Indira-RSS Talks to Vajpayee's Nuke Flip-Flops: Unknown Facts About India's PMs

From Indira's Emergency to Vajpayee's nuke tests, Neerja Chowdhury gives inside story of how PMs took key decisions.

3 min read

In the early 1980s, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was working closely with the Congress led by Indira Gandhi and were opposed to Atal Bihari Vajpayee's leadership in the BJP. Four decades later, this fact – of the RSS favouring the Congress and opposing the BJP leadership – may seem unbelievable. But these are some of the lesser-known facts revealed in senior journalist and author Neerja Chowdhury's new book 'How Prime Ministers Decide'.

In great detail, Chowdhury's book covers the key decisions taken by India's former Prime Ministers – from the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi to the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, the nuclear tests under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal under Dr Manmohan Singh.

In a detailed conversation with The Quint, Chowdhury recounted what was happening behind the scenes when Prime Ministers took these decisions.


You have written in detail about Indira Gandhi's rightward shift and her equation with the RSS. Could you elaborate on that phase a bit?

The RSS bit, I think, was part of her 'Hinduisation'. Because during the Emergency, due to the forced sterilisations, they had lost the support of Muslims and that reflected in the 1977 elections. But the RSS had tried everything...the RSS chief had written several letters to her about people being in jail. She did not reply.

They then took the help of Vinoba Bhave and got to Sanjay Gandhi. Kapil Mohan and a few others also played a very stellar role in this.

But just before the elections, she sent them a message 'The Sangh should stay away from the elections'. But the RSS leadership replied that it was already too late and that we have already committed support to the Janata Party. Then she was routed.

But between 1977-80, she was quietly in touch with them. She credited some of her 1980 success to the RSS' help.

In 1980, Sanjay Gandhi died and Rajiv Gandhi took over. She took him to meet Bhaurao Deoras, the brother of the RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras. He was looking after the political part of RSS' strategy as Balasaheb Deoras wasn't keeping well. There were three meetings between Rajiv Gandhi and Bhaurao Deoras and the two got on quite well.


On Rajiv Gandhi's tenure, there is an issue which has created a lot of debate. When the anti-Sikh pogrom was happening in 1984, who was actually in-charge - Rajiv Gandhi, Home Minister PV Narasimha Rao or Arun Nehru?

It was Arun Nehru (Minister of State in the PMO). That day - installing Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister, making sure that Pranab Mukherjee didn't become PM, was Arun Nehru's single point programme that day. Then calling up Narasimha Rao that evening and telling him virtually to back off as home minister and that the PMO will handle it. So Arun Nehru was very much in charge.


About VP Singh you use a very interesting phrase - that he was a royal as well as a subaltern. For someone who was in power for just a year or so, don't you think he shaped Indian politics for three decades?

He was one of the most undervalued Prime Ministers. So many people haven't heard of him. He hasn't been 'cultified'. He spawned a new leadership of OBCs.


Do you think Atal Bihari Vajpayee, being a moderate, was a carefully crafted image?

Absolutely crafted. Absolutely crafted. Even on nuclear power, he was a peacenik in the 1950s. He wrote this poem called Hiroshima Ke Peeda (Pain of Hiroshima). In the 1960s, he was a roaring advocate for India becoming a nuclear power. After the Chinese nuclear test, he said that "the answer to an atom bomb is an atom bomb".

In 1979, when he was external affairs minister, he voted against India going nuclear.

What I'm saying is, people forgave him for his flip-flops. They felt, you know, he's under pressure from the Sangh, under pressure from the party. He managed to cultivate an image that he's different from his party.


Who did Dr Manmohan Singh rely on besides the Gandhi family? Who did he rely on? How did he operate?

You know the story of how he got the Indo-US nuclear deal done. It took over three years but he didn't give up. This quiet, silent PM just didn't relent. The Left threatened to withdraw support, which they did. He managed to put an alternative support system in place. He managed to win over Amar Singh and Samajwadi Party which was opposing the deal. They bailed him out and the deal went through.

When Manmohan Singh set his mind to something, he got his way.

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