(This article was first published on 14 December 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Sanjay Gandhi’s birth anniversary.)
Sanjay Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi and grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, always evokes mixed feelings. His supporters love his practicality, action-oriented thinking, aggressiveness and decisiveness. His critics hate his rebellious, destructive, often rude side and the fact that he practically ran the government on behalf of his mother between 1973-1977, without standing for elections even once.
Either way, he was unmissable in the 1970s. He had a lot of energy and zeal, a loyal following, a wide network of contacts and the Gandhi surname behind him, which made him the ideal prime ministerial candidate – a milestone that seemed inevitable. But his strongly authoritarian personality and disdain for parliamentary governance and procedures created several obstacles along the way. He died in a tragic plane crash in 1980.
Who Was Sanjay Gandhi?
Sanjay Gandhi, a famous member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, was born on 14 December 1946 to Indira Gandhi and Feroze Gandhi in Allahabad. By 1947, the British had left the country, Sanjay was a year old and his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, had become India’s first Prime Minister.
Eventually, Indira’s marriage fell apart and she moved into Nehru’s residence with Sanjay and her elder son, Rajiv. Between the two, Sanjay was the one more coddled by his mother and grandfather. He was passionate about designing and manufacturing cars and eventually obtained a pilot’s licence too.
Sanjay studied at Welham Boys’ School and later at the Doon School in Dehradun. He was a mediocre student, with some reports even terming him a ‘loner’, ‘friendless’ and ‘uncommunicative’. Unable to complete school, he dropped out and decided to directly pursue an apprenticeship at Rolls Royce in Crewe, UK. By the time he returned in 1966 with a dream to make the first Maruti car, his mother had been selected as Nehru’s successor in Congress. This is when he got involved in politics and became Indira Gandhi’s “right hand”.
In 1974, he married Maneka Gandhi, who was a model at the time. Six years later, they had a son, Feroze Varun Gandhi. Controversy broke out when in January 2017, one Priya Singh Paul claimed that she was Sanjay Gandhi’s biological daughter and had been given away for adoption. The case to determine the authenticity of her claim is still under trial.
Just before and soon after the Emergency in 1975, Sanjay Gandhi rose in importance as Indira’s principal adviser and began directing cabinet ministers, bureaucrats and party members.
After a few people resigned – significantly, prominent politician IK Gujral, in protest because Sanjay had no official elected position to issue directions – he replaced them with yes men and thus, his influence with his mother and within the Congress increased drastically. Indira not only encouraged it, she grew to need Sanjay Gandhi’s counsel in executing her role as Prime Minister. It became a common saying at the time that the country was run by the PM’s Residence rather than the PM’s Office. It was understood he would succeed his mother as Prime Minister.
Sanjay Gandhi stood for his first elections in March 1977 after the Emergency was lifted, but faced a crushing defeat in his own constituency of Amethi. In fact, people voted out Congress from across North India in response to the Emergency’s well-documented excesses. However, Sanjay made a comeback and won Amethi in the general elections which followed in January 1980. He had personally overseen the campaign and by this point was into politics full-time.
Just one month before his death in a tragic plane crash, he was appointed secretary general of the Congress in May 1980.
What was Sanjay Gandhi's Involvement in Indian Politics?
Even though his main interest was automobiles, the enormous power he wielded over his mother Indira Gandhi and the perks it drew attracted Sanjay to politics. An “extra-constitutional” centre of power, Sanjay had a say in postings, policy decisions and granting public contracts, without once holding an elected seat. By the 1970s, he had emerged as the de facto successor of Indira Gandhi and was already making and executing decisions on behalf of his mother and the Congress.
“[Sanjay] was a virtual ruler who operated from behind the PM’s sari”.K Sankaran Nair in Inside IB and RAW, The Rolling Stone That Gathered Moss
By giving up her power to her beloved son Sanjay, Indira first institutionalised dynasty politics within Indian democracy, a practice which, until then, was relatively rare, and is now all too common.
