There is telling irony in the way in which the BJP has jumped to Sanjay Gandhi’s defense even as the Congress knocked him out of its gallery of family icons by blaming him for the excesses of the Emergency Sanjay could never have imagined that one day, the party, whose leaders he threw into jail for those 19 dark months, would speak up for him while the one his mother recast as a family legacy would disown him.
30 yrs after he died in a plane crash within months of helping his mother avenge her 1977 electoral defeat with a thumping win in the 1980 Lok Sabha polls, Sanjay Gandhi remains a controversial and polarizing figure. Significantly the Congress has chosen to break its silence on him with critical references in its official history book, released recently to mark the party’s 125th anniversary. It coincides with an ongoing exercise, away from public gaze, to clean the Augean stables and throw out family skeletons before Rahul Gandhi’s coronation. Sanjay’s Anti-minority politics and impatience with democracy are heavy crosses to bear for a party seeking to reclaim its scattered voter bases among Muslims, tribals and Dalits.
The streak of authoritarianism that ran in Sanjay’s veins and led to horrors that marked the Emergency is documented in a rash of articles and books that were published after the Congress lost power in 1977.
The muzzling of the press through censorship, the wholesale arrest and incarceration of opposition leaders, the brutal demolition of Muslim slums around Turkman Gate, forcible sterilizations and arbitrary governance through a coterie of subservient bureaucrats and ministers are all well known, but the most disturbing aspect of that period was Sajay’s attempt to kill democracy.
Indira Gandhi’s former Principal secretary PN Dhar recalls in his book, “ Indira Gandhi,the Emergency and Indian Democracy”, that Sanjay opposed his mother tooth and nail when she developed cold feet after 19 months of Emergency rule and wanted to elections. They battled for eight days and nights before before she finally prevailed and got him to agree to the restoration of democracy.
Sanjay had wanted the Nehru-Gandhi family to rule forever. He persuaded his mother to set up a 12 member committee headed by Mr.Swaran singh to draft a new constitution for india. The document under preparation apparently included a provision appointing Indira Gandhi as the President of India for life and conferring on her family the divine right to uninterrupted rule. To push the process forward, Sanjay got the assemblies of Haryana, West Bengal and Pujab all ruled by his loyalists, to pass resolutions demanding a new constitution for the country. Fortunately Emergency was lifted and Congress was voted out of power before his plans bore fruition. Demon died before his birth good for India & Indian.
It is not entirely surprising that the BJP has displayed a degree of softness towards Sanjay despite the many black marks he collected during his brief fling with politics. The Sanjay brand finds resonance in sections of the RSS and BJP that favour a strong Hindu nationalist approach to nation building. Even during Emergency while top leaders of the RSS, JAN Singh [as the BJP was called then] and other parivar affiliates were locked up in jail, a group of Sangh workers organized a function in Delhi in praise of Sanjay. This admiration was on display again when his son Varun, now a BJP MP, was arrested by the Mayawati government in UP for making a communal speech during the 2009 poll campaign. BJP workers raised pro-Sanjay slogans outside the Jail.
Sanjay’s anti-minorityism has been a subject of controversy and debate. His communal leanings were recorded in an article written by former DDA vice chairman M N Buch on October 6, 2002. Buch wrote; “We had constructed shops in the Meena Bazar area of Jama Masjid and the Payenwala area of Dariba in Delhi to rehabilitate the shopkeepers uprooted from there during Emergency. The majority of them were Muslims. Sanjay Gandhi told me that we were making a mistake because removal of the shopkeepers during Emergency had eradicated a potential nest of Pakistani supporters. I was horrified to hear this from the mouth of Jawaharlal Nehru’s grandson. It was only natural then that Sanjay’s widow Mrs. Maneka and other acolytes like Jagmohan, Buta Singh and Bansi Lal would drift to the BJP when Sanjay’s death left them bereft and rudderless.
Today, Varun Gandhi is trying to create a platform around what he calls his father’s “Unfinished dream”. He hasn’t articulated what the dream was but the effect of the distortions Sanjay introduced in the Congress and in the governance system can still be felt. History will be the best judge of his dubious legacy.