The Aide Effect

The oversize sway of typists and personal assistants to Indian politicians

Rajendra Kumar Dhawan (third from right) spent 22 years as an aide to Indira Gandhi. “I carried the body of Pandit Nehru, Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi … four bodies of the family were carried on my shoulders,” he said. RL CHOPRA / INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
Rajendra Kumar Dhawan (third from right) spent 22 years as an aide to Indira Gandhi. “I carried the body of Pandit Nehru, Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi … four bodies of the family were carried on my shoulders,” he said. RL CHOPRA / INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
01 August, 2016

IN A BRIGHT-YELLOW COTTON SARI with a black-and-white border, feet clad in a pair of simple black slippers, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi walked into the pleasant Delhi morning. She walked, as was her wont, briskly along the pathway from her residence to the neighbouring bungalow, where Peter Ustinov, the Academy Award-winning actor and columnist, was waiting to interview her. She was running late by 30 minutes.

As she crossed the wicket gate between the two compounds, at 9.20 am, Sub-inspector Beant Singh, who had been guarding her for almost a decade, turned and shot her. When she collapsed to the ground after taking three bullets, Satwant Singh, a 21-year-old who had been with the prime minister’s security detail for just ten months, fired 30 rounds at her. The two men dropped their guns, and one of them reportedly shouted, “I have done what I had to do. You do what you want to do.” The two Sikh bodyguards were taking revenge on Gandhi for ordering the Indian Army into the Golden Temple, the highest temporal seat of their religion, to flush out armed Sikh separatists in the summer of that year, 1984.

Rajendra Kumar Dhawan was only a couple of feet from Gandhi as she took those bullets, but not one of them grazed him. That was Dhawan’s default position in contemporary India: a few steps removed from history. He was near enough to his boss to hear what she whispered, watch for her signals, keep away intruders and take down dictation. He was near enough to witness at close quarters India’s struggles to evolve as a democratic nation, with all its intrigues, drama and violence. He also became the single point of contact between Gandhi and most people, including her ministers.

Dhawan gave off the appearance of a man squeezing through the very crowded lanes of history, eager to get to his mundane destination, rather than of one who enjoyed the cast of colourful characters that were writing history around him. The almost silent journey of this typist exemplifies the power enjoyed by hundreds of men and women in India, many of them stenographers, who emerge as men Friday to those in power. Dhawan may be the most famous among his lot, but thousands of his ilk stand between the ordinary Indian and powerful decision makers.

The trusted aide’s primary qualification is often just his skill in peacefully, quickly and accurately typing on a QWERTY keyboard. Once he is in the office of a powerful boss, he acquires other skills, such as holding secrets, negotiating on behalf of his boss, reading the boss’s mind and managing various situations for her.

These aides usually guard access to the decision maker’s chamber. They pass on messages between their bosses and those seeking favours, often striking deals and collecting the booty, occasionally getting a few crumbs of it themselves, and bringing in women or wine as required. They are expected to remain silent, and to carry these secrets to their graves.

The short-statured, nondescript Dhawan became the arbiter of power between the Gandhi family and a significant part of the rest of India, including senior leaders of the Congress. His story helps us understand modern India, and how its gigantic, creaky engine of governance moves.

The story begins with the Partition of India in 1947. As a ten-year-old boy, Dhawan was plucked from the comforts of landed-peasantry life in rural Pakistan in 1947. The Partition of the subcontinent set off one of the biggest massacres in modern history. Millions of people migrated across the newly drawn boundaries in a traumatic exodus that continues to shape the narratives of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Dhawan and ten other members of his family undertook a harrowing journey to Delhi, halting first at a refugee camp in Pakistan, and then crossing the border into India. At their second stop, in Ludhiana, Dhawan remembers their camp being haunted by malaria and hunger. At Kurukshetra, they were forced to halt again, because the national capital was overflowing with refugees. Days later, the family boarded a freight train, and covered the 160-kilometre distance to Delhi in two days.

His family crowded into a maternal uncle’s house in the neighbourhood of Karol Bagh. Here, Dhawan enrolled at a local school and completed his studies. Between 1955 and 1957, he learnt typing and shorthand, and was able to find a job as a stenographer with All India Radio. Then, in 1962, history beckoned. A relative who was already a permanent fixture in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s office, Yashpal Kapoor, took the young Dhawan to Teen Murti Bhavan, the prime minister’s official residence. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, had just been appointed chairperson of the New York World Fair committee. Dhawan was made her personal assistant—and thus began his association with one of the most charismatic, controversial and influential political leaders of independent India.

