t used the money,’ he said and handed me the packet with all the cash I had given his son-in-law. That kind of thing no politician would do!

Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi during an election campaign rally in Amritsar in May 2009. Munish Sharma/REUTERS DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES

When people talk of integrity, I say the best example is the man who occupies the country’s highest office.


NEHRU ANSWERED ALLAMA IQBAL’S requirements of a Meer-e-Kaarvaan—leader of the caravan:‘Nigah buland, sukhan dilnawaz, jaan par soz/Yahi hain rakht-e-safar Meer-e-Kaarvaan ke liye’(Lofty vision, winning speech and a warm personality/This is all the baggage the leader of a caravan needs on his journey).

He should have been the role model for the prime ministers of India. He was above prejudices of any kind: racial, religious or of caste. He was an agnostic and firmly believed that religion played a very negative role in Indian society. What I admired most about him was his secularism. He was a visionary and an exemplary leader; the father of Indian constitutional democracy, of universal adult franchise, the five-year plans, giving equal rights to women, among other things. He was better educated than any of his successors, with the exception of Manmohan Singh, and spent nine long years in jail reading, writing and thinking about the country’s future.

Jawaharlal Nehru with grandsons Sanjay (left) and Rajiv (right). DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES

But being human, Nehru had his human failings. He was not above political chicanery. Having accepted the Cabinet Mission plan to hand over power to a united India, he reneged on his undertaking when he realized Jinnah might end up becoming prime minister. He had blind spots too. He refused to believe that India’s exploding population needed to be contained. He refused to see the gathering strength of Muslim separatism which led to the formation of Pakistan. He failed to come to terms with Pakistan and was chiefly responsible for the mess we made in Jammu and Kashmir. He was also given to nepotism and favouritism.

I first met Nehru in London, when I was a Press Officer at the Indian Embassy, and my first impression of him was that he was short tempered.

He could also be ill-mannered. I once had to host a lunch so that the editors of leading British newspapers could meet him. Halfway through the meal, Nehru fell silent. When questions were put to him he looked up at the ceiling and did not reply. He proceeded to light a cigarette while others were still eating.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten stroll the through the woods in an undated photo. DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES

To make matters worse, Krishna Menon fell asleep. It was a disastrous attempt at public relations. Another time, he arrived in London past midnight. I asked Nehru whether he would like me to accompany him to his hotel. ‘Don’t be silly,’ he said. ‘Go home and sleep.’ The next morning one of the papers had a photo of him with Lady Mountbatten opening the door in her negligee. The huge caption read: Lady Mountbatten’s Midnight Visitor. Nehru was furious. On another occasion, he’d taken Lady Mountbatten for a quiet dinner at a Greek restaurant. Once again the following morning’s papers carried photographs of them sitting close to each other. When I was summoned, Nehru asked, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m your PRO in London, Sir,’ I replied. ‘You have a strange notion of publicity,’ Nehru said curtly. I thought it best to remain silent.


I FIRST MET INDIRA GANDHI in Lahore when I must have been around eighteen. She was very young and looked very shy and, if I remember correctly, she had come with Kitchlew [Saifuddin]. Years later, when I met her again in Delhi, she didn’t remember our first meeting. There were many who were bowled over by Mrs Gandhi’s looks. I found her good-looking in a cold, haughty sort of way.

She never forgave anyone who said anything negative about her. She never forgave her aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit—or her daughters, for that matter—for making derogatory remarks about her looks and her intelligence. She was also touchy about her health. She had been suspected of having tuberculosis when she was a girl and doctors had advised her not to have children. ‘If it had been up to me,’ she’d said, ‘I would have had eleven.’ To prove her doctors wrong she rode on horseback, on elephants and walked vast distances, maintaining punishing schedules. ‘Tiredness is a state of mind, not of the body,’ she would say.

Nehru poses with daughter Indira Gandhi. DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES

Those who described her as a ‘goongi gudiya’ or a ‘chhokree’ were wide off the mark. She was dictatorial and, like her father, indulged in favouritism. She overlooked corruption and undermined democratic institutions. She manipulated and gagged the press. And she wanted dynastic succession. Power went to her head. This is why her public image changed from goddess to vindictive despot.

I know the majority of Indians feel that Indira Gandhi was the strongest leader we have ever had. They see her as Durga. There was a reason why they called her the only man in her cabinet. She certainly knew how to use power and appeal to huge crowds at her election rallies. But my instincts are against her.

She was stern, severe and cold, and would impose her wishes on people, often wrongly.

Mrs Gandhi had very strong likes and dislikes. She could be vengeful, extremely critical and even petty. She had many shortcomings; I suppose it was these that made her human.

