New Delhi, July 2: Much like in Alice in Wonderland, the cat has vanished but the smile has remained.
Ghosts from the past are being resurrected in the late Arjun Singh’s autobiography that touches on some of the most searing and enigmatic moments in India’s contemporary history.
Like the author, also no longer alive is the protagonist singled out for the maximum flak: P.V. Narasimha Rao. Some of the potshots have a familiar ring and leave behind some sort of a political smirk that has remained even after some of the key players have passed away.
In his yet-to-be-published A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time: An Autobiography, Arjun has once again handed the late Prime Minister a share of the blame for the Babri demolition and former Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson’s escape after the Bhopal gas leak.
But he makes some new charges too in the book — being published posthumously by Hay House — an advance copy of which was made available to The Telegraph. For instance, that Rao used to boast about the support he allegedly enjoyed from then US President George Bush Sr.
He also accuses Rao of an open outburst questioning the Nehru-Gandhis’ right to always head the Congress, while buttressing his own image as a loyalist: there’s not a line directly critical of Indira, Rajiv, Sanjay or Sonia Gandhi in the book.
Arjun, a former Union minister and Madhya Pradesh chief minister, had had a difficult relationship with Rao when he served in Rao’s cabinet. He had even revolted and left the Congress for a while. Arjun died in March last year.
He claims that Rao had directed him not to visit Ayodhya on December 4, 1992, two days before the demolition. His version:
Rao asked Arjun to meet BJP chief minister Kalyan Singh in Lucknow. “You don’t say anything from me, but make all the enquiries on how his government is preparing to protect the Babri mosque,” Rao said.
After the meeting, Arjun rang up Rao and told him it was not possible to gauge the exact situation in Ayodhya without actually going there. An alarmed Rao asked: “How can you go when the chief minister is requesting you not to go?”
It was at this point that Arjun realised the “entire rigmarole” had been enacted to prevent him going to Ayodhya.
“The Prime Minister insisted that I should not go to Ayodhya because my presence there could create a situation that the government of Uttar Pradesh would exploit and may create disturbances.... I was in a fix... because openly defying the Prime Minister had certain adverse implications.”
He toyed with the idea of resigning over the phone so he would not be under an obligation to obey Rao.
“At this juncture, Jitendra Prasada (Rao’s political secretary) entered my room. He started persuading me to obey the Prime Minister and keep away from Ayodhya. I pointed out to him that ‘we would all cut a very sorry figure by having come to Lucknow and then backing out at the last moment’.”
Next, Arjun met Rao on December 5 morning. “I reported verbatim the details of my conversation with Kalyan Singh.... When I had finished, the Prime Minister asked me: ‘What is your own assessment of the situation?’ I replied: ‘You did not allow me to move out of Lucknow, so what assessment can I give you?’
“He then tried to probe further: ‘No, no, I know you have your sources and I want to know what is the shape of things to come.’ I then told him very frankly that the Babri mosque was going to be demolished. This news definitely shook him and he wanted to dispute my claim, but, on second thoughts, he kept quiet.
“In a somewhat agitated frame of mind, he started thinking aloud about the repercussions if the mosque were to be brought down. He then suddenly exclaimed that this would have ‘a very bad impact on the Congress Party’, which was stating the obvious.
“I could not contain myself and told him bluntly that ‘we have turned a blind eye’ to the machinations of the BJP and the other pro-Hindutva outfits. He then queried: ‘When could this (demolition) happen?’ I responded: ‘This could happen any day.’ Even I did not realise that the Babri mosque would be demolished the very next day.”
Arjun alleges that a few days after Rajiv’s May 1991 assassination, he had approached Rao along with party seniors M.L. Fotedar and Sitaram Kesri and suggested that Sonia be asked to take over the leadership.
“He (Rao) burst out in anger and virtually yelled out words to the effect whether it was essential that the Congress party should be treated like a train where the compartments have to be attached to an engine belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family or were there other alternatives?” Arjun writes, saying he was dumbfounded.
Arjun claims that sometime after returning from the US in early 1992, Rao told him: “I am not afraid of anyone as President George Bush Sr is now behind me.”
“I was very surprised by this unexpected outburst because the matters we were discussing had no relevance whatsoever to President Bush,” says Arjun, who was then human resource development minister.
“(Rao) seemed to have been emboldened after his meeting with President Bush and felt the latter’s support would see him through all difficult situations.”
Arjun was Madhya Pradesh chief minister when, in December 1984, a gas leak from the Bhopal Union Carbide factory killed over 3,000 people.
Carbide’s US-based chief Anderson arrived in Bhopal on December 7 and was arrested, but bail was arranged hurriedly. Within hours, a state government-owned Cessna flew him to Delhi from where he took a flight home, never to return.
The Cessna’s pilot, S.H. Ali, and others claim a “call” from a powerful person in Delhi forced the local administration to let Anderson off. Arjun says it was Rao.
“I came to know later that the Union home secretary, R.D. Pradhan, upon the instructions of the Union home minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, had telephoned Brahma Swaroop (state chief secretary) to ensure Anderson’s release,” Arjun says.
Arjun had issued a statement two years ago absolving Rajiv and implicating Rao in Anderson’s escape.
At the end of the book, Arjun admits he was “taken aback” when he was left out of the ministry in May 2009 after the UPA returned to power.
“Deeply hurt, I was unable to understand why I had not been appointed a minister. I then decided to face the reality in a stoic manner and, after deep self-introspection, came to the conclusion that the older generation had to make way for the youngsters and one could not hope to hold on to office indefinitely,” he writes.
Arjun died a disillusioned man two years later.