In a white safari suit, Dhawan presented himself every day at 8 am in Gandhi’s office. “I understood her. She knew my style of working, she knew my loyalty, she knew my hard work. I used to be there from eight o’clock in the morning until she retired for the night at twelve o’clock, 365 days of the year. During those 22 years, I never took a day’s leave; whether on Diwali, Dussehra, Holi, I was there,” Dhawan told me in 2014. We were sitting in the well-maintained, small lawn of his house in Jor Bagh, one of Delhi’s most expensive residential colonies.

Vincent George, once a typist at the Congress party’s headquarters, weathered investigation by the CBI, and remains close to the Gandhi family. RK SHARMA / INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

As we talked about his unusual life, visitors kept trooping in, stopping to touch his feet for blessings before they carried on. One of his hangers-on brought a bundle of letters, and Dhawan started checking them—most were invitations to local religious congregations. Age was definitely catching up with the man, but he seemed to be finally enjoying the leisure and privileges he had no time for in those hectic decades. At the age of 74, Dhawan had recently married, and had started writing notes on his own life. His wife, Achla, had been by Dhawan’s side ever since she and her daughter returned to India from Canada after her divorce in the early 1990s. The two were wed in October 2011, and a few months later made their marriage public by hosting a reception for friends and family. “You can call us soulmates. We have known each other so long, and I have been visiting him at home every day,” Achla told the Indian Express.

“There was no time to get married. If I had married I would have divorced her or my neighbour would have taken her,” Dhawan said with a faint smile, recalling that Gandhi never ever asked him about his personal matters.

By 1972, Dhawan had started handling political liaisons for Gandhi. The prime minister was at the peak of her glory—through military intervention, she had created Bangladesh as an independent nation state. In Kashmir and the north-east of the country, she had managed to suppress much of the demand for independence from India, and she had captured the national imagination through her call for the removal of poverty (Garibi Hatao). But political opposition—both to her autocratic streak and to many of the decisions she made—was building up.

On 12 June 1975, the Allahabad High Court declared her election to the Lok Sabha null and void, amplifying the chorus of calls for her resignation. By 25 June, Gandhi imposed an internal emergency and suspended civil liberties, which allowed her to rule by decree. As India’s democracy gave way to an autocracy, the show was run by a small coterie around Gandhi—her son Sanjay and Dhawan primarily, and a few others. “Enough rubbish has been said about those days,” Dhawan said, refusing to discuss the Emergency. “Whether she was in power or out of power, I worked for Mrs Gandhi.” Clearly, he thought it quite unnecessary to engage with the moral dilemmas of the period.

By 1977, the Emergency was revoked, and Gandhi and the Congress were routed in the elections that followed. Although she was out of power and lonely, Gandhi still needed someone to type her letters. Dhawan, now a political aide, could not be demoted. She asked the Congress for a reliable and fast typist. Enter Vincent George, who, like Dhawan, went on to win the confidence of the Gandhi household, becoming another doorkeeper who controlled access to the powerful. When I asked Dhawan about George, he replied with a poker face, “He was alright, like any other human being.” He had very little to say about the man, though they had so much in common.

George came to Delhi in 1974, as a migrant from Kerala with a higher education, in search of better economic prospects. The only certifiable skill the young man had then was his ability to type fast—media reports say he won a fastest-typist award in Kerala. Within a few weeks, he landed a job at the headquarters of the Congress party. His fortunes began to rise when he caught the attention of Sanjay Gandhi, the younger of the prime minister’s two sons.

After Sanjay Gandhi was killed in an air crash in 1980, Rajiv, his older brother and a commercial pilot, joined the Congress. George was deputed to assist Rajiv, and thus was born yet another storied boss-man Friday relationship in Indian politics. As Rajiv unexpectedly moved into the prime minister’s seat in 1984 after his mother’s assassination, George followed him into the prime minister’s office. Appointed as the youngest ever private secretary of an Indian prime minister, George was allotted government accommodation in Delhi, and became an integral part of Rajiv’s office. Much like Dhawan did with Indira Gandhi, he controlled access to Rajiv Gandhi—from allowing someone to meet him, to even intervening during a meeting to cut it short or extend it. In May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi became the second member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to be assassinated, when a suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam blew him up during an election rally at Sriperumbudur, near Madras in Tamil Nadu. George stuck with the Gandhi family, and took charge of handling all practicalities for the grief-stricken widow, Sonia Gandhi, and her young children, Priyanka and Rahul. He became a bulwark for the family against the machinations of Indian politics. When it was necessary to send out messages of the Gandhis’ continued political relevance, it was George who operated from behind the scenes.

