Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Sanjay Story - Vinod Mehta

The cover is simple - black, with the title in yellow above, the author's name in white below, and a black-and-white photograph of Sanjay in the middle. His face looks familiar, maybe because of the similarity with Rajiv. Thick black sideburns, a receding hairline, a truculent mouth, uncertain eyes, that famous Indira nose. This, you think, is the man who terrorized one of the largest nations in the world for two whole years.

Vinod Mehta describes his 1978 book as one of a set of 'quickies' that came out in the months after the Emergency. The only difference being that while the others focused on the Emergency itself, he focused on Sanjay Gandhi, the so-called 'Extra Constitutional Authority' of Emergency times. Harper Collins has now re-published the book, with no changes apart from a 2012 Foreword by Mehta himself.

His focus on Sanjay was not unreasonable during that period. Sanjay may be largely forgotten today thanks to the succession of people with Gandhi surnames we have had to deal with since his death - Indira Gandhi herself, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, not to mention Maneka and Varun Gandhi. But during the Emergency, he was  seen as the force behind all the midnight knocks on the door, the forced sterilizations, the violent slum clearances.

Mehta sets out to write what he terms an 'objective' account of Sanjay. In truth, only the first two chapters seem even remotely sympathetic to him - they set out the strained relationship between Nehru and his wife, Feroze Gandhi's adulation of Kamala Nehru, his later courtship of and marriage to Indira, their estrangement. The young Sanjay is shown as a loner, though one who had an affinity for drawing the worst kind of boys and men to him.

Once the background is set, Mehta gets to the meat of the story. The next few chapters are devoted to each of the various unfortunate milestones of the Sanjay story - the setting up and bankruptcy of Maruti, Sanjay's takeover of the Youth Congress and conversion of it into a gunda gang, the mass sterilization program, his disastrous election campaign at Amethi. The tale is well-told - jaw-dropping, in fact, when you read about how much money both Sanjay and Rajiv made from Maruti during the initial years, when you learn that 14 million out of 104 million eligible couples in India were sterilized in exactly 270 days.

Mehta also provides a plausible explanation for the greatest mystery of the time - why Indira Gandhi decided to suspend the Emergency and hold elections. He says that she really thought she would win - despite the lack of press freedoms, the government actually functioned better during the Emergency. She thought people would respect that. Fortunately, it turned out the people of India knew better.

Apart from the Gandhi family, many familiar names find mention - Kamal Nath, Ambika Soni, Khushwant Singh, Navin Chawla. Kamal Nath is described as 'a voluble, loud lad who liked 'to throw his money around' and 'who failed two years in a row'.' Mehta also implies that Ambika Soni used her physical charms to climb to power. According to him, Khushwant Singh was a Sanjay apologist who unashamedly sang paeans to the young princeling, while Navin Chawla was a pliant officer who did whatever Sanjay wanted.

Mehta flounders a bit when he tries to analyze Sanjay's psychological makeup. Since Sanjay had very little education, he was a man who saw things in black and white - no subtle shades of grey for him. He didn't understand that issues could be complicated, with many rights and many wrongs. And then there's the eternal 'spoilt brat' explanation - his mother felt guilty about ignoring him as a child, and was very aware that he was a child of a broken marriage. So she could never say no to him.

The text seems to be unchanged from the 1978 edition. This lends it a poignant air, since the reader is aware that Sanjay died in a plane crash just two years later, leaving behind his young widow and a months-old son (who were eventually thrown out by his mother, and later joined the Opposition, etc etc).  However, the editors could have added a few explanations. The book refers informally to many people who were probably notorious at that point, but have cleverly hidden themselves amongst the pages of history now. 

Overall, the book is fast-paced, and reads almost like a political thriller. Mehta's prose is chatty and informal as usual, though he is very precise on his details.
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