The Sanjay Story

The Sanjay Story

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Item Code: NAF036
Author: Vinod Mehta
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9789350295816
Pages: 263
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 8.0 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 320 gm
About the Book

Ringside to these developments was Vinod Mehta, perhaps the best-known name in Indian journalism. Mehta distils his observations and insights into this appraisal of the Sanjay Gandhi phenomenon, and its impact on the national scene. The story starts at the Nehru family home, and Feroze Gandhi’s relationship with the Nehrus, particularly Kamala and Indira. Key to understanding their son’s volatile personality are the complexes and insecurities that plagued the Indira-Feroze marriage.

In his compelling, honest style, Vinod Mehta sifts facts from rumours, and gets to the core of Sanjay’s dramatic emergence after the declaration of Emergency. His capturing of the Youth Congress, the excesses of the sterilization campaign (which he thought, rightly, would ensure his place in history), and his obsession with cars, which led to the establishment of the Maruti factory, are all brought out in telling detail, as is the media’s role in building the Cult of Sanjay.

Containing a new introduction by the author, The Sanjay Story allows readers to look with the benefit of hindsight at the rise and fall of one of independent India’s most controversial figures. What emerges is not only an understanding of Sanjay and his times, but also of India’s current political scenario. First published more than three decades ago, this still remains the only biography of one of India’s most controversial political figures and hence a crucial historical document of an era which changed Indian politics forever.

About the Author

Vinod Mehta’s is an extraordinary story. He grew up as an army brat from a Punjabi refugee family in the syncretic culture of Lucknow of the 1950s-an experience that turned him into an unflagging ‘pseudo secularist’. Leaving home with a BA third class degree, he experimented with a string of jobs, including that of a factory hand in suburban Britain, before accepting an offer to edit Debonair, a journal best known for featuring naked women. With the eclecticism and flair that were to become his hallmark, he turned in into a lively magazine while managing to keep the fans of its centrespreads happy. The next three decades saw him become one of India’s most influential editors as he launched a number of successful publications from the Sunday Observer to Pioneer to Outlook. Currently, he is editorial chairman of the outlook Group. Vinod Mehta has authored a biography of Meena Kumari (forthcoming from HarperCollins India), and published (in 2001) a collection of his articles under the title Mr Editor, How Close Are You to the PM? His much acclaimed memoir, Lucknow Boy, was published in 2011. He lives with his wife, Sumita, and dog, Editor, in New Delhi.


My Biography Of Sanjay Gandhi, The Sanjay Story, priced at Rs 35 in hardback, appeared in January 1978. It was a small critical and commercial success even though my version of the ‘extra constitutional authority’ came at a time when a succession of quickies, as they were dubbed, were keeping the nation alarmed and entertained by their sordid and comic revelations. The Emergency quickies, including those by Kuldeep Nayar the late Janardhan Thakur and uma Vasudev, as Katherine Frank noted in The Life of Indira Gandhi, ‘ran the gamut from the barely literate innuendos and gossip to polished intellectual assaults. Indira (and Sanjay) bashing was not only safe but also intellectually fashionable. ‘My quickie set out to be objective, but in that highly charged atmosphere, objectivity was in no great demand. It suffered a further infirmity. Sanjay refused to cooperate in the writing of the biography, insisting on copy-approval. It was an offer I had to refuse.

In 1978, my day job consisted of revamping Debonair. I was taking my first tentative steps into journalism-editorship, and while most of my creative energy was taken up with luring nubile girls to shed their clothes for Rs 250, Debonair (being a monthly magazine) allowed me time to investigate the person who, even in the opinion of his elder brother, had much to answer for. ‘I will never forgive Sanjay for having brought mummy to this position, ‘Rajiv told family friend Pupul Jayakar.

Uncharitable critics describe what happened on 23June 1980 as divine intervention. On this day, Sanjay perished in an avoidable plane crash. He was piloting the aircraft and it crashed barely 500 metres behind 12 Willingdon Crescent in New Delhi, the house where the Gandhis lived. In some sense, it was the chronicle of an accident foretold. Not only was the novice pilot given to flashy daredevilry and dangerous low-flying, which civil aviation authorities at the Delhi Flying Club had warned Indira about, he also insisted on wearing Kolhapuri chappals in the cockpit. Rajiv had repeatedly warned Sanjay to wear proper shoes and not chappals while flying. Characteristically, he paid no heed to the advice.