Within months of Rajiv’s killing, the Machiavellian Congress leader PV Narasimha Rao made a comeback from retirement to become prime minister. It was Sonia Gandhi, refusing to enter active politics, who persuaded Rao to return. Soon, though, he began to show visible hostility towards the Gandhi family. Staying firmly behind the scenes, George organised a show of rebellion by Gandhi family loyalists. In turn, the Rao government served George with a notice to vacate the government house he was occupying. George’s brother-in-law, Sabu Chacko, who worked for East West Airlines, India’s first private airline, was arrested for sheltering underworld criminals in Delhi, and spent a couple of years in jail. To anyone willing to listen, George and his family pleaded Chacko’s innocence.

There was no doubt that George was paying for his loyalty to the Gandhi family, and there was widespread speculation that his time in Delhi was up. But in Indian politics, there are no easy predictions. In 1997, Sonia Gandhi decided to take on a more active political role—a decision that was widely welcomed within the dynastic Congress party. With this, George’s star began to rise again. But not for too long.

In 1998, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power. And George started facing the heat again. The Central Bureau of Investigation filed an FIR against George, accusing him of possessing disproportionate assets. The agency said George had a mansion in a posh locality, an apartment in another colony, a commercial floor in a south Delhi locality, two shops in the World Trade Centre in Connaught Place and a 5-acre plot near Qutub Minar. It also claimed that George had several million rupees in bank accounts, and other instruments. George’s wife, Lilly, who was a nurse in Kuwait until the 1990 Gulf War broke out, owned two firms, and showed an unusual jump in income too, the CBI said. Further, during the time that George was serving the Gandhis, he and his family were recipients of cash gifts from various sources. In November 1991, he got Rs 1.25 crore, and in December, he got Rs 41 lakh, Rs 70 lakh in December 1992, and Rs 20 lakh in March 1995. Though George claimed that most of his properties had been acquired using the income from his wife’s firms, the CBI said the firms—Lilliens Exports and Diana Agencies—had operated only for a couple of years.

To the Gandhi family, however, these alleged financial indiscretions were pardonable in view of his unquestionable loyalty. To date, he remains an important figure at 10 Janpath, Sonia Gandhi’s official residence. On 20 January 2015, a trial court in Delhi dismissed the disproportionate-assets case against George. After the CBI investigation, however, George has gone under the radar. But, even today, he holds the key to many of the Gandhi family’s secrets, and thus to many of India’s in recent decades.

George’s career differs from Dhawan’s only in that the latter also built up a long political career as a senior leader of the Congress party.

The ebb and flow of Dhawan’s fortunes was linked entirely to that of Indira Gandhi’s. On 31 October 1984, when she was assassinated, Dhawan, Sonia Gandhi and other officials rushed her to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital, where she was soon declared dead. Dhawan’s trademark white safari suit was drenched in blood.

“I got a fresh set of clothes from home,” Dhawan said, recalling that morning. As leaders and important officials began to crowd into the hospital where Gandhi’s body lay, he had to be around. With his intimate knowledge of the Gandhi household, the government and the Congress, Dhawan had a crucial role to play at that traumatic moment. Rajiv, Indira Gandhi’s 40-year-old son, was sworn in as prime minister that same evening. Dhawan was among the small number of people present at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to witness this.

The generational shift in the Congress played out in dramatic ways for Dhawan. Rajiv Gandhi appointed a sitting Supreme Court judge, Justice MP Thakkar, to probe the assassination of his mother. And, by the end of 1984, two months into office, the young prime minister had shunted Dhawan out. Rumours of the aide’s complicity in Indira 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 said. He and his family were put under surveillance, their phones were tapped and every visitor to their house was questioned. Overnight, Dhawan was reduced to a national pariah in a city where he had been one of the most powerful and sought-after men for decades.

In his 312-page report, Justice Thakkar said the central government should ask appropriate agencies to investigate the alleged involvement of Dhawan in the assassination. The report of the inquiry commission said that there were “reasonable grounds to suspect the involvement” of Dhawan, and accused him of telling lies to the commission and of being complicit in the crime.

