The town is already abuzz with the startling claims Jaya Jaitly has made about Sonia Gandhi’s role in shielding Tehelka in her memoir Life Among the Scorpions. She has also shined the spotlight on the shady world of defence deals. Her proximity with George Fernandes, a former Defence Minister, allowed her access to this kohl-factory that left her own face blackened with corruption allegations.
One of the most startling revelations in the memoir, however, is how Sonia Gandhi indeed nursed the ambition of becoming the Prime Minister of India.
Here is the relevant excerpt:
“I Want to Become the Prime Minister. How Do I Do It?”
Perhaps not realising what Indian politics was all about, Sonia Gandhi had clearly over-committed with her statement outside Rashtrapati Bhavan stating that the Congress had 272 members supporting them with ‘more coming’.
When George Fernandes and I had gone to visit IK Gujral in 2008 to invite him to a big event in Bangalore, we had a heart-to-heart chat over tea. He told us that Sonia Gandhi had visited him at that time and naively blurted out, ‘I want to become the Prime Minister. How do I do it?’ Gujral told us he was highly amused and gently explained to her that things didn’t happen that way and that she had to approach the matter in a completely different manner.
In his autobiography, Matters of Discretion (2011), he speaks of the same occasion and reveals that he told her that she should not trust Harkishen Singh Surjeet of the CPM who was ultimately keen on backing Jyoti Basu.* This little titbit was never known nor spoken of publicly, and subsequently her ‘sacrifice’ and ‘renunciation’ of the prime ministerial post in 2004 were extolled across the world. This enabled people to forget the ambitiousness of the hasty ‘272’ claim.
The book also draws attention to the Burma refugee situation through interesting parallels.
Refugees From Burma: Then and Now
In 1991, George Fernandes was a mere Janata Dal MP. However, he continued to live at the same residence (3, Krishna Menon Marg) which he was allotted as senior Parliamentarian and Minister of Railways in 1989, during the VP Singh government. One day after the May 1991 general elections, a group of fresh-faced but dishevelled young men came to his residence to meet him. They were refugees who had fled Burma after the military refused to accept the overwhelming verdict in favour of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and cracked down on the protestors. Suu Kyi was under house arrest.
These pro-democracy activists were terrified that the Indian police would pick them up and send them back to sure death or incarceration in Burma. ‘They will have to pick me up first before they will be allowed to do anything to you,’ declared George Fernandes without a second thought. He walked into my office and announced that arrangements should be made to help them set up the All Burma Students’ League. I became ‘Aunty Jaya’ to all of them and helped them settle in.
Jaitly has spoken extensively about her political and personal relationship with George Fernandes in the memoir. While the reader will be at pains to find salacious details, this excerpt shows how their partnership blossomed in the early days.
The George Fernandes Factor
It was at this time that George Fernandes and I started a system of writing notes to keep each other informed of what was going on politically since he was hardly in Delhi. Soon he found me to be the most dependable in terms of confidentiality, intelligent inputs and faithful reporting. It also led to a flood of exchanges on personal matters that had troubled him for some time. I became a sort of personal confidante and well-meaning adviser. I took care of his wife and son when needed, and my home too was open to them for any assistance. This went on till 1990. The letters eventually filled a whole suitcase.
Leila Fernandes, his wife, had been abroad in the USA and UK for some months. I was told she was having a severe bout of recurring health problems. George Sahib said he would go to see how she was and bring her back.
He asked me to keep an eye on their son Sushanto (Sean Fernandes, also called Sannu) while they were away since he was acquainted with my children and did not have many other friends. He spent several days at our home, demanding my love and affection just as my own children did. He was sweet, funny and longed for a normal life.
Many things in life need discretion and privacy. The state of one’s wellbeing is one of those things. Today, of course, people are more forthcoming about such things and this attitude of openness also helps others give the affected space, or assistance to see them through such difficult phases. Back then, things weren’t so straightforward.
I was often called upon both by George Sahib and Leila when she was in one of her lowest moods, and was unable to get out of bed and do anything. Contrarily, if the mood swung the other way she would be aggressive and hostile to me, or be highly critical of her husband in front of strangers. It was sad for the both of them. All I could do was unquestioningly be by their side. In one of his notes to me during that time, George Sahib writes,
Had a long talk with Leila today. She feels she has 25% of her strength, and will need several more weeks of rest and recuperation before she is able to undertake the journey home.… I’m at Hans Janitschek’s on Fifth Avenue right opposite the Central Park. It’s very cold out here and snowing. Lunch today was with an interesting group of artists, writers and journalists where George Gallup III was the speaker. Leila wants Sonny Boy to spend time at your home. She thinks it would be good for him. Please take him across even it means persuading him a bit. You have been extraordinarily kind to him, and it means a lot both to him and to me.
There are many who like to believe that I was the femme fatale, the ‘other woman’ who ruined people’s marriages. Having grown up to be completely uncaring of and maybe even naive towards what I ‘appeared’ to be to others, I have gone ahead and done whatever I pleased in all sincerity without feeling the need to explain or justify myself as long as I meant no harm to anyone. Now, it is best to be clear about my role in certain relationships in those days.