| The world at his feet
The British papers have been full of pictures of their prime minister, Tony Blair, carrying his own bags as he boards an ordinary commercial aircraft, like any other holidaymaker, to go on his winter vacation. The Indian newspapers have been full of colour photographs of our prime minister gazing at a saffron sun setting over the Arabian Sea from the terrace of his presidential suite in Goa’s fantabulously expensive Exotica hotel. Thank god for colour — you can clearly see the tumbler beside the prime minister is brimming with crystal clear water, not the amber liquid!
There is a story to the contrast. On their last winter vacation, the Blairs decided on Egypt. President Hosni Mobarak insisted on hosting them as state guests at the plush resort they had chosen. The Blairs were happy to accept the Egyptian president’s kind hospitality. And the British public went ballistic. Foreign hospitality on a state visit the Brits could understand, but why should their prime minister put himself under an official obligation when on a private visit' So much damage was done by this to the British PM’s image that his spin doctors decided that this time round he could repair the damage only if there were full frontals of him being as ordinary as the most ordinary backpacker going on holiday.
Here, according to the Goa papers, the prime minister arrived in Goa by his special air force plane. A fleet of three naval helicopters then took off to the Taj Exotica. The distance is not much more than what the prime minister travels by road every day in Delhi. But the fleet of naval helicopters was apparently essential to keep him from becoming the terrorist target of half-naked sun-bathers lounging on the sands of lovely Goa. At the Exotica, the Goa press says, he booked a hundred rooms for himself and the small army of assistants accompanying him. There were no official engagements apart from courtesy calls by a few Goa BJP bigwigs. The rest of his time was spent playing with his grand-children (which did the nation no harm), and penning his musings (which, of course, did do the nation a great deal of harm). I am not aware of who picked up which bill but however which way you look at it, a humungous dent has been made on the public exchequer. I do not begrudge the prime minister his break — after all he needs to get away from L.K. Advani! I am only sickened by the hypocrisy. Let me explain.
Time was when leaders did not take vacations. History does not tell us that Gandhi went to the sea-side to take off his clothes. Perhaps because his clothes were, in any case, taken off (remember his priceless riposte to a British reporter who asked him in shock whether he had worn nothing more than his loin-cloth to call on His Majesty, the Emperor of India, and Gandhi replied, “The King had on enough for both of us”'). Nehru did take an occasional day off, but these were so few and far between and involved so little bandobust that no one took much notice. Lal Bahadur Shastri, as far as I remember, did not have the opportunity during his few brief months in office to take time off. Indira was not an ostentatious vacationer. It was in Rajiv Gandhi’s period that holiday-making by prime ministers became a matter of pubic controversy.
One of the most praiseworthy initiatives taken by the Rajiv Gandhi administration was the establishment of the Island Development Authority to strategize sustainable development in our environmentally-fragile island territories in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. The top talent in the country in a variety of fields was brought together in a steering committee under the chairmanship of the science and technology member of the planning commission. The ministers concerned were constituted into the authority. Thus was the periphery of India brought centre-stage. Rajiv Gandhi’s public relations mistake was that he scheduled the first meeting of the authority in Port Blair on the eve of his first holiday as prime minister. For this enabled the wicked Arun Shourie, then editor of The Indian Express, to mix everything up to personally discredit the prime minister. A howl went up over Rajiv Gandhi and his family, accompanied by Amitabh Bachchan and family, and the Italian relatives of Sonia Gandhi, taking off for a few days’ break in one of the most lovely but little-known tourist destinations in the country.
While the prime minister completed his official tour, the holidaymakers were holed up not in the posh Welcome Maurya hotel but a modest two-star establishment which, in modestly-endowed Port Blair, serves as a kind of circuit house. The modest bill was paid for by the family. After the official visit was over (and I myself departed in the air force plane for Chennai), the family hired a boat, at their expense, on which they stayed throughout their holiday as they cruised around the “islands in the marigold sun” — the title of a book on the islands written by my friend, Kaushal Mathur. Shourie and his ilk went to town telling half-truths, untruths and vicious lies about the holiday. The same Shourie, now chief acolyte to Prime Minister Vajpayee, has nothing to say about his master musing at public expense.
Next winter (1987), Rajiv Gandhi took his family and friends to the delightful atoll of Bangaram in Lakshadweep. Once again, he made the PR mistake of convening the Island Development Authority in the territory’s capital of Agatti, and once more Shourie and Co had a field day bad-mouthing him and his family. The fact is Bangaram, now a well-developed tourist resort, was at the time no more than a couple of rough-and-ready rooms. The holidaymakers were largely accommodated in tents. They cooked their own food and spent the day swimming, diving and snorkelling. No spin pictures of the prime minister gazing at the setting sun. Shourie — the self-same Shourie who is now curiously silent over his patron’s excesses — outdid himself as muckraker par excellence. He was so nasty that poor Rajiv never went on a holiday again in his life.
The country has suffered half a dozen prime ministers since Rajiv passed on. Not one of them has dismantled one appurtenance of office that Rajiv put in place — although at the time they yelled and screamed about the “needless” expense. The Race Course mall remains the impregnable fortress which Rajiv Gandhi made it. The inconvenience to the “general public”, which so moved the hearts of Vajpayee and Shourie, has ceased to be an inconvenience since it now accommodates the convenience of the Hindutva brigade. The prime minister’s “carcade” remains exactly as Rajiv devised it to prevent the prime minister from being assassinated in the streets. The difference is that it is now not Vajpayee in the carcade fuming for permission from security to move on. Then, it was Vajpayee and Shourie fuming as they awaited their turn. Shourie was at his vituperative worst over Rajiv Gandhi’s journeys abroad. If memory serves right, Shourie counted 54 trips to foreign lands by Rajiv Gandhi. Now his calculating machine has jammed as his prime minister sets off for Cambodia while Gujarat burns. Then there was so much sound and fury over two Air India jumbos being commandeered for the prime minister’s visits abroad. Now there is dead silence as Vajpayee commandeers two Air India jumbos for every visit he makes abroad.
The prize for hypocrisy goes to Jaswant Singh. He lived then in Teen Murti Lane, just behind Race Course Road. Within days of my joining Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO, I was asked to organize a dinner at which the prime minister could interact with a range of public opinion. The guest list was largely left to me to prepare. I had run into Jaswant on several occasions at the India International Centre — which is where out-of-work politicians of a certain kind hang out while waiting for the call of destiny. He seemed an intelligent man. So I asked him whether he would come to Rajiv Gandhi’s private dinner. He first railed at me over how the privacy of his home had been wrecked by all the security barriers put in his Teen Murti colony. Eventually, he accepted my invitation and actually came to the dinner.
Last week I had to visit the colony. I was pleasantly surprised to find that notwithstanding his elevation to the political stratosphere, Jaswant continues to live exactly where he did when Rajiv Gandhi became PM. I also found the security barriers put up by the Rajiv Gandhi security team exactly where they were put up 18 years ago. The same security goons are violating Jaswant’s privacy as they did 18 years ago. But Jaswant now has no complaints. Because they are not guarding Rajiv Gandhi any more. They are guarding Atal Bihari. I once called Jaswant Singh an “unctuous, hypocritical humbug” on the floor of the Lok Sabha. I am delighted to do so again in the columns of The Telegraph.