I too need to speak up now!
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I too need to speak up now!

Last Updated: 28 Sep 2017 02:24 PM
Popular memory in India, whose people have a poor sense of history, is near non-existent. What passes for collective memory is often no more than a clutch of myths that transmogrify to fit into prevalent discourse, especially in politics.

So we have former Finance Minister and once upon a time a front-ranking BJP leader Yashwant Sinha slyly hitting out at Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, blaming him for the perceived downslide of the Indian economy. He lets it be known that Jaitley made it to this all important post despite losing the Lok Sabha election, which he contested from Amritsar, in 2014.

We are also told by Yashwant Sinha that while Narendra Modi overlooked Jaitley’s electoral failure, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had played  by the ‘rule book’ by keeping both Jaswant Singh and Pramod Mahajan out of the Cabinet after they lost the Lok Sabha election of 1998.
Nearly two decades have passed since the so-called benching of Singh and Mahajan happened. Popular memory of what transpired in 1998 has dimmed; at least two generations of voters have come of age with no more than passing knowledge, if at all, of why these two names were missing from Vajpayee’s list when he took oath of office.

A recount of personal knowledge would, therefore, be in order to set the record straight, lest the oped version comes to prevail over the real version of history. To borrow the headline of Yashwant Sinha’s article in the Indian Express, I need to speak up now.

I was working with LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee those days. It was a smaller party with fewer luxuries of human resources. Soon after the 1998 results were declared, I found myself working at Vajpayee’s office at his then residence, 7 Safdarjung Road.

Immediately after he was invited to form the Government, the SPG took over the premises, sanitising the sprawling grounds, Vajpayee’s residence, and three office rooms, including a private anteroom where he met people. Pre-cleared access was restricted: among the ‘outsiders’ who had access were Shakti Sinha and me, apart from Brajesh Mishra.

A day before the swearing in ceremony, after much confabulation between Advani and Vajpayee, a list of Ministers was prepared. Names were scrawled, struck out, over-written, restored, on a piece of paper. There were two distinct handwritings — those of Vajpayee and Advani. It was in Hindi.

Shakti read out the names, I typed them out, spellings were checked, drafts shown to both Vajpayee and Advani who were sitting in the residence, the order of names was changed and rearranged and changed again.

The final list had the name of Jaswant Singh, if I remember correctly, at number three, preceded by that of Advani. Mahajan’s name was not there. Shakti and I then drove down to Rashtrapati Bhavan (most likely in my Fiat) and handed over the list to Gopalkrishna Gandhi, secretary to the President.

Mahajan had lost the election from Mumbai North-East. His first stop on returning to Delhi was 7 Safdarjung Road. Politically sharp and intuitively intelligent, he declared he would work for the party and the Prime Minister. That obviated any debate on whether he should be included in the Ministry. Later, he was anointed Political Adviser to the PM, a post that became visibly a lot more powerful than that of a Minister, which too he became in due course.

Singh had also lost the election, from Chittorgarh where he contested despite the advice of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. But he was indispensable for both Vajpayee and Advani; he was the thinking man with awesome networking at home and abroad. Remember, it was way back in 1998.

Around 9.00 pm Shakti called it a day. I went to tell Vajpayee that I would be leaving soon if there was nothing more to do. We wanted out because we were being badgered for passes for next morning’s ceremony.

Mrs Kaul asked me to have dinner and since nobody could say no to her, I joined Vajpayee at the dinner table. No sooner than dinner was served a message came in that K S Sudarshan, then number two in the RSS but the de facto chief, had come to meet Vajpayee. I was told to call Shakti and wait in the office, and not leave.

Half an hour, or maybe 45 minutes later, Sudarshan left. Shakti and I were summoned and a very distressed Vajpayee, his face resembling a thundercloud, dictated a short letter, instructing Jaswant Singh’s name to be dropped from the list of Ministers. A new list was printed and attached to the letter.

It was close to midnight when I drove down to Rashtrapati Bhavan and handed over the sealed envelope to Gopalkrishna Gandhi. I recall him being very courteous and he did have a smile on his face, or was it a smirk?

The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. A miffed Jaswant Singh did not attend the swearing in ceremony. He was later appointed Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and then brought in as Foreign Minister.

Yashwant Sinha omits mentioning that he was shipped out of the Finance Ministry and Jaswant Singh brought in as the Finance Minister in July 2002. He also makes no mention of the reasons why he had to switch jobs with Singh. We can deal with that another day.

(Kanchan Gupta is Commissioning Editor & Commentator, ABP News. Columnist. Blogger. He tweets @KanchanGupta)

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First Published: 28 Sep 2017 02:23 PM
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