Who cooked his own goose?

President Pratibha Patil was always a Indira Gandhi loyalist. But, as far as I know (she was a family friend of a dear aunt’s), contrary to what Rajasthan ex-minister Amin Khan said recently, she never either cooked for Mrs Gandhi or washed dishes in her kitchen.

But Khan was right in believing that ‘patient loyalty’ is always rewarded. Patil was in a high state of depression when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated. She believed her world was over, until Indira’s son, Rajiv, by then having succeeded his mother into the Prime Minister’s office, made her the president of the Maharahstra Pradesh Congress Committee, essentially to keep then Chief Minister Sharad Pawar in check.

But long before being made either MPCC chief or, years later, President of India, Patil expected to be made the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. She had stood by Mrs Gandhi through thick and thin, even during the post-Emergency era when the Congress lost the election and Morarji Desai’s government began to harass the former Prime Minister every which way possible.

Old-time journalists who covered that era have told me that whenever Mrs Gandhi visited Bombay when she was out of power, more often than not, there would be hardly anybody to receive her at the airport. The only two people who were always there were Patil and Najma Heptullah, former Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha (even Patil held that job at one time).

In fact, it was not Patil but Heptullah who cooked for Mrs Gandhi – but not in the former PM’s kitchen; in her own, rather. Heptullah would always be present at the airport or whichever guest house Mrs Gandhi stayed in with a huge tiffin carrier filled to the brim with the best of pakwans that Mrs Gandhi adored. And, I presume, she took the tiffin carrier back home to be washed in her own kitchen by her own dishwashers. Heptullah could well afford both the human and the mechanical kind even in those days.

Mrs Gandhi (and both her son, Rajiv and daughter-in-law, Sonia) rewarded Heptullah with successive Rajya Sabha memberships even though Heputllah could not win a single party election in her own home town – when she stood for one, she got only one vote: her own. I am told Rajiv Gandhi then called Bombay Congress president Murli Deora to protest at that humiliation and asked Deora to make sure that Heptullah was somehow co-opted into the party executive.

I also know for sure that soon after Mrs Gandhi prepared to return to power and chose a new symbol for the Congress – the hand or the panja – after the earlier Congress symbol of ‘cow and calf’ was frozen by the Election Commission, she invited Heptullah to her home for breakfast, served (if not cooked) by Sonia Gandhi. Heptullah, I am told, landed up with her little daughter in tow and as Mrs Gandhi and Heptullah discussed whether the ‘Hand’ would be a good symbol to replace the ‘cow-and-calf’ with, Heptullah’s six-year old piped in with, “Haath se toh aap gai ka doodh bhi nikaal sakte hain (You can even milk the cow with the hand)!”

Mrs Gandhi was both taken aback and highly taken up with the comment – she called Sonia in to exclaim, “Out of the mouth of babes: listen to this little girl! I think we have got the symbol right!”

With that kind of friendship between the Heptullahs and the Gandhis, I do not know what came between them. I had known about that breakfast at the Gandhis’ long before Sonia became the Congress president. Heptullah was present at her first interaction with the media at a dinner thrown in Sonia Gandhi’s honour by Sharad Pawar in 1998 in Nasik. Some of us urged Heptullah for an introduction.

But Heptullah was very wary and hesitant to disturb Sonia as she conversed with some other party guests. When she finally got a word in, she bowed, almost to the double, and said in a very deferent fashion, “Madam, these are some journalists who would like to chat with you.”

I almost missed the first remarks made by Sonia because I was so startled at that deference. In the background of all that had transpired at that breakfast meeting in Mrs Indira Gandhi’s house, I had believed that Heptullah would have developed a cosy relationship with the former PM’s daughter-in-law and referred to her at least as ‘Soniaji’, if not in more familiar terms. But, clearly, there was a distance here and it became more apparent as Heptullah’s term ended and she began to make nasty remarks about her party and its president. (She is now in the BJP representing, suitably enough, Rajashtan in the Rajya Sabha.)

However, that kind of distance did not crop up between Patil and Sonia. Through the years, Patil spoke in affectionate terms about both Rajiv and his widow and I was not surprised when she was resurrected out of thin air and sent to Rajasthan as Governor (obviously Sonia had remembered Patil’s Rajasthani background). I was even less surprised when Sonia held her hand and drew her into her home when Patil went to New Delhi first after being nominated for President. The easy relationship between the two was apparent even through the television cameras.

Ironically, though Patil is being accused of going places because of her loyalty, very few, including Amin Khan, acknowledge that she is probably the only woman in Indian politics who has got there entirely on her own steam. (For more please read my earlier blog in June 2009 titled ‘With a little bit of luck’.) Even Heptullah, who cooked Mrs Gandhi great meals, laid a claim to a relationship with Maulana Azad. Patil was the first member of her family to have entered politics and it is her husband and her son who followed in her footsteps. In fact, both became MLAs (husband Devisinh Shekhawat in 1985, son Rajendra in 2009) riding piggyback on their wife and mother’s achievements, respectively.

But that, I guess, the Congress might have considered a small price to pay, given that she was diddled out of her due soon after Mrs Gandhi returned to power in 1980. Patil had successfully taken on Sharad Pawar when he split the Congress in 1978 and never let him breathe easily through out his term at the head of the Progressive Democratic Front government. Pawar had actually stabbed Maharashtra doyen Vasantdada Patil in the back but it was Pratibhatai who took the job of the leader of the opposition.

Mrs Gandhi subsequently rewarded every leader of the opposition and every PCC chief who had stood by her during and after the Emergency with the office of the chief minister in every state. But Vasantdada proved too much for both Mrs Gandhi and Pratibha Patil. The moment Dada (who, appropriately enough again, ended his career as Rajasthan’s governor) got a whiff of Mrs Gandhi’s intentions with regard to his home state, he manipulated the events in such a manner that the former PM was left with no alternative but to offer the job to a Maratha, rather than a Rajasthani, albeit with firm roots in her adopted state.

My aunt was holidaying with Patil at her official summer residence in Mount Abu when she received the call telling her about her nomination for President of India. I cannot reveal the details of the private conversation that they had (bits of which were related to me by my aunt). But, based on that, I could conclude that Patil’s fears that she would be just another unsung MLA/minister/MP, forgotten by history, and asked to identify herself wherever she went by even her own party workers, would not now come to pass. Her loyalty had paid off.

But, at the end of the day, is loyalty such a bad thing, after all? Don’t we all expect our families/friends/ colleagues/partners et al to be loyal to us? And don’t we go the extra mile to do things for those who have stood by us in our darkest hour of need?

Amin Khan should have found better words to express that sentiment – he would then not have had to cook his own goose!

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