One word that comes to mind in describing the political activities of Indira Gandhi’s second son is ‘single-minded’. A second, in effect a less euphemistic synonym for the first, is ‘ruthless’. Some (themselves educated and civilised) commentators tended to see Sanjay Gandhi as a spoilt young man who ran amok. In fact, he was an extremely successful political operator.Ramchandra Guha in The Telegraph
By the time Sanjay reached his peak in the mid 70s, the bureaucracy was no longer sheltered from pressure by politicians to toe the party line. Sanjay’s independent, aggressive style started having a direct impact: Dissenting bureaucrats were summarily removed or kept waiting for months for alternative postings, disloyal politicians were sidelined, and ministers and civil servants constantly tried to one up the other to carry out Sanjay’s orders. The judiciary and the media suffered the same fate.
He became known as the “Crown Prince” and his loyalists were his very own “coterie”.
Corruption became even more rampant than it had previously been, since the whole decision-making process was in the hands of the mother-son duo and based on personal relationships, favours done and rebuked, and what the two thought was best for the nation.
Significantly, in 1975, Indira Gandhi was charged with election fraud, bribery and misuse of government machinery. According to Business Insider, in 1976, “a $200-million contract was awarded to the Hong Kong-based Kuo Oil Co to take future deliveries at current prices. The government lost Rs 13 crore. It was reported that indirectly, money went to Indira and Sanjay.”
K Sankaran Nair, former chief of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) sheds further light on the extent of corruption during the 70s, in his book, Inside IB and RAW, The Rolling Stone That Gathered Moss.
Those days, we were desperately short of foreign exchange. So much so that I remember (then-foreign minister) Swaran Singh also speaking to the Iranian Foreign Minister on this issue... they agreed to give us $250 million at some very reasonable rate of 2 percent...When Kaul, the finance secretary, went to negotiate the loan, he was helped by some well-known local Indian businessmen and wheeler-dealers of Iran who had come close to Sanjay Gandhi and the House (Gandhi family) – Kaul wanted $250 million over and above – as a straight loan....[There was] a six-million dollar payout in Geneva [which] was a kickback to Rashidyan and his associates for having procured the loan. This had been sanctioned by Government of India. My eyes popped out in amazement when Narasimhan (RBI governor under Morarji Desai) told me these startling facts. He reported back to Morarji and the ‘Operation Casino’ file was closed.K Sankaran Nair in Inside IB and RAW, The Rolling Stone That Gathered Moss
In late 1970s, Sanjay Gandhi formulated a ‘divide and rule’ strategy to split the Akali Dal opposition in Punjab. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale gathered the support of the more extreme Sikh elements. The central government covertly supported Bhindranwale, which ultimately led to the storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984 and the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards four months later.
What is Sanjay Gandhi’s ‘Maruti Story’?
After dropping out of Doon School, Sanjay bagged a three-year internship with Rolls-Royce as a motor mechanic in Crewe, UK in early 1964. He returned to India after in the second year itself in 1966 with a dream to build a low-price care, a “people’s car”. The same year, he began making a prototype with the help of a few men. In a small workshop in Gulabi Bagh in Delhi, he made the base frame of the car himself, sourced a few parts from Jama Masjid, and used a motorcycle engine to propel the car. He made three more prototypes in the next two years.
Since Sanjay had Indira Gandhi’s ear, circa 1970, her cabinet proposed the production of a “people’s car” which would be cheap, efficient and indigenous.
A company called Maruti Motors Limited was incorporated on 4 June 1971 and he became its first Managing Director. Reports suggest that neither the company members nor Sanjay had any prior experience in building a car, no design proposals or portfolios, and no working prototypes. Yet, the Congress government awarded Maruti the contract and an exclusive production licence to manufacture 50,000 low-priced cars per year, indigenously. This, without calling for any tenders or conducting impartial studies.
