Without any doubt, R.K. Dhawan, Indira Gandhi’s “Man Friday” wielded an unparalleled clout while he was attached with the former Prime Minister and was perhaps amongst the most feared individuals in the corridors of power. However, RKD, as he was generally addressed, lost out considerably on his influence once Rajiv Gandhi took over from his mother, forcing him to become a persona non grata in the premises where his writ once ran.
There were indications that Dhawan would be eased out from his powerful position soon after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. His enemies started the canard that two of the assassins, Sub Inspector Beant Singh, and Constable Satwant Singh, were reinstated to carry on with their security duties following RKD’s intervention; this despite the fact that they were shifted from 1, Safdarjung Road-1, Akbar Road residence cum office of the former Prime Minister on the advice of the intelligence agencies. The intelligence had warned the Delhi Police of a possible attempt on Mrs Gandhi’s life by Sikhs, in the wake of Operation Bluestar in Amritsar, during which the Indian Armed Forces carried out a concerted assault on the Golden Temple premises, where militants, led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had taken refuge.
However, Dhawan was complacent that no person would have the courage to remove him from his pivotal position, and when close confidant Brij Mohan Bhama, cautioned him to be careful and move out from his office at the PM’s residence, he dismissed the suggestion by retorting, “I am R.K.Dhawan. Nobody has the guts to remove me.”
On hindsight, Bhama proved to be correct as it became evident on the morning of 27 December 1984, when, as usual, Dhawan drove his off-white Fiat (DLV 3116) to the gate of 1, Safdarjung Road, but was denied entry. Rajiv was yet to shift to the Race Course Road residence, which was being readied for the new Prime Minister, and continued to stay at the official house allotted to his mother, protected by commandos from the Army who had “Isolation” inscribed on their uniform. It was 8.25 a.m. and Dhawan was taken aback when the gate did not automatically open as it always did.
He shouted at the security personnel and ordered them to make way for him. However, much to his shock, he was informed that he was prohibited from entering the premises. When he demanded to speak to the Prime Minister, he was asked to park his car in the parking lot near the Gymkhana Club, so that he could walk down to the reception. Despite complying with the instructions, he was told curtly at the reception to return to his house and phone the PM from there. The message was loud and clear, and the writing was on the wall. What Bhama had relayed to him on 2 December—a day after Rajiv Gandhi launched his election campaign from Bulandshahr and Aligarh—had proved prophetic. He had been denied entry into the house from where he commanded the entire nation.
The purge of Indira’s men did not stop with RKD. Four days later, Nathu Ram, the odd-job man, who was amongst the most trusted domestic aides of the former PM, met with a similar fate. Nathu exercised immense control at the residence, and according to the political grapevine of the time, even Sonia Gandhi had to request him for the keys to Indira Gandhi’s bedroom in her absence. As per many other accounts, Nathu enjoyed complete confidence of the PM. On 1 January 1985, Nathu trooped into the house, coming face-to-face with Rajiv Gandhi; he wished the Prime Minister, “A Happy New Year” and was offered a piece of cake in return. As soon as he left, Rajiv summoned his close friend and associate Arun Singh, and enquired what Nathu was doing in the premises. On Nathu’s return, he was apprised that his services were no longer required.
Needing a shoulder to cry on, he rushed to Dhawan’s Golf Links residence, only to discover that most of the people attached to the late Prime Minister had been unceremoniously told to leave. On 2 January 1985, Bhama was expressly summoned by Dhawan to return from Pune to meet him. He recounted his warning to RKD, when he had asked him to wind up after witnessing the security personnel preventing Maqsudan Lal—a Delhi Police upper subordinate attached to Mrs Gandhi—from entering without the requisite pass. Dhawan, at that point of time, had huge quantities of cash in his chamber adjoining the garden as well as expensive gifts ranging from designer watches to high-end pens. When he was shown the door, he was unable to retrieve any of his personal belongings.
The purge continued, and soon a huge espionage scandal broke out. It was popularly known as the “Coomar Narain spy case”, and involved staff members of P.C. Alexander, an outstanding bureaucrat and principal secretary to the Prime Minister. The Coomar Narain case damaged many reputations, resulting in Alexander finally leaving the PMO.
