Biographies written by friends can be both revelatory and exasperating. Because the author knows the subject intimately there’s a lot you can learn from them which otherwise you might never have found out. But, equally, for the same reason the book is likely to ignore or gloss over incidents that could embarrass the subject. Such books are fascinating but not always satisfying.
That is largely true of Wajahat Habibullah’s recent book My Years with Rajiv. First, however, a word about their relationship. Habibullah and Indira Gandhi’s two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, studied together at Doon School and earlier at Welham. Their families knew each other and Habibullah’s mother even served as a Congress MP. Later, the adult Wajahat served in both Rajiv Gandhi’s and his mother’s office. As he reveals, Habibullah accompanied Mrs Gandhi “on every tour within India, from Kashmir to the Andamans”. Consequently, he got to know and, perhaps, understand the Gandhis better than any other civil servant.
Now, let’s come to the book. The new bits suggest that a lot happened when he was Prime Minister of which Rajiv Gandhi knew very little. In fact, he was often kept in the dark. By politicians, by generals and even, it seems, by his close friends. If true -- and I’m prepared to accept Habibullah’s word -- it’s hardly a flattering portrait of India’s youngest Prime Minister.
Habibullah reveals that Rajiv was totally clueless when, in February 1986, the gates of the Babri Masjid were unlocked. “Was Rajiv Gandhi involved in the decisions leading up to this unlocking?” he asks. This is the answer that Rajiv Gandhi gave him: “I had not been informed of this action and have asked Vir Bahadur Singh (then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh) to explain. I suspect it was Arun (Nehru) and Fotedar (Makhan Lal) who were responsible, but I am having this verified. If it is true, I will have to consider action.”
Unfortunately, Habibullah does not explain how a Prime Minister could be ignorant of something as important as this, or what that suggests of his leadership and of his control of events. Yet Habibullah does write of himself that he was “completely taken aback”. Therefore, it’s a mystery why he doesn’t dig deeper to find an explanation for Gandhi’s ignorance. Or ask how Rajiv’s cousin, Arun Nehru, could have placed the Prime Minister in this predicament.
Even more surprising is what Habibullah has to reveal about Operation Brasstacks. In 1986-87, this operation was viewed as unwarrantedly provocative and many feared that it could spark a conflict with Pakistan. Although Habibullah says that it involved “the entire Indian Army”, it emerges that Rajiv Gandhi had no idea of its planning or that it was actually happening. Habibullah reveals he only found out as a result of a casual comment to Lt. Gen. P.N. Hoon, then Western Army commander, at an Army Day reception.
Habibullah’s account of Rajiv’s conversation with Lt. Gen. Hoon is both funny and frightening. “When Rajiv saw him, he sauntered up to him and asked cheerfully: ‘How is the Western Front?’ ” Lt. Gen. Hoon then started to speak about Operation Brasstacks. “Rajiv looked taken aback and asked Hoon what he was talking about.” As Habibullah adds, it soon become crystal clear that “the Prime Minister of India had in fact no inkling of an exercise that had brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war”.
Once again, Habibullah does not bother to ask the obvious questions. What does Rajiv Gandhi’s ignorance of Brasstacks reveal of his relationship with the Army Chief and, more importantly, Arun Singh, the minister of state for defence and Rajiv’s closest friend? Indeed, what does this sorry state of affairs reveal of Rajiv Gandhi’s hold on the government? Habibullah’s silence doesn’t mean the questions don’t exist or that they can conveniently not be answered.
The third revelation is from Rajiv Gandhi’s brief term as Leader of the Opposition. During Operation Desert Storm, launched by a 35-nation coalition led by the United States in 1991, to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Husain’s control, Rajiv Gandhi “launched a tirade against the USA focused on refuelling permissions given by India to US planes”. Gandhi claimed this was a surrender of Indian sovereignty. However, Habibullah points out that such criticism overlooked the fact “India itself was routinely given such permission by a host of countries”.
The author goes a step further to reveal Gandhi’s hypocrisy was a lot worse. Behind closed doors he was in touch with the US embassy to convey a very different message. “Rajiv was at pains to quietly explain to the US embassy in New Delhi the domestic compulsions behind his actions and stressing that he had no desire to undermine India-US relations that he had himself so caringly wrought”. Once again, Habibullah has no comment to make on this distressing two-facedness.
However, where this book falls horribly short is in its discussion of the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. It has very little to say of the killings and almost nothing of the enormity of what happened. There’s no attempt to assess the response of the new Prime Minister or the failure of his government to act effectively.
In fact, Habibullah describes the gathering at Teen Murti House, where Presidents and Prime Ministers queued up to pay their last respects to Indira Gandhi, but seems to ignore what was happening outside. Over 3,000 Sikhs were killed but his account suggests Rajiv Gandhi, standing beside his mother’s body, was unaware or uninformed of the pogrom taking place in his capital. Habibullah as good as admits this when he writes: “We were later to learn that Sikhs were assaulted on the streets”.
Habibullah quotes Rajiv Gandhi’s November 2, 1984 broadcast: “As Prime Minister of India, I cannot and will not allow this”. But it happened and most people believe he did little to stop it. Yet this is not a subject Habibullah pays any attention to.
I guess when a Dosco writes about another Doon School boy, friendship comes in the way of an honest and objective account. Between chums that might be understandable, but for a biographer it’s less forgivable. But then Habibullah doesn’t hide his enormous admiration for his subject. That’s apparent from the introduction. Quoting what Marc Antony said of Brutus in Julius Caesar, Habibullah says of Rajiv Gandhi: “This was a man”....