Maruti was licensed to match the total output of the other three domestic car manufacturers.Vinod Mehta in The Sanjay Story
Widespread criticism of the government’s decision to award the contract to Sanjay was forgotten when Indira led India to victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
But more than just a contract was needed for production of this scale. Land was needed to build factories to manufacture cars, and money was needed for all of this. Former Chief Minister of Haryana, Bansi Lal, stepped in and offered Sanjay Gandhi 290 acres of land in Gurgaon and a government loan to buy that land. A large hall for the machinery and a plant were set up.
Corruption reached its peak at this point in the 70s. Banks were arm-twisted into giving loans, business groups and traders were pressurised to extend funds and anyone who opposed Sanjay’s Maruti dream was either threatened or terminated by Indira. She had no reaction to the growing anger in the parliament or the angry disquiet in her own office. She even dismissed her principal secretary, PN Haskar, when he expressed his concerns about the project.
My son is a delicate young man, and with whatever money and energy he has, he has modelled a car, not a posh one, but one fairly comfortable and suitable to Indian conditions... My son has shown enterprise and I just could not say no to him... if he is not encouraged, how can I ask other young men to take risks?Indira Gandhi at a Press conference, September 1970
When the first Maruti prototype was unveiled in November 1972, it was widely criticised by the public. Still, Sanjay was confident that the first batch of commercial production cars would roll out just five months later. In the meantime, he contacted Germany-based Volkswagen AG to produce an Indian version of the Beetle in India, dismissing the criterion for the car to be indigenous.
Vinod Mehta, in his book The Sanjay Story (1978), estimates that the total investment into the project couldn’t have been more than Rs 6 crore, when it required “at least ten times as much”.
Two years later, in 1974, the car was at the ‘threshold of production’ when a widespread anti-corruption drive led by the opposition disrupted the economy and daily life. Sanjay devoted all his attention to quelling the protests, following which the Emergency was imposed in June 1975.
The Maruti project was put on the back burner until it was shut down in 1977 when the Janata Alliance came to power. A series of enquiries against the Gandhi family for excesses during the Emergency and Maruti ensued under the Shah Commission.
In 1980, when Indira Gandhi won the elections again, she nationalised Maruti and offered Suzuki a chance at a partnership. In 2016, Maruti’s profit figure was pegged at $690 million.
How Did Sanjay Gandhi Influence the Indian Emergency?
All through 1974, Gujarat and Bihar had seen massive students’ agitations against corruption in a movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan. On 12 June 1975, the Allahabad High Court barred Indira Gandhi from holding elected office for violating election codes and fraud, pushing for a re-election. Sanjay intervened. The two became convinced that ‘internal elements in conjunction with a foreign hand’ were setting up plots to unseat her and destabilise the country. Indira’s cabinet drafted an ordinance to declare a National Emergency.
By 26 June, opposition leaders and anti-Congress elements were rounded up, electricity to the press was cut off, any news that went out was heavily censored, civil rights were suspended and arbitrary arrests were given approval. For the next two years until 1977, democracy stood suspended.
It is understood that Sanjay Gandhi was practically running the government during Emergency and had taken it upon himself to make some drastic changes in the country. When Sonia Gandhi came up with a 20-point socioeconomic reform plan for the Congress, Sanjay added his own five-point program for the Youth Congress. In the cover story for India Today in December 2015, senior journalist Sunil Sethi writes:
If Indira was the Emergency’s presiding deity, Sanjay was its high priest.
Sanjay was only 28 years old then, and was particularly known for being the driving force behind the mass demolition of slums and the forced sterilisation policy. Hundreds of poor communities, especially Muslims, were displaced to cleanse Delhi and countless men were forced to undergo vasectomies.
The bloodiest consequence of Sanjay’s orders to clear out all slums happened at Turkman Gate in Delhi, a Muslim-majority area. Its residents refused to move and staged protests during demolitions. On 18 April 1976, the police gunned down several people during a protest. Riots ensued. Since the press had been censored, people found out about the incident through international media.