“There is no escape from the conclusion that there are weighty reasons to suspect the complicity or involvement of Dhawan in the crime,” the report said. The government appointed a Special Investigation Team to probe Thakkar’s conclusion, but it couldn’t substantiate any of his claims. It also turned out that Thakkar was unduly influenced by Dhawan’s rivals in the government and party.

By 1989, Rajiv Gandhi brought Dhawan back to public life. He remained a prominent Congress leader under Sonia Gandhi too, and, as of 2016, he is a member of the Congress Working Committee, the highest decision-making body of the party.

“They tried their level best to get me removed when Mrs Gandhi was alive. Those people—ML Fotedar, Arun Singh, Arun Nehru—they all tried to get me removed,” Dhawan told me, naming senior Congress leaders. He is not known to have listed his enemies in the past, at least in public.

Dhawan said ordinary folk wouldn’t understand his relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family. “I carried the body of Pandit Nehru, Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi … four bodies of the family were carried on my shoulders,” he said softly, staring me in the eye as if to assess whether I understood the significance of what he had just said.

He was at Teen Murti Bhavan when Nehru died, and also in the special train to Allahabad that carried Nehru’s ashes in 1964 for immersion at the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. He carried Sanjay Gandhi’s body in 1980 after he was killed in an aircraft crash. He was there next to Indira Gandhi when she was shot dead in 1984. He accompanied Sonia Gandhi to Tamil Nadu after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, and brought back his mortal remains. Dhawan recalled those times in that same muted voice.

The man who started out as a typist to Indira Gandhi has, over the years, been probably the only outsider present as fate and history played truant with the family’s fortunes, and in turn with the fledgling democracy. The Nehru-Gandhi family has ruled India for 44 years of its seven-decade life as a free country. Dhawan was there, right in the middle, throughout—with the exception of the early years of the Nehru period and some parts of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. There isn’t another insider who could throw light on the workings of the inner sanctums of Indian democracy as he could. We discussed his plans to write an autobiography.

“I have not made up my mind about what to write, what not to write.”

You have seen a lot?

“Of course, I have seen a lot.”

Are you tempted to reveal the secrets of the Gandhi family?

“No, never,” he said firmly.

As I took his leave and drove out of Jor Bagh, I thought about how he must have come to own the house. It’s not something I asked him.

Unexplained riches, metamorphoses and mysterious fortunes are all part of the lives of our politicians and their trusted aides. There are many who have thrown away government jobs to become personal assistants to political leaders; there are trusted aides who have risen in politics because of the blessings of political leaders.

For example, when, on 15 February 2016, a mob of lawyers and supporters of the ruling BJP attacked journalists and academics in a court complex near India Gate, the most recognisable face among the attackers was that of OP Sharma. He had spent most of his life as a shadow to India’s finance minister, Arun Jaitley, and had recently become a member of the local legislative assembly. Across India, there are many who have emerged from the shadows of their bosses to build such political careers.

When I was a reporter covering the Delhi local government in the 1990s, a lanky young man with a foreign MBA degree joined the personal staff of the transport minister in the Delhi government, run by the BJP. While he was with the minister, sitting mostly in the minister’s room, Ajay Singh looked like he was just preparing official communications, fixing appointments and occasionally firefighting for his boss. After the government lost power, Singh moved to work with Pramod Mahajan, a senior BJP leader and a rising star in Indian politics. Mahajan, a flamboyant politician who raised big money for the party and managed election campaigns, was murdered by his younger brother in 2006, two years after his party suffered a surprise defeat in the national elections. After the BJP lost power, and Ajay Singh his official position with Mahajan, the young confidant’s life took another turn.

In 2004, he surprised the business world by taking over a defunct private airline with a still-valid Air Operating Certificate, and launched the highly successful low-cost airline SpiceJet. In June 2006, two months after Mahajan was killed in Mumbai, rumours about the BJP leader’s mysterious wealth began doing the rounds. Ajay Singh told the news agency IANS: “It is a whole lot of rubbish that Pramod Mahajan’s money is parked in the airline and that I was his point man. You can check the account books, the shareholders are listed.”

The youth turned aviation entrepreneur, the old man who lives in a mansion and the typist with many properties all offer mere glimpses of the influence wielded by fortunate aides in the Indian system. If you want the Indian system to work for you, it is critical that you understand the power of the personal assistant, even in this touch-screen era.