On the day the accident occurred, Sanjay was unusually excited. The Delhi Flying Club had recently acquired the advanced Pitts S-2A aircraft and Sanjay was itching to get inside it. Clad in kurta-pyjama and Kolhapuri chappals, he indulged in reckless manoeuvres. At 7.25a.m. the plane crashed. Someone who lived close to 12 Willingdon Crescent was quoted in the press as asking her husband, ‘Why is this plane flying so low?’ Sanjay died instantly. It took eight surgeons four hours to stitch up his mutilated body.

Between the publication of my biography and the fatal accident, there is a gap of just over two years. What was Sanjay’s life like in that interval? Certainly not short of drama, certainly not short of vituperative slander and certainly not without a few morsels of good news.

A commission under the former Supreme Court Chief Justice J.C. Shah had been appointed in 1977. Its official mandate was ‘to enquire into subversion of lawful processes and well-established conventions, administrative processes and practice, abuse of authority, misuse of powers, excesses and/or malpractices committed during the Emergency’. Sanjay had to appear before the commission almost every second day. Simultaneously, the Khanna Commission was set up to probe the numerous transgressions in Maruti Limited.

The Shah and Khanna commission quickly descended into farce with both mother and son challenging and mocking the very existence of the commissions, saying they were unconstitutional and illegal. Justice Shah and Khanna were no match for them. Frequently, at Patiala House in Delhi, from where the Shah Commission operated, Sanjay was greeted by catcalls and abuse. Occasionally, his supporters and hostile spectators hurled steel chairs and physically assaulted each other. Heavy police bandobust was required to keep the peace.

In May 1978, Sanjay was sentenced to thirty days’ imprisonment in Tihar Jail. Indira Gandhi told her wayward son as he entered jail, ‘Don’t lose heart, this is going to be your rebirth.’

While Sanjay and Indira were fighting legal battles in court, at home the two brothers and the two wives were barely on speaking terms. Relations between Rajiv and Sanjay were always ‘chilly’ and between Sonia and Maneka ‘frigid’. Indira Gandhi sought to remain neutral, desperately trying to maintain some semblance of family peace. One morning, B.K. Nehru and his wife Flori were breakfasting with the Gandhis. ‘Sanjay went into a rage and threw his plate across the room when Sonia failed to cook his eggs in the precise way he had ordered.’ Indira did not say a word to Sanjay.

In January 1980, Indira Gandhi won back power from the Janata clowns, who gifted her the prime minister’s chair meekly. Morarjee Desai led the strange cocktail which had dethroned Indira. Instead of concentrating on governance, they set out to ‘punish’ their nemesis by hook or by crook. This publicly stated goal was combined with vicious infighting. It would be fair to say the Janata leaders fell on their own swords with great facility.

Indian Gandhi stood and won from two constituencies, Raebareilly and Medak, Sanjay was elected comfortably from Amethi. With mother and son back to power, furious speculation raged in early 1980 as to what role the mother had planned for her son. Also, whether both had absorbed the egregious lessons of the Emergency-primarily excesses in the family planning and slum clearance programmes. Would a measure of civility replace the dreaded midnight knock in public life?

Indira Gandhi admitted some excesses might have been committed by sycophants and overzealous ministers, bureaucrats and assorted flunkeys, but her son, she insisted, was innocent and not involved. She characterized the excesses as ‘gross exaggerations’ spread by the media and long-standing Congress enemies. This defence repeated ad-nauseam suggested that Sanjay and his merry men would resume from where they had left off. Privately, Indira conceded the no-smoke-without –fire hypothesis, i.e., must be some truth in the sundry allegations. But her formal position was to live in denial.

On 31 March 1980, Maneka gave birth to a son. He was named Varun. Indira was over the moon. Now, she had three grandchildren, one from her problem son. Alas, Varun’s birth did not ease the tensions between the brothers and their respective wives. Rajiv and Sonia retreated into their private space. It was as if they were hermetically sealed from the hectic goings-on at India’s most politically active house.

If you are a devotee of what-if games, savour the following. What if Sanjay had survived the crash? Is it possible that Rajiv would have remained a private citizen with the younger brother carrying the dynastic torch forward? What if Maneka had not quarreled so bitterly with her mother-in-law over who should inherit Sanjay’s position as heir-apparent, and what if Maneka had not been thrown out at the midnight hour from Willingdon Crescent on the charge of publicly defying her mother-in-law and encouraging anti-party activities. (She formed her own group of Sanjay loyalists who began campaigning loudly for her to move into the vacancy created by Sanjay’s death.) Would Maneka be playing the role Sonia is playing now?