A single bulldozer started eating its first morsel...there were reports that the people of the camp were carted out in trucks and dumped into the wilderness...By 8 AM on 19 April, nearly 500 women and 200 children, wearing black armbands, squatted [in peaceful protest]. As the sun rose higher, lorry-loads of police and CRP started streaming in. They were in full battle dress – riot shields, tear-gas guns, rifles...The police shot [young Abdul Malik when he protested]. The firing... lasted 45 days... [there are] stories of atrocities... first hand accounts of rape, robbery, and torture.Vinod Mehta in The Sanjay Story
Forced sterilisation is by far the most controversial policy implemented during the Emergency. The IMF and World Bank had been regularly conveying their worries about India’s booming population to Indira Gandhi. With the Emergency imposed, Sanjay Gandhi implemented and oversaw the sterilisation program, which first incentivised (with radio sets, food, money) and eventually forced thousands of adult men to get vasectomies.
In The Sanjay Story, Vinod Mehta, an editor of a Bombay magazine during the Emergency (and a target of the censor), records that one state reported 6,00,000 operations in two weeks. Policemen on sterilisation assignments ransacked several villages. Officials were given ‘quotas’ which they had to fulfil lest their promotions be held. The most poor, vulnerable communities were targeted. Between 1975-1977, an estimated 11 million men and women were forcibly sterilised.
Within six months, Sanjay had almost taken over the Youth Congress although he held no official position in the party. He was holding nationwide tours to recruit the youth into the party. It became more and more evident that he would be Indira Gandhi’s successor.
Sanjay was at centre of [the Emergency], yelling at the mild-mannered IK Gujral, then I&B minister – “You don’t seem to know how to control your ministry. Can’t you tell them how to put out the news?” – and instantly replaced him with VC Shukla. As his mother conferred with officials, he would interrupt – “Mummy, come for a moment” –and she would leave the room, apparently to comply with instructions.Sunil Sethi in India Today
Not all were against Sanjay Gandhi’s methods or his close, almost controlling relationship with his mother. In Sanjay Gandhi And Awakening Of Youth Power, published in 1977, S Jagat Singh writes: “Who will willingly submit to sterilisation? Who will like to marry his son without a dowry? Who will waste his working time on keeping his house and his environment neat and clean? The greatness of Shri Sanjay Gandhi lies in the fact that he took up very unpopular programmes and vested them with a roaring popularity by dint of hard work and the force of his personality.”
By early 1975, Sanjay Gandhi had become a vortex of power and a circle of loyalists propelled him into the driver’s seat. These included Haryana’s CM Bansi Lal, Kamal Nath, Jagdish Tytler, Indira Gandhi’s yoga instructor Dhirendra Brahmachari, Indira’s chief handyman RK Dhawan, IAS officer Navin Chawla and also Om Mehta and Pranab Mukherjee. True to his style, those who stuck by him during crises were rewarded heavily; those who dared to dissent were sent packing.
One major controversy was a satirical film directed by Amrit Nahata called Kissa Kursi Ka (watch here), a political satire which mocked Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. The film was submitted to the Censor Board for certification in April 1975. With dialogues like “Sir, give this young man the licence to manufacture small cars because he learnt it in his mother's womb”, a show-cause notice raising 51 objections was sent to the producer by VC Shukla, a man Sanjay Gandhi had handpicked to play the role of the censor as the I&B minister.
The film’s negative, all the prints, and the master-print were picked up from CBFC office, brought to the Maruti factory in Gurgaon, and burned.
The story of Maruti is inextricably linked to the Emergency...and [Sanjay’s] political friendships and enmities were based largely on attitudes towards his small-car project.Journalist Coomi Kapoor in The Emergency: A Personal History
Just when Sanjay Gandhi had all but become the President of Youth Congress, Indira Gandhi suddenly ended the Emergency and called for fresh elections in 1977. The last two year’s atrocities came back to bite both mother and son and Congress lost to the Janata Alliance after ruling for thirty years.
