‘It was just a laundry list’

As a reporter just coming into my own in the late 1980s, I recall following both then incumbent Prime Minister VP Singh and former PM Rajiv Gandhi rather closely through the series of elections, both Lok Sabha and Assembly, between 1989 and 1991.

I got the opportunity to get rather close to both and noted that while Singh was dour and unwelcoming most of the time, Rajiv was always friendly and charming. I recall one hot summer election rally that Singh was to hold in the Konkan. We were all asked to arrive at the airport at the crack of dawn (5am) but when I got to the Juhu airstrip, there was no one in sight bar the couple of reporters who were to fly with Singh to Ratnagiri in his chopper.

It was 7am before an emissary arrived to take us to breakfast at the nearby five-star hotel. Singh had a sumptuous meal and then went into a huddle with party workers. It was noon before we were air-borne — and, when we landed, he was hungry again and needed to have lunch. Post- lunch, he told an aide, “Guru, hamein khaane ke baad sone ki aadat hai (I am used to a nap after lunch).”

We hung around in the cool shade as he proceeded on his siesta but worried about the people who had been made to gather under the burning sun since eight that morning (the prqctice then was to avoid meetings between noon and 5pm to stop people from getting strokes). In the days before the advent of T N Seshan, Singh finally began his rally after tea, at 5pm or thereabouts. Whatever I might have felt about his lack of consideration for the people, I was more interested in the list that he held up from the dais. We were too far away to read it but it did look like a lot of names with figures against each.

Those are the names of the politicians involved in the Bofors scam, he said. “And we will soon be publishing this list with the amounts they have taken as bribes.” It was both a threat and a promise.

My next election rally was Rajiv Gandhi’s – in Bombay. He arrived, flying his own aircraft (he needed to clock in those hours to keep his pilot’s licence), past dinner, freshened up in the VIP lounge at the domestic airport, held an impromptu press conference and then started at the north end of town. Through the night he held corner meetings all across Bombay, from Mulund to Tardeo, ending up at Nagpada at six in the morning. By that time only two correspondents were left on his trail (moi aussi) – my bureau chief had warned me against taking my eye off Rajiv Gandhi. “The VP Singh government has pulled off most of his security cover. If any one were to take a pot shot at him, we have to be the first to flash the news across the world,” he said. I was working for a wire service at the time.

While Gandhi went across to the home of Sharad Pawar (who was then chief minister) to bathe and change, I dashed across to my office to file the report and then raced back all the way to the airport again from where he was scheduled to take off at ten that morning, after another press briefing in the VIP lounge. I had a question to ask – about the list of names and figures of the Bofors pay offs that VP Singh had displayed to the crowds the previous week.

Rajiv laughed out loud and seemed rather more delighted than I thought he should be. Then he sobered up and said, rather gently, “That’s just his laundry list. And sometimes his grocery list.”

`”What do you mean?”

“Oh, just some names of vegetables like beans or potatoes or rice and daal or some pajamas and kurtas sent out to the dhobi and against these are written the amounts that these might have cost.”

“How can you know that?” I asked.

Putting the conversation off the record, he said the Special Protection Group (SPG) officers assigned to Singh were then by and large the same as those who had guarded the Nehru-Gandhi family since the force was created after Rajiv became PM. He did not say as much but I guessed many of them were still loyal to Rajiv and did not care much for Singh who never bothered if they had had lunch or tea through their hot day with him on the campaign trail. Rajiv, though, ensured that his lone guard at the time was taken good care of — and the difference was noticed. So, as Rajiv said it, one of the guards, who usually stood behind Singh and was close enough to read the writing, had let on to another of his colleagues who passed it on to the former PM.  ”That is not really a Bofors pay off list. He is pulling a fast one. If he is really able to make that list public, I will resign from parliament. And if my name figures on it, I will retire to the Himalayas,” Rajiv then averred with tremendous confidence.

As it turned out, neither Singh nor any subsequent government between then and now, even those from opposition parties hostile to both the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhis, have been able to come out with any lists of names and figures revealing the Bofors payoffs.

It has taken all this long for the original investigator of the Bofors deal to state that there was no evidence to prove that Rajiv Gandhi had ever taken any money to push through the Bofors deal. And if Rajiv really watched the cover up and did nothing about it, I do not see why the opposition parties, and particularly the BJP, should read his inaction as evidence of guilt.

After all, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee did nothing but wring his hands and watch helplessly as Gujarat was burning up in 2002 and Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists, who owed allegiance to his party, went on rioting and killing innocent Muslims for days and weeks. Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister, L K Advani, who was also the Home Minister then, had all the resources at hand to stop the massacre and yet they seemed either unable or unwilling to swiftly put an end the carnage and sack Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. “Same difference,” as some colloquial speakers of the English language in India might say. And I really do not see the difference.

Travelling with Singh also helped me learn a thing or two about how much he both hated and feared Amitabh Bachchan. The revelation that some Indian sources had planted stories of Bachchan gaining from the Bofors deal convinces me of the viciousness of those in government at the time: they were clever enough to realise that Bachchan’s proximity to Rajiv would instantly convince people that the superstar had been in on the cut and that both would be left shouting themselves blue with no one willing to believe either.

Now Singh feared Bachchan essentially because of the man’s naturally immense popularity among the electorate – and his equally tremendous wealth. I was too much of a rookie in 1984 to have been able to cover those elections but I was told by a contemporary of both Singh and Rajiv’s at the time that Singh and his brother had hated the fact that Rajiv had given a ticket to Bachchan from Allahabad, at the time regarded as the bastion of the Singh brothers (if I am not wrong, Singhs’s brother was the UP Pradesh congress chief at the time).

Bachchan, being a babe in the woods with regard to politics at the time, promised his electorate the moon – wells, schools, hospitals etc.  ”At elections one should never promise anything more than what the party manifesto says. For if you are unable to get funds to fulfill your promises, you are dead. People will mark you as insincere and you will most certainly lose the next elections,” this mutual friend told me.

So, when Bachchan discovered that he was indeed not getting money from either the government or the party for those facilities and was being blocked every step of the way by the Singh brothers, he dug into his own pockets to fulfill those promises. And that frightened Singh so much – for that would have meant Bachchan would become impossible to defeat given the combination of his star status and his sincerity – that he decided to make life as difficult for the film star-MP, eventually forcing him to give up his seat, by declaring that he had made a mistake entering this — what else? — “cesspool”.

Insinuating to the media, which naturally would blow up such a story, that Bachchan had had a hand in the Bofors scam was just a way of making sure that he never got within striking distance of contesting an election again. I am not blaming Singh directly but there were other Rajiv friends (later close pals of Singh) who, too, hated Bachchan’s proximity to the Nehru-Gandhis and they were all probably in it together to help Singh achieve his ends.

In later years, I got to know Singh pretty well and, even as I had several informative and pleasant conversations with him and learnt a thing or two from his wisdom, I noted that he never stood by anybody, including those friends who might have made him the centre of their universe, as well as his own blood brother whose ticket he cut at the last minute — and awarded it to himself.

I am really not surprised then at the insinuations and laundry lists that destroyed lives, reputations and careers. And, again, not surprisingly, at the end of his days, Singh was left with few friends and well-wishers — there was no one to his rescue when he once fainted at the Bombay airport as he flew in for dialysis. Help was a long time coming to this former Prime Minister. But may his soul now rest in peace.

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