President R. Venkataraman had wanted Pranab Mukherjee to be sworn in as the Prime Minister after Vishwanath Pratap Singh demitted office in November, 1990, following the decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party to withdraw its support to the Janata Dal government in the wake of L.K. Advani’s arrest during his Somnath to Ayodhya Rathyatra. RV, as President Venkataraman was known in political circles, conveyed his preference for Pranab Mukherjee over Rajiv Gandhi in no uncertain terms to the former Prime Minister’s key aide, Makhan Lal Fotedar, when he called on him at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. RV also indicated that he was not in favour of Chandrashekhar becoming the Prime Minister either. Making the disclosure in his forthcoming book, The Chinar Leaves, Fotedar has stated that after V.P. Singh’s resignation within 11 months of his taking over, many MPs were not keen for an early election and thus hectic efforts for the formation of an alternative government had begun.
Fotedar said that he called on the President to discuss the political situation and told him that under the circumstances, it was only the Congress that could form a stable and strong government. “I requested him to invite Rajiv to head the next government as he was the leader of the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. On this the President directed me, with an emphasis of authority, that I may put it to Rajiv Gandhi that if he supported Pranab Mukherjee to be Prime Minister, he would administer the oath of office to him the same evening.”
According to Fotedar, after hearing the President’s personal choice, it took him time to recover his poise. He politely asked RV, “Sir, how can this be done?” He said again with an aura of authority that the President had the power to appoint a Prime Minister. He asked Fotedar to inform Rajiv Gandhi that he should convey his response to the President directly when he met him later. “He also expressed caution against choosing Chandrashekhar and made some adverse remarks about him. I came back and reported the developments to Rajiv, who was also astounded by RV’s stand. The Congress party was running out of options and Rajiv ultimately took the controversial decision of supporting Chandrashekhar from outside.”
Fotedar states that the former Young Turk, Chandrashekhar, had waited in the wings to become the country’s Prime Minister for nearly a decade. He jumped at the opportunity and took over the reins of power. “I knew in my heart of hearts that this government was going to be more unstable than the V.P. Singh government. But I believed that the timing of the next elections would be determined by the Congress rather than the Prime Minister.”
As soon as Chandrashekhar took charge, his differences with the Congress started to come to the fore. The economy of the country was in a shambles and there seemed no remedy in sight. The Congress had its reservations when American aircraft refuelled on Indian soil after the commencement of the Gulf War in January, 1991. The final straw was when a few months later, two sub inspectors of Haryana CID were found snooping on Rajiv Gandhi’s residence at 10 Janpath. This led the Congress to withdraw support and elections were subsequently announced.
Fotedar, in his book dedicated to his supreme leader Indira Gandhi, has also described in great detail his visit to the Kashmir Valley with her, barely a few days before the former Prime Minister was assassinated on 31 October 1984. He has spoken about Indira Gandhi’s wish in seeing her granddaughter Priyanka joining active politics at a later date. Indira Gandhi had stated that people would see her (Indira’s image) in Priyanka and support her at an appropriate time. Fotedar had conveyed Indira’s will subsequently to Rajiv Gandhi, who chose not to give any reaction and merely said, “So this is what Mummy said”. Fotedar also informed Sonia Gandhi about Indira Gandhi’s desire soon after she took over as the Congress president, but she did not seem too happy as she had already made up her mind to induct her son Rahul instead.
The Chinar Leaves, being published by Harper Collins, also gives an insight into many important political developments in the country, which Fotedar, as the political secretary to both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi witnessed as an active player. Fotedar has acknowledged P.N. Haksar to be his political guru and has openly admitted how he was influenced by both D.P. Dhar and P.N. Dhar, the Kashmiri advisers to Indira Gandhi before he took over the crucial job in July, 1980. The book symbolically tends to convey that after Indira Gandhi’s demise, the Kashmiriyat in national politics simultaneously started diminishing. Therefore, the title, The Chinar Leaves, marking the end of an era.
Fotedar has recounted the role he played in making P.V. Narasimha Rao the Prime Minister, following Rajiv’s assassination, after obtaining Sonia Gandhi’s approval. The party had first offered the presidentship to Sonia Gandhi and after her refusal, the decision to appoint Rao was taken, with her consent. He has acknowledged the positive role played by Sharad Pawar in allowing the party to arrive at a unanimous decision at his behest in view of the unfortunate developments following Rajiv’s tragic death in Sriperumbudur.
Fotedar has recalled how he warned Rao about the RSS conspiracy to target the Babri Masjid and decided to take on the former Prime Minister at a Cabinet meeting for his failure to protect the disputed monument on the same evening (6 December 1992). He subsequently left the Cabinet over his differences and his efforts to persuade Arjun Singh and others to do likewise did not succeed. Fotedar notes that had Arjun Singh resigned over the Babri issue, he would have in all probability been the Prime Minister.
The astute politician played the most important part in forcing Sitaram Kesri to relinquish the office of the Congress president to make way for Sonia Gandhi, who agreed to join active politics. A dejected Kesri proved prophetic when he told Fotedar that what he had done was not right as “Yeh aurat tumhe kuch dene wali nahin hai (This woman will not do anything for you).” Kesri was proved right, since Sonia Gandhi gradually marginalised Fotedar to the sidelines. She thwarted his entry into the Rajya Sabha, giving the party nomination to many outsiders and those who had been critical of the Congress in the past.