This person carries the boss’s family and business secrets, probably some of India’s most scandalous stories, and sees to the whims and fancies of famous men and women, almost always to their deathbeds. India’s most colourful and important moments are lost to the public record. There are exceptions, though—men who will tell a few tales. And they give us an idea of how much these assistants really know, how far their influence goes.

Ajay Singh, a former aide to the murdered BJP Leader Pramod Mahajan, took over a defunct airline in 2004 and built it into a successful low-cost carrier. BANDEEP SINGH/ INDIA TODAY GROUP/ GETTY IMAGES

Take the case of MO Mathai, a confidant of Jawaharlal Nehru, and predecessor to Dhawan and George.

When Mathai landed at Anand Bhavan—the imposing residence of the Nehru clan, now a government-run museum—he had just finished serving US troops in the Second World War. In his book, this is how Mathai describes how he came by the job: “Soon after my arrival in Allahabad early in February 1946, Nehru returned from Malaya. I had already told him during my previous visit to Allahabad that only after a week of my being with him would I be in a position to say in what way I could be of any use. I took less than a week. I discovered that Nehru so far had not had any adequate secretarial assistance. He even had to file his own papers. Those connected with his books, royalties and general finances were in a hopeless mess. I told him that even a superficial assessment of the situation had convinced me that the best way I could be of help to him was to render him secretarial assistance and added that I had decided to do this disagreeable work for a year. He was immensely pleased.”

By the time he was forced out of the job in 1959 because of allegations of misuse of power, Mathai, “Mac” to friends and the Nehru family, probably knew all the secrets of the first family of India: the prime minister’s habits, his weaknesses and his secret life. Mathai held on to the secrets of Anand Bhavan and Teen Murti Bhavan, which became Nehru’s official residence, up until the 1970s. Then he decided to write.

The 1970s was a sensational decade. Indira Gandhi had wielded immense political power, abused democracy and been electorally humiliated. This is when Mathai decided to publish his memoirs of the Nehruvian era. In the preface to Reminiscences of the Nehru Age, which is now out of print, Mathai says: “Before I started writing this book, I suspended from my mind all personal loyalties of a conventional nature: only my obligation to history remained.” He rummaged through the Nehruvian era with no inhibitions, tearing apart a host of giants of Indian history, peppering it with salacious details and with a candour that is uncommon in India. Many have questioned the veracity of Mathai’s claims, but no counter-evidence has been produced to date.

One reason for this could be that Nehru’s private papers are today in the custody of the Congress president and head of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Sonia Gandhi.

Apart from its descriptions of India’s political landscape, the book also offers insight into the powers of a politician’s aide. Once, after a scandal about a minister’s liaison with a woman became public, Mathai writes: “I rang up the minister and he came in the afternoon to my office. It was a Saturday when parliament was not in session. He confessed to everything. I gave him a piece of paper and asked him to write out his resignation from the Council of Ministers addressed to the PM. As I dictated slowly, he wrote, ‘I hereby tender my resignation from the Council of Ministers for personal reasons. I shall be grateful if you will be good enough to forward it to the President for his acceptance.’” Mathai then asked the minister to meet him on Monday morning in the parliament, along with another member of parliament. When they met, Mathai writes: “I told the minister that where hormones were concerned I had no right to pass judgement on anyone; but I added, ‘You have committed the inconceivable folly of entering your name and that of the woman in hotel registers everywhere as “Mr and Mrs”. Some people have egged her on and sent her to Delhi to blackmail you. I suggest that you buy her silence. Your good friend Malliah [the member of parliament who was accompanying him], I am sure, will succeed in persuading her to quietly go away from Delhi. Malliah should decide the amount to be given to her.’” The mistress was silenced, and the minister pleaded his way back into Indian politics and went on to scale greater heights.

In London, sometime between 1947 and 1951, the Indian high commissioner VK Krishna Menon hosted a reception at India House. It was attended by Clement Atlee, then the British prime minister, and others. Mathai writes: “Nehru stood in a corner, chatting with Lady Mountbatten all the while. Krishna Menon turned to me and said that people were commenting on it and requested me to break in so that Nehru could move about. I told him that I had no locus standi, he was the host and it was his duty to make the PM circulate. Krishna Menon did not have the guts to do the right thing. Two other similar parties were in the offing elsewhere in the next few days, and I did not want a repetition of the PM being glued to one person. Later, in the evening, I sent the PM a handwritten note about the incident which, I said, resulted in unfavourable comment and needless gossip. I did not wish to embarrass him by talking to him personally about this matter. He was too big a man to take my note amiss. It had the desired effect and the other two parties went off well.”

