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How Rajiv Gandhi sought to reform the PMO after assuming office

Wajahat Habibullah, a close associate of the late prime minister, opens up about his experience of working with him in a candid new memoir

Rajiv Gandhi with Indira Gandhi. Photo: Getty Images.

On assuming office as India’s sixth prime minister, Rajiv sought to clean the slate with the removal of many of those within his Congress party that he saw as baggage, and who were publicly perceived as corrupt and criminal elements. This was reflected in their exclusion from the candidate list in the tenth general election to the 8th Lok Sabha in late December 1984. Rajiv was the media’s ‘Mr Clean’. The election resulted in a massive ‘Indira wave’, which gave the INC [Indian National Congress] a three-fourth majority in the Lok Sabha—426 seats of 533, with nearly 50 per cent of the vote share—a position that no party has replicated in India’s Parliament since. No doubt the landslide was the response of a grieving nation to grave tragedy, but it was not lament that was seminal during Rajiv’s campaign; it was the effulgence of hope. He won on the crest of his promise to carry the nation into the twenty-first century, and any assessment of Rajiv’s brief term of office must rest on the extent to which he succeeded in actually doing so.

Initially, Rajiv retained the PMO [prime minister's office] that he had inherited, with changes only in his personal staff. So R.K. Dhawan, the devoted private secretary to Indira Gandhi, eyewitness to her assassination, who had developed a reputation for using his access to the PM for political manipulation, was replaced by Vincent George, a young Malayali who had been secretary to Rajiv since July 1980. He was Rajiv’s devoted private secretary for the rest of Rajiv’s days, and remained dedicated to Rajiv’s widow thereafter.

P.C. Alexander, who had built a reputation as a modern manager from a successful tour of duty as India’s commerce secretary in 1975, continued as the PM’s principal secretary, a post to which he had been appointed in May 1981. That office had been created in 1971 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with the appointment of P.N. Haksar as the principal secretary on the advice of her friend and Leftist icon, Romesh Thapar.

Within months of Rajiv assuming the office, however, the PMO was riven by a spy scandal in which the private secretary to the principal secretary stood accused of leaking military information to the Soviets. According to the Press Trust of India (PTI), the spy ring had infiltrated the PMO in 1982, when Indira Gandhi held office. It named the principal conspirators as one Yogesh T. Maneklal, the managing director of a Bombay-based company doing business with Poland and East Germany, and his representative in New Delhi, Coomar Narain. Although nothing was to come of these charges, in early 1985, at the conclusion of a five-month investigation, T.N. Kher, a Kashmiri, the private secretary to the principal secretary, was among the nineteen accused, mostly junior government officials. Alexander was then forced out of office.

The front cover of 'My Years With Rajiv Gandhi' by Wajahat Habibullah, published by Westland Books.
The front cover of 'My Years With Rajiv Gandhi' by Wajahat Habibullah, published by Westland Books.

Shahila [Habibullah] and I called on Alexander at his residence; we were one of the very few who did. India’s bureaucracy is brutal for the manner in which it deals with colleagues who have fallen from favour, even if only on the basis of a rumour. It was painful to see the quiet tragedy surrounding this man, a civil servant of the old school, considered for a time the most powerful man in India and who had been responsible for my induction into the PMO. Alexander’s wife, so dignified in her husband’s humiliation, asked, ‘Has he given all his life to the service only to see it end like this?’

But Alexander’s career was not to end so. He was appointed by Rajiv to serve as India’s high commissioner in the UK (1985–87), and went on to serve as the governor of Tamil Nadu (1988–90) and Maharashtra (1993–2002). As a member of the Rajya Sabha (2002–2008), Alexander came close to becoming India’s first Christian president, passed over for want of political consensus in his support in 2002. Supported by [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee’s NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government, Alexander ironically failed to rally Sonia Gandhi’s INC in his support. But he remained among India’s most respected civil servants until his passing in 2011.

Wajahat Habibullah.
Wajahat Habibullah.

Upon the exit of Alexander, Rajiv began experimenting with what was to be an ongoing aspiration—and an aspiration it was largely to remain despite some achievements—to reform the government starting from the top, to eject the incubus that was the legacy of Britain’s colonial paternalism. That anachronistic infrastructure was to survive nonetheless. Instead of a principal secretary to replace Alexander, he appointed three parliamentary secretaries—Arun Singh, one of his closest friends from the Doon; Ahmed Patel; and Oscar Fernandes—all elected MPs. The wags termed them Rajiv’s ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’, the title of the 1977 Hindi blockbuster starring Rajiv’s close childhood friend, Amitabh Bachchan. This was to ensure that the political responsibilities that had been assigned to Alexander were dealt with by political advisers, and that the PMO not remain the administrative leviathan that it was seen as having become. Alexander writes in his book, Through the Corridors of Power: An Insider’s Story, that although Indira had known him but little before 1981 when he was posted with her, he realised quickly that she was dealing with him as an individual in whom she placed implicit trust. ‘She had stated in unambiguous terms’, he says, ‘that she wanted me to get involved not only in government matters but also in political and party matters. In other words, she was keen that I handle all issues with which she was concerned.’ This he was readily able to do as he had taken his retirement from the Indian Administrative Service a few years before joining the PMO, and thus was free of any constraint of service regulations.

The experiment with parliamentary secretaries, however, failed to work, and by September 1985, Sarla Grewal, an IAS officer of the 1952 batch and the second woman in India to have joined the IAS, was to be appointed simply as the secretary to the PM. With the wrenching exit of so powerful a mother figure as the prime minister, Rajiv wanted a woman to head the PMO to help mellow the transition. The name of the very able but self-effacing Roma Majumdar, secretary, Women and Child Development, was also in contention. Grewal was married to a Sikh IAS officer, and is remembered more for her motherly presence than for any administrative amelioration, for being caring and supportive, particularly towards the many women in the PMO. As Meera Shankar, then deputy secretary in the PMO, recalls, the maternal Grewal would even sometimes admonish the young prime minister when she considered him too bold. And by the time Rajiv demitted office in 1989, the government centred on the PMO perhaps more than it had ever done under his mother.

Excerpted with permission from My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy by Wajahat Habibullah, published by Westland.

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