But what I found most disturbing about her was that she could be rude and vindictive towards even those who were close to her. I think it was because she was very insecure. I learned that soon after I got to know her, and then I kept my distance.

I was never close to Mrs Gandhi, though I’d met her several times. On a few occasions my wife and I had invited the family over for dinner and they’d accepted our invitation. She came to our home often when she was out of power after the Emergency, sometimes with Sonia or Maneka. Later, when she was having trouble with Maneka, she’d even sent for me and told me to talk to her, to tell her to behave herself. But in the years that followed, when relations really soured between them, Mrs Gandhi thought I was supporting Maneka.

When I tried telling her this was not true at all, she just wouldn’t believe me. I decided after that, to stay away from both of them, and avoided meeting either. She never visited us after she returned to power. And much later, when Mrs Gandhi invited me on two or three occasions, for some function or the other, I didn’t go.

But when she was assassinated I felt shock. I was upset, because I had made an equation with her despite difficulties and differences. She had been foolish and bungled badly in Punjab. She had made enemies. But she did not deserve the kind of death she had. It was a sad day. You can’t doubt Mrs Gandhi’s patriotism.

And I can vouch that there was nothing anti- Sikh about her. On Blue Star she was misled by her advisers, one of them a Mona sardar! She surrounded herself with very suspect and cynical advisers. She was also very tolerant of corruption. She may not have been corrupt herself, but the suitcase culture and massive corruption started in her time. She took no action. She did great harm to the country.

Indira Gandhi’s greatest moment was the Bangladesh war. She did it with great skill, by deftly isolating Pakistan and supporting our armed forces completely. She backed the right people. The world was rightly impressed when she stood up to American pressure and would not be intimidated by American warships in the Indian Ocean. It was all over very quickly. Maybe she would have given in if the war had lasted more than a few days.

But more than the war, her biggest achievement was how the country responded to the refugees from East Pakistan. Millions of refugees were given shelter, food and medicines. We were a poor country but they were all taken care of. The Bangladeshis now won’t acknowledge Indira Gandhi’s or India’s role in their history. Everything begins and ends with Mukti Bahini. That is not true. They have a lot to thank Indira Gandhi for.


I MET SANJAY IN THE MID 1970S and found him to be reasonable and courteous. He was the one who called the meeting. He wanted to talk to me about his Maruti car business and wanted me to write about it. I went with him to the factory site. I was disappointed; it looked like the workshop of a lohar. I was not impressed. He drove around the site, driving fast and talking about how important the project was.

It was being said that Bansi Lal had given Sanjay land for free for his factory. I found these allegations to be false. Sanjay had paid a fair price. I wrote this in my story on Maruti. That was how our association began.

I have been criticized for supporting Sanjay and his mother and the Emergency she’d imposed. I don’t deny that I supported them and I have no regrets. Even now, after all these years, I think it was necessary at the time. I had no idea then that it could and would be misused and abused. Sanjay was always extremely courteous to me. When I first met him, he really did seem like a committed man. The opposition had unleashed chaos. Nothing in the country functioned, and he appeared to be a no-nonsense man who liked to get things done. But a year or so into the Emergency he had become dictatorial and very unpopular because of the forced nasbandi programme and censorship.

Varun Gandhi is escorted by police as he leaves a local court in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, in March 2009. He was jailed for his alleged hate speeches against Muslims. Adnan Abidi/REUTERS

Maneka and her family used and exploited me. I think she’s a no-good politician but Sanjay, I must say, was always true to his word. He had a conscience. And he was a man of action. He was a doer and was impatient to bring about changes. Many said he had the makings of a dictator—because of the demolition drives that razed slums to the ground overnight and the family planning methods he forced on people—but I feel that he was keen to bring about rapid changes. He had a vision and this was not really understood.

Sanjay came to see me in Bombay shortly after the Emergency. There were mobs in the streets baying for his blood. I had to drive him to the airport at some risk. If he had lived, this country would not have been a democracy. There would have been order and much faster development, but no democracy, of that I am sure. Would I still have supported him? Oh, I don’t know. He would probably have got around me. He could be a real charmer. He had been good to me. He put me in Parliament. Even The Hindustan Times—it was he who called up Birla and told him to give me the editor’s job!

Varun should never have been allowed to contest in the recent elections. He should havebeen banned from contesting and people should have had the sense to keep him out. Such men are dangerous for the very unity of the country.

His abusive language and the venom he spilled against Muslims showed his very poor upbringing. It’s shocking, because if we have politicians of this sort—who openly abuse Muslims from public platforms—you can well imagine the future of the country.

What also worries me is that many others speak with the same venom [as he did] against the minorities of this country. The only difference is that they confine their hatred to their drawing rooms.

