He was Indira Gandhi’s most trusted aide during her second term as Prime Minister. For pivotal political decisions, Rajiv Gandhi used him as his sole sounding board. He played a major role in the making of P.V. Narasimha Rao as the PM though later he worked overtime to dislodge him from the prime berth. He was the person who swung the decision to appoint Sonia Gandhi as the Congress president by devising the ouster of Sitaram Kesri. He persuaded the High Command to nominate Sheila Dikshit as the Chief Minister of Delhi. He formulated the list of ministers that were to be inducted in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet which many others may claim credit for. Yet, he was marginalised and confined to the sidelines in the iniquitous internal power politics of the party perhaps since he communicated Indira Gandhi’s desire of projecting granddaughter Priyanka as the rightful heir to her legacy.
Makhan Lal Fotedar passed away following a prolonged illness earlier in the week; a man disillusioned with the events that led to the diminishment of the party which he had served with utmost loyalty for nearly 60 years. In his political memoirs titled, “The Chinar Leaves”, he observed, “Rahul Gandhi’s leadership is unacceptable to the people of the country and Sonia Gandhi has her best years behind her. The party has no one to provide direction. It refuses to learn. It saddens me that the Nehru-Indira legacy has reached a cul-de-sac.”
Unflinching was Fotedar’s allegiance to Indira Gandhi. He considered her the ultimate leader, and on being coaxed would, with anecdotal flourish sketch tales highlighting her multi-faceted personality. She believed in his capacity to deliver and in 1980, on being re-elected as the Prime Minister, invited him to join her office. Fotedar, who was based in Kashmir, relocated to New Delhi to become a part of the PMO—a month after the tragic death of Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash.
There have been many books and essays written on Indira Gandhi, but what needs to be underlined here is that her transition from a Left-leaning leader to a Centrist was facilitated by him. Fotedar was deeply influenced by the original Kashmiri advisers of Indira Gandhi— P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, P.N. Dhar etc—but since he had a religious side to his thinking he assisted the Congress to move away from its core socialist agenda to a more acceptable narrative. Fotedar’s relevance can be measured from the fact that Indira Gandhi would make it a point to include him while discussing the semantics of politics with Rajiv, who was being groomed by her, post Sanjay Gandhi. When Indira Gandhi turned down Rajiv’s suggestion of bringing in K.K. Birla to the Rajya Sabha on Congress ticket on the ground that she did not wish to be perceived as someone who was promoting industrialists, it was Fotedar who convinced her that overruling Rajiv would send wrong signals. Thereafter, she agreed to support Birla provided he contested as an Independent who would be given the party’s surplus votes in Rajasthan.
Following Indira’s assassination, he immediately took charge to ensure that there was a smooth transition and Rajiv was sworn in as the Prime Minister without further delay. Rajiv recognised his apt preparedness, and therefore, asked him to obtain his close friend Amitabh Bachchan’s resignation from the Lok Sabha. Rajiv sought Fotedar’s opinion when he unceremoniously dropped Arun Nehru from his Cabinet. After patiently hearing him out, Fotedar forewarned him that he should be ready for retaliation which happened when the Bofors scandal broke out. On another note, on his advice, Rajiv performed rituals as per Kashmiri customs which apparently did not sit well with his close relatives.
Soon after Rajiv was assassinated, he was the first to prop up Sonia Gandhi as his successor, but as is known, she declined. However, with her compliance, he managed to get Narasimha Rao elected as the leader, and subsequently the Prime Minister, and in doing so, he convinced Sharad Pawar to withdraw from the race, making it a unanimous decision. His falling out with Rao took place following the Babri Masjid demolition and on 6 December 1992 in a Cabinet meeting, he blamed him for taking insufficient steps to prevent it. Fotedar had cordial relations with several Opposition leaders including L.K. Advani, Kanshi Ram and Atal Behari Vajpayee—he being instrumental in facilitating his trip to the US for medical treatment during Rajiv’s tenure. He prevailed upon Sonia Gandhi to join politics, thus ensuring Kesri’s resignation. While exiting, Kesri warned him, “You have thrown me out, but beware, this lady will give you nothing.” He proved prophetic. Fotedar was repeatedly overlooked for the Rajya Sabha and even Sheila Dikshit—who owed her chief ministership to him—in his words, “stabbed him in the back”. Sonia Gandhi would invariably describe him as, “The Clever Brahmin” and it was on his advice in 2004 that she first got herself elected as the leader of the CPP and then, after being empowered, nominated Manmohan Singh as the PM. Initially, Sonia was in favour of getting Singh elected directly by the MPs, but saw the merit in his suggestion. She asked Fotedar to prepare the Cabinet list, which he did, with two omissions—Shivraj Patil and P.M. Sayeed—both of whom had lost the elections. However, the list was whisked away from his house by a senior party functionary, and thus, he never received credit for it. The supreme irony being that he was not even invited for the swearing-in of the UPA-1 government.
Fotedar was the Master of State Craft, his inspiration drawn from his supreme leader, Indira Gandhi. May his soul rest in peace. Between us.