Indira Gandhi lost her own seat. People’s anger against atrocities committed also resulted in a failed assassination attempt when Sanjay Gandhi was shot at five times in March 1977. An enquiry commission was set up by the new government to examine the Emergency excesses. It held Sanjay guilty for burning KKK prints amongst other charges; he was sent to jail for two years in 1979.
The right-leaning coalition that replaced the Congress government collapsed by 1980 and the verdict against Sanjay was overturned. With re-election around the corner, he took to planning nationwide campaigns and recruitment drives for the Congress to create a loyal fighting force. One estimate suggested almost 60 lakh people joined the Youth Congress on his word.
He had always been against ending the Emergency and wanted the parliament to be replaced by a constituent assembly that would eventually become a presidential system. Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh passed resolutions to this effect in 1980.
People really responded to Sanjay’s fierce albeit authoritarian style of politics. In January 1980, the Congress party won the elections, and Indira Gandhi was back on top. Sanjay was elected Member of Parliament (MP) from Amethi and many of his Youth Congress loyalists also won. All reports by the Shah Commission – which found the ruling government guilty of imposing an unjustified Emergency and committing several atrocities and malpractices – were dismissed and copies were recalled or simply ‘lost’. Sanjay was excited at the prospect of picking up the Maruti project again.
But life had other plans for him.
How Did Sanjay Gandhi Die?
On the morning of 23 June 1980, Sanjay Gandhi drove to the Delhi Flying Club. He had been intrigued by a new Pitts S-21 plane and had visited the “red bird” every day for the last four days. On this day, he decided to test the two-seater plane out, along with Captain Subhash Saxena, who had initially refused to go with him, knowing Sanjay’s inexperience at flying this particular model.
Diving and doing aerobatic loops, Sanjay lost control and the plane crashed near the Prime Minister’s Teen Murti House. He and his co-pilot died instantly. He was only 33 when he left behind a young Maneka with a three-and-half-month-old Varun. Just the previous evening, both Maneka and Indira had asked him not to fly that plane but Sanjay had brushed it aside.
When Indira heard the news, she rushed to the scene of the crash, inconsolable, to find Sanjay’s watch and keys from the wreckage. There was a frenzy of grief in Delhi. Makeshift monuments to Sanjay sprang up all over Delhi. Every chief minister, including Tamil Nadu’s MG Ramachandran and every resident ambassador in Delhi was present. Teams of foreign cameramen flew in to film the funeral. Special trains to Delhi were announced to ferry mourners. Around three lakh people thronged along a 12-km route to Shantivana, chanting his name. They made his legacy immortal, shouting “Jab tak suraj chand rahega, Sanjay tera naam rahega”.
His last journey was the grandest, but unofficial, state funeral ever organised in Delhi until then. Whether his death was a tragedy for India will forever remain debatable, but it was the worst setback for Indira Gandhi.
In, Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister, Sagarika Ghose recounts what the former PM had told Dr Krishna Prasad Mathur, her personal physician, shortly after the plane crash: “Doctor, hamara dahina haath kat gaya” (My right hand has been cut off). In the same book, Maneka Gandhi further explains the extent of devastation that Sanjay’s death caused: “[Indira] became very fragile, very bitter. She was never normal again. She was never Indira Gandhi again.”
Sanjay Gandhi’s dream car never hit the roads during his lifetime. Production started only when Japanese car manufacturer Suzuki partnered with Maruti soon after Sanjay’s death in 1980.
Maneka Gandhi had a falling out with Indira when she chose Rajiv Gandhi to succeed her. She officially joined the BJP in 2004 along with her son Varun, and currently serves as a Union Minister in Narendra Modi’s government. Varun became the BJP’s National General Secretary in 2012, the youngest General Secretary in the history of the party.
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)