Maneka had invited me to launch Varun’s collection of poetry some years ago, and I’d accepted. I had read his poems, liked them and given the collection a favourable write-up. I thought a young man who was into poetry would be above dirty politics. I was wrong.

The language Varun used on that platform was the language of the gutter which is absolutely unpardonable. It made me wonder when such anti-Muslim sentiments entered the boy’s mind. During his grandmother’s time a permanent fixture in their home was a Muslim, Mohammed Yunus. Both his parents called him ‘Chacha Yunus’. They were married in his house on Tughlak Road. I never heard Sanjay or any other member of the Gandhi family use derogatory words for Muslims. The term bara bajey for a Sikh is even harder to understand. In short, Varun Gandhi has, as the saying goes, cooked his own goose.


WE TEND TO BUILD A LEGEND AROUND Rajiv Gandhi, glorifying him. But Rajiv had made more than a couple of mistakes in his time, call them grave errors of judgement if you will. Rajiv was bullied into a position he wasn’t equipped to handle. He was pleasant enough, and had some good ideas, but none of them extraordinary. He wasn’t really a leader. And I don’t think he was cut out for politics. He followed in his mother’s footsteps and made many of the same mistakes. Even the positive things he did, like telecom and computers—the plans had started in Indira Gandhi’s time. He bungled in Sri Lanka; he even fired a minister at a public conference! His role in both the Shah Bano case and in the Babri Masjid incident cannot be denied. Both were big blunders that were irreversible and did long-term damage.

Rajiv was young and charming, so the country was optimistic when he came to power. But he did very little with the massive mandate he had won after his mother’s assassination. History will never forget the shameful way in which he behaved after Mrs Gandhi died. That speech he made: ‘When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake ...’ when Sikhs were being burnt alive in the capital—that was unforgivable! He could easily have stopped the massacres. All he had to do was go out and say, ‘This must stop’ and call in the army. But he didn’t, he almost justified the carnage with that remark. I cannot imagine his grandfather [Nehru] allowing such a thing to continue. Nehru had courage; he would have gone out and confronted the mobs. He did that during the Partition riots. That’s the difference between a leader and a novice.

Sonia Gandhi strolls with her son Rahul, daughter Priyanka, and son-in-law Robert Vadera as they return from offering tributes to Rajiv Gandhi on his death anniversary in New Delhi in 2009. B Mathur/REUTERS

Sanjay was dynamic; Rajiv was just a boy scout. I think Rahul is much more talented than his father. He has a vision and that’s very important. I’m impressed with him, impressed with the way in which he’s conducting himself. He has the right attitude. Even if much of what he does only amounts to gestures, the thinking behind them is right. He has taken on Mayawati in her own territory. It is a brave thing to do. He himself seems to have no caste or class prejudice. What he has been doing in Amethi, staying with the lowest castes and sharing their food—I don’t think you can criticize him for that. He is not being patronizing; he is highlighting a shameful reality in our country. Even in the twenty-first century there are untouchables in our society and they live wretched lives.

And the manner in which he took on the Shiv Sena in Bombay [February 2010]. He lambasted them for attacking non-Maharashtrians and said publicly that Bombay was for all Indians. Then he went to the lion’s den and dared them to do their worst. He walked around in the streets, travelled by local train. The Shiv Sena goondas failed completely. Hardly any Maharashtrian joined the Shiv Sena protest against Rahul. It was a very well-planned move by Rahul and his advisers. It was good theatre.

The young Gandhi is becoming a mature leader. Maybe after the next elections [2014], if his party wins, he may agree to become PM. Or he may still choose not to. He has his priorities right—he is not concerned about position and kursi, but strengthening the Congress party.

Rahul had telephoned sometime last year and said that he wanted to come and see me. He came at the appointed time—4 p.m.—and spent almost an hour in my home. I gave him tea—he said he’d like some tea—and we spoke of politics; about the current situation in general and other things in particular.

An avid tree and bird lover, Khushwant Singh looks out over his garden at his home in New Delhi. SANJAY AUSTA FOR THE CARAVAN

I told him, ‘Your cadres are very weak. The BJP has the RSS and VHP to work for it at the grassroots level. The Congress lacks that.’ He said he agreed with me and that he was already working on this. He is seeing to it that party members are trained and the party built up. I see that he has been concentrating on young workers and has picked some very talented youngsters, many of them women. I also told him that during elections, voters have to be wooed and drawn towards the party. I said that the most important thing that he should keep in mind is to resist flatterers and to hold back from accepting any portfolio. We didn’t talk about his grandmother or his great grandfather.

Correction: An error in the story's first photo caption has been corrected online. The child standing near Indira Gandhi and Maneka is Priyanka. The Caravan regrets the error.