Soon after that, Dhawan’s persecution started. The Special Investigation Team, led by eminent police officer S. Anandram, and a Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Thakkar, commenced ascertaining whether the former aide had any role in the assassination of the former Prime Minister. Thakkar, in his report, alluded to the “needle of suspicion” pointing to Dhawan, who was passing through the most horrific period of his life. The insinuation, that he was a part of the conspiracy shattered him, but he was determined to brave it out.
His rivals had succeeded in ousting him from his coveted position. However, in the process, there was nobody to guard the gate providing access to Rajiv Gandhi. Makhan Lal Fotedar was his political adviser, but it was Dhawan who personally knew everyone in the political class, as well as the power-brokers of the capital. The new Prime Minister was naive, vulnerable and unaccustomed to the world of politics and thus could not distinguish between his genuine well-wishers and those who wanted to reap benefits in abundance from their association with him. For a long patch, Rajiv was unprotected, and to make matters worse, his public feud with President Zail Singh had created insecurity within him despite the massive majority he had in Parliament. First Arun Singh, and subsequently Arun Nehru, had let him down. The headlines had been dominated by the Bofors scandal. It was at this juncture that RKD was brought back to the corridors of power by his well-wisher and Rajiv’s closest friend, Captain Satish Sharma.
Sometime in February 1989, Dhawan joined the Cabinet Secretariat as an Additional Secretary. He apparently had received a clean chit after Ram Nath Kau had changed his statement to the Thakkar Commission. He and Satish Sharma formed a formidable pair, and tried to bail Rajiv out. It was too late in the day, and the Congress was reduced to 195-odd seats in the 1989 elections, resulting in Vishwanath Pratap Singh becoming Prime Minister with the support of the Left parties and the BJP. In November 1990, Dhawan, subsequently, along with Chandraswamy and some others, played a role in facilitating Chandrashekhar to become Prime Minister.
Contrary to what has been appearing in the media, RKD was never close to Sanjay Gandhi. In fact, Sanjay loathed him, and in order to cut him down to size, had in January 1980 appointed Jagdish Tytler as an OSD in the PMO after Indira Gandhi returned to power. However, Dhawan knew the system like the back of his hand and had made powerful friends. Pranab Mukherjee, for instance, was extremely close to Sanjay Gandhi, who was his beneficiary, yet simultaneously enjoyed cordial relations with RKD, courtesy Kamal Nath. According to the Congress grapevine, Dhawan played a major role in the initial emergence of the Reliance Industries and his proximity to Dhirubhai Ambani was well known. He virtually knew every industrialist in the country but shared a special rapport with K.K. Birla. He was also on excellent terms with Charanjit Singh, the proprietor of Pure Drinks, the bottlers of Coca Cola, and subsequently Campa Cola, and instrumental in procuring of the land for Hotel Le Meridien. Dhawan also lent a hand in helping Charanjit Singh secure the Congress ticket from South Delhi, both in 1977 and 1980.
Amongst many people who benefited from his patronage was cine superstar, Rajesh Khanna, who in 1991 was granted the party ticket to contest against L.K. Advani from the New Delhi Parliamentary Constituency. Khanna was defeated, but in a byelection, won against Shatrughan Sinha. In 1990, for the first time, Dhawan entered the Rajya Sabha from Andhra Pradesh and was supported by Satish Sharma in getting the ticket. He contested twice unsuccessfully for the Lok Sabha against Jagmohan from New Delhi in 1998 and 1999, yet received another term in the Upper House via Lalu Prasad Yadav.
RKD had an uncomfortable relationship with P.V. Narasimha Rao, even though the latter made him a Union Minister, but later implicated him in the infamous Hawala case. Dhawan was part of the Congress Working Committee and won the election at Tirupati besting many stalwarts. He also served as general secretary of the party.
RKD was introduced to the Nehru-Gandhis by his close relative Yashpal Kapoor, but as history is witness to, left him far behind during Indira Gandhi’s heydays. It is well known that he also played a significant part in having Vincent George attached to Rajiv Gandhi after Raghu, Rajiv Gandhi’s secretary in the initial days of entering politics, was asked to quit. Dhawan, is understood, to have left behind many documents which were to be a part of the memoirs he was writing. He was a vault of explosive information, but on most contentious issues preferred to remain silent, believing his pen would do the talking.