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Death bridges a bitter family divide

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra leaves after attending Arun Nehru’s funeral in New Delhi on Friday. Picture by Yasir Iqbal

July 26: Fourteen years ago, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had publicly called uncle Arun Nehru a betrayer and backstabber.

Today, as she, mother Sonia Gandhi, brother Rahul Gandhi and husband Robert Vadra attended Arun’s funeral in Delhi, death seemed to have reconciled two branches of the family that had witnessed a bitter estrangement a quarter century ago.

With his passing at a Gurgaon hospital last night aged 69, Arun had ceased to be the minister who had tarnished his boss Rajiv Gandhi over Bofors and joined his opponents, turning once more into the loyal cousin who had helped Rajiv make up his mind to become Prime Minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

It had all been very different during the 1999 Lok Sabha polls when Arun, great-grandson of Motilal Nehru’s elder brother Nandlal, contested from the Nehru-Gandhi pocket borough Rai Bareli on a BJP ticket. Priyanka, campaigning for Congress candidate and family loyalist Satish Sharma, handed him a brutal putdown.

“I have a complaint against you,” she told the voters. “A man who committed treachery while he was in my father’s ministry, who stabbed a brother in the back — answer me — how did you let such a man in here? How did he dare come here?”

Sonia Gandhi (top) and Rahul Gandhi reach the Lodhi crematorium. Pictures by Ramakant Kushwaha

She added: “I spoke to my mother before coming here. She told me not to speak ill of anyone. But I am young; who shall I speak my mind to if not to you?”

The process of reconciliation began a few weeks ago when Sonia and her children visited Arun in hospital. Around the same time, this correspondent had asked Arun about the rapprochement with Sonia.

“We are a family and we continue to be a family,” he had replied curtly. “However, I do not wish to talk about it, please….”

Contrary to perceptions, Rajiv did not draft Arun into the Congress. When Indira won from Medak and Rai Bareli in the 1980 Lok Sabha polls, she vacated the latter and asked Arun, then in the middle of a successful corporate career, to contest the seat.

That summer, the death of Indira’s younger son Sanjay set off an intense tug-of-war between his widow Maneka and Rajiv to fill the vacuum. Arun teamed up with Shivraj Patil and brought 50 party MPs to Indira, urging her to pick Rajiv as Sanjay’s successor.

Four years later, minutes after Indira’s assassination in October 1984, Arun had arrived at AIIMS to see Sonia hysterical with fear for the lives of her children.

When Arun rushed back to 1 Safdarjung Road, he was stunned to see that there was not a single security guard to protect Rahul and Priyanka. He brought them back from school and sent them to the Gulmohar Park home of Teji Bachchan, mother of Rajiv’s friend and Bollywood star Amitabh, for safety.

Rajiv was in Bengal. The moment he arrived in Delhi, Arun told him “there is no question of having an interim Prime Minister”, clearly alluding to Pranab Mukherjee’s comments about precedent.

Pranab, seen as the No. 2 in the Indira government, had cited how Gulzarilal Nanda had twice been interim Prime Minister following the deaths of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Arun Nehru

Years later, after the cousins had fallen out, Arun had told a reporter: “Rajiv wanted that job badly…. Rajiv told me that he did not want an interim Prime Minister, but instead he himself wanted to be sworn in as PM straightway.”

Arun emerged as Rajiv’s most trusted aide. Many in the Congress believe that it was he who advised Rajiv to open the locks of the Ram temple in Ayodhya in 1986.

However, Arun’s supporters insist that the idea of playing the “soft Hindutva” card — aimed at countering a backlash against the Congress for supporting the Muslim clergy over the Shah Bano case — had come from the then Congress chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Veer Bahadur Singh.

It was Bofors that caused bad blood between Arun and Rajiv. After being dropped from the ministry and expelled from the Congress, Arun joined V.P. Singh’s Jan Morcha in 1987 and later become a Janata Dal minister before shifting to the BJP.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was a close Rajiv aide, writes: “The falling out between Arun Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi was widely commented on in political circles and the media after Rajiv Gandhi failed to proceed to Srinagar in April 1986 where Arun Nehru was recovering from a severe heart attack.”

Arun’s death removes one of the last surviving players from the Bofors controversy, days after the passing of Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi earlier this month.