And what of young Varun? Without what seems to be a permanent estrangement, would Varun have joined the BJP- a party in which he is a spectacular misfit? Would Varun be where Rahul is, if the two families had not split? From time to time reports surface of Varun having negotiated a return to the Congress. Till date that happy event has eluded the Pilibhit MP. The verbal firecrackers Varun periodically lets off are intended to remind the Congress and the nation that Indira Gandhi had two grandsons, not one. With the BJP understandably eager to exploit Varun’s surname and set up a cockfight between Rahul and Varun, Maneka’s son seems like the dangling man. I think it is fair to assume there will be no change in his political status in the foreseeable future.

How will history remember Sanjay Gandhi? With the benefit of hindsight, I predict history will generally ignore him. It will treat him as a minor aberration, a blip on the screen of Indian public life. Mostly, he will be snubbed. A couple of lines or a couple of footnotes may be assigned to him – and they will range from the scathing to the platitudinous. Winston Churchill once said he was sure history would judge him kindly ‘because I intend to write it’. Sanjay had no such option. losers never do. Not having left any record, much less justifications, for his extra-constitutional role in the Emergency, he has to rely on the assessment of professional historians – who till date have been unforgiving.

Doubtless, in any biography or evaluation of Indira Gandhi he will find mention as the son who led his mother astray. In our otherwise robust republic, the astray factor is a frequent visitor. The ‘blind spot’ syndrome, wherein an otherwise intelligent politician refuses to hear anything negative about her son or daughter, occurs again and again in our dynastic culture.

Sanjay, nevertheless, still has a few admirers. Khushwant Singh is an unrepentant fan. He sees Sanjay as the ‘man who got things done’. The story could be apocryphal, but at the beginning of the Emergency, Indira is reported to have commended her younger son for making, among other things, ‘the trains run on time’. Not surprisingly, Sanjay had no use for those who argued about means being as important as ends. The henchmen and henchwomen selected to carry out his orders were given a totally free hand as long as desired ‘results’ were achieved. Occasionally, the results were grossly exaggerated, sometimes they bordered on fiction.

Till very recently, the Congress had enormous difficulty in either disowning or owning Sanjay. The imposition of the Emergency was an easier evil to deal with. Though JP was apportioned part of the blame for forcing Indira’s hand, the party accepted responsibility, making sure to emphasize the brevity of the eighteen-month period it lasted. And how it was Indira Gandhi who courageously took the decision against her son’s advice to revoke it. Sanjay and his diabolical activities in that period, however, posed a trickier legacy to repudiate. With Maneka and Varun safely out of the party, the strategy adopted was studied and sustained silence. It worked to a certain extent.

As his only biographer (the quickies mentioned earlier all concentrated on the Emergency), I can state that the country may have forgotten Sanjay but it has not forgotten the Emergency. Has it made the right choice? Absolutely. The Emergency was unquestionably the bigger evil.

Living in denial, nevertheless, made life a tightrope walk for the Congress. In 2010 the tightrope was finally brought down. The party, with restrained fanfare, published its’ official history’. The editor was the no-nonsense Pranab Mukherjee. For the first time the party at once acknowledged and censured Sanjay for his controversial role in the Emergency. The Times of India in its report on the official history started: ‘The Congress has all but disowned Sanjay Gandhi, blaming the excesses committed during the Emergency in 1975 on his overzealous promotion of family planning and slum clearance programmes. This rare assessment of the Emergency and the person responsible for the popular anger against it has come in the party’s official history’.

This is what the official history says, ‘Vast sections of the population welcomed it (Emergency) initially since general administration improved. But civil rights activists took exception to the curbs on freedom of expression and personal liberties.’ And now here is the crunch: ‘Unfortunately, in certain spheres over-enthusiasm led to compulsion in enforcement of certain programmes like sterilization and clearance of slums.’ After thirty-five years, the Congress bit the bullet. It was able to shake off the Sanjay albatross around its neck.

In this biography, I have tried to give the reader a flavor of the man who would be king. The man who almost captured the crown, had it not been for those damned Kolhapuri chappals.


Introduction to the New Edition IX
Introduction to the Original Edition XVII
The Nehrus of Anand Bhavan 1
Mummy's Boy 24
Maruti: Son of the Wind God 61
Future Light of India' 93
Indiri Bachao 138
The Selling of Sanjay 171
Amethi 190
Getting to know Her 'Achilles Heel' 221
Bibliography 239
Index 241
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