After Mathai resigned, Nehru admitted: “My broad appreciation of Mr Mathai was of efficiency, integrity and loyalty, at any rate loyalty to me; but also a person who acted foolishly often in small matters; and sometimes rather threw his weight about. But I never doubted his integrity and I have had no reasons since.”

MO Mathai (centre) began his career in politics when he offered to help Jawaharlal Nehru with filing his papers. When Mathai died, in 1981, the New York Times called him “one of the most powerful Indian officials during the Nehru era.” PHOTO DIVISION

No one in the Nehru household would have expected Mathai to write about the many things he had silently heard and witnessed. Mathai said Feroze Gandhi, Indira’s husband and the father of Rajiv and Sanjay, “could not be accused of possessing any eagerness for studies. Throughout his life he retained the handwriting of a child.” He also wrote about Feroze’s affairs with various women.

Mathai’s two books—the second book is My Days with Nehru—are peppered with stories of India’s most towering personalities, their petty clashes, affairs, rumours, paramours and all. He even claimed to have burnt some of Mohandas Gandhi’s personal papers that had been handed over to Nehru after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. By Mathai’s own admission, among the papers were details of the elopement of Nehru’s sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, with Syed Hussain, a charismatic journalist who died in Egypt years later, lonely and broken-hearted.

But it was in his writings about Indira Gandhi that Mathai was at his most damaging. “It was amusing and pathetic to see her attempting to put herself two steps higher than her father while she was Prime Minister. Poor fish! I suppose most women are overburdened by illusions.”

Among the most controversial legacies he left behind was a chapter titled ‘She.’ Many argue that it wasn’t written by him. I met with one of the key players in the publication of Mathai’s books. He told me that the chapter was indeed part of the original manuscript that Mathai sent in from Madras, through a lawyer friend who lived in Delhi. However, Mathai’s publisher, Narendra Kumar, who was then with Vikas Publishing, was not keen on publishing the chapter, and returned it.

‘She’ contained many lurid details about what Mathai claimed was his over-a-decade-long intimate affair with Indira Gandhi. There is little evidence to corroborate Mathai’s claims, or to trash them as fantasy.

In 1981, when Mathai died of a heart attack in Madras at the age of 72, the New York Times called him “one of the most powerful Indian officials during the Nehru era.”

Mathai, who crossed every boundary that may have been set for personal assistants, had a peaceful enough end. Not all assistants have been so lucky. In 1993, the minority government of Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao deployed every possible strategy to garner support in parliament as it struggled to hold on to power. Among its political manoeuvres was giving huge bribes to opposition members who were willing to be bought. Four MPs from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, a regional party, took bundles of cash to vote in favour of the government.

As word began to spread about the fortune that the MPs had landed, many in their camp began to bargain for their share. Among them was Shashi Nath Jha, the private secretary to the JMM chief, Shibu Soren. By the next summer, Jha had disappeared. After years of investigation, the CBI exhumed his remains from a village near Ranchi in 1998, and accused Soren, among others, of murdering him.

The fear of retribution, including death, is all too real for the assistant. During my research, I met an old man who was, for a few decades, the personal assistant to one of the country’s senior-most members of parliament. After endless cups of tea, he opened up. That both of us shared a mother tongue, Malayalam, helped.

He told me about a round of bribes—not the one that resulted in Jha’s murder—that was circulated in Delhi for the survival of another minority government. One evening, the government’s agents landed up at the MP’s official residence with a huge bag full of cash. After the visitors took their leave, the MP and our narrator locked the gate, and shut all the doors and windows of the ageing white mansion. They broke the tiled floor of the house and dug into the ground beneath. “We kept the bag in a hole, spread sand over it and cemented it,” he recalled. To hide the amateur cementing, they pulled an old carpet over it.

After the government survived the confidence vote in parliament, and the political dust settled, the floor of the bedroom was dug up again. The cash bag was taken by road to the MP’s hometown, hundreds of kilometres from Delhi, accompanied by the leader himself and his security guards. A distillery was constructed with the money.

“You are now retired, far from all that chaos. Why don’t you tell me all your experiences on record?” I asked.

“I am old. I want a peaceful death,” he said.

Adapted from A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India, published by HarperCollins India.