Fotedar, however, continued to give wise counsel to the Congress president in her initial years and also played a part in making Ahmed Patel her political adviser. Soon after Sonia Gandhi decided not to accept the Prime Ministership following pressure from her family, she wanted Manmohan Singh to be elected as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party at a formal meeting. However, Fotedar cautioned her that the CPP should first elect her and then authorise her to nominate a leader of her choice as this would make it clear to everyone that she was the kingmaker and the prima donna of the party. She did what she was told.
There is also an interesting anecdote to take forward Natwar Singh’s disclosure that family pressure forced Sonia Gandhi not to accept office. As part of the exercise to convey the decision to allies, Natwar Singh and Fotedar went to meet V.P. Singh where Natwar communicated the family reason in great detail to the former Prime Minister. After the meeting ended, Fotedar told Natwar that there was no need to give elaborate reasons for Sonia Gandhi’s decision by bringing in the family. Natwar Singh, however, went back to Sonia Gandhi to share the details of what happened at the meeting with V.P. Singh, and told her that it was Fotedar who attributed family concerns to be the motive for her decision, something which he should not have done. Natwar Singh, therefore, twisted the truth completely.
After Fotedar forced Sitaram Kesri to relinquish office in Sonia Gandhi’s favour, a dejected Kesri told Fotedar that what he had done was not right as “Yeh aurat tumhe kuch dene wali nahin hai (This woman will not do anything for you).”
Fotedar has also confirmed in his book the reason behind Mulayam Singh Yadav’s decision not to support a Congress-led government in 1999, after Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government was defeated on the floor of the House by a single vote. According to him, Sonia Gandhi had conveyed to the President as well as also some of her colleagues that the government would be headed by Manmohan Singh. Madhavrao Scindia was extremely peeved over this development, since he believed that he would be the chosen one. He asked his good friend Amar Singh, who was also close to Mulayam Singh, to review the decision of supporting the Congress-led government. The rest is history.
Fotedar further recounts how he had cautioned Rajiv Gandhi of severe retaliation when he had unceremoniously ordered Arun Nehru to resign from his government. The political aide accompanied Rajiv to a Cabinet expansion ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the Prime Minister shared with him during the car ride what transpired between him and Arun Nehru that morning. Fotedar told his boss that this should not have happened in the way it did, and he should be prepared for a political reaction. Rajiv seemed worried and asked Fotedar to return with him on his way back home. Once the car reached the Race Course Road residence of the Prime Minister, Fotedar saw Sonia Gandhi and Captain Satish Sharma chuckling. He immediately knew that Arun Nehru was dropped at their instance and could sense that the former minister was not going to take it lying down. When the Bofors controversy erupted, Rajiv realised it was Arun Nehru’s way of getting back at him
In the book, Fotedar has expressed his annoyance over the questionable decision to bifurcate Andhra Pradesh. The decision was formalised at a hurriedly called meeting of the Congress Working Committee where he and R.K. Dhawan, personal secretary to Indira Gandhi were not invited because they would have opposed the move. Indira Gandhi had a very firm view on the bifurcation of the state and its adverse consequences for the party and naturally he and Dhawan would have brought them to the table. The resolution for bifurcation was passed by ensuring their absence.
Fotedar has also explained how Jagjivan Ram, contesting his eighth election from Sasaram in 1984 was allowed to win by 1,500 votes as Rajiv Gandhi told the Congress workers and representatives there not to protest beyond a point, when the Dalit leader asked for a recount while trailing by 3,000 votes. “He was allowed to scrape through after a recount”, something which brings out Rajiv’s benevolent side.
The former political secretary has also written in great detail that Indira Gandhi wanted Rajiv to have his own group in politics after his election to the Lok Sabha in 1981 and asked him for the names of some younger MPs, who could be with her son while he was pursuing party work. With a lot of thought, Fotedar had suggested the names of Ahmed Patel, Oscar Fernandes and Tarun Gogoi and gave reasons why they would be an asset to Rajiv Gandhi. Indira Gandhi listened to his reasoning patiently and initially asked him to convey the names to Rajiv. However, she suddenly stopped him from doing so and said that she would communicate the names of the three young MPs personally to Rajiv as he may wonder why Fotedar was trying to push these names. It showed tremendous political insight on how the Prime Minister was acquainted with the ground realities and it had occurred to her that if the names had come from her political secretary, there would be no dearth of people in her party who would try to poison Rajiv’s mind against Fotedar.
Fotedar has further stated in his book that Indira Gandhi had specifically told Rajiv Gandhi in his and Arun Nehru’s presence that he should never make the mistake of inducting Madhavrao Scindia in his Cabinet. She had also warned him not to enlist “Teji’s son” (Amitabh Bachchan) in politics. Unfortunately, Rajiv did exactly what he was told not to do after Indira Gandhi’s assassination for reasons best known to him. Amitabh’s name cropped up during the Bofors controversy and he had to quit politics. Scindia developed an overriding ambition, believing he could be the leader of the Congress one day.