By the Twilight Taken

Santosh Mohan Dev passed away earlier this week, away from the public gaze during his long struggle with illness. There are several others — men who once fronted India’s political stage — that severe physical impairment has pushed to mostly forsaken sidelines. Sonia Sarkar puts together an update

By Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 6.08.17
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THE WAY THEY WERE: (From top) Santosh Mohan Dev at a party meeting in 1988, (inset) with his wife, Bithika, on Holi last year; George Fernandes taking oath as minister in 1977, (inset) in 2011 when the Dalai Lama visited him; Priya Ranjan Das Munshi filing his nomination for the Howrah Sadar Lok Sabha constituency in 1991, (inset) in Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, in 2016; Jaswant Singh in Darjeeling in 2009, (inset) at a press conference in New Delhi in 2014, shortly before his accident; Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressing a rally at Shahid Minar, Calcutta, in 1971, (inset) receiving the Bharat Ratna in 2015

India turns 70 in a little more than a week's time. The five men featured here are all older - one of them passed away just this week. All of these men, in their time, were people of significance; they either dominated the political discourse of the day or made significant interventions. But for a while now, they have lain claimed by the slipstream of sub-consciousness, barely cognizant of the radical political and social changes around them. For the first time since Independence, all of the nation's top jobs are held by RSS apparatchiks - the president, prime minister and vice-president. The country itself has been taken by bursts of violent social discord, fed by a surging sectarian, ultra-nationalist sentiment. India's iconography is under active alteration at the bidding of the powers - Nehru's legacy is being dismantled, Deendayal Upadhyay's is being installed; history is being re-written, often with shocking brazenness. India is undergoing fundamental transformations, all of which these men would have had things to say and do about. The Telegraph brings you snapshots of the little-known current personal lives of these erstwhile public personas.

Santosh Mohan Dev

Late Congress leader. Was the party's Northeast pointsman, Minister of Steel in the 1990s and Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises in UPA-I

When Sonia Gandhi went to meet Santosh Mohan Dev at his south Delhi residence in 2015, he was already quite ill. Dev, a third generation Congressman, had been a seven-time MP - he represented Silchar in Assam five times and Tripura twice. But a diabetic for 35 years, his health had started deteriorating beginning 2011, after a prolonged urinary infection. Around the same time, he showed signs of Alzheimer's. His daughter, Sushmita, who is a Congress MP, says, "If we had to go for a meeting at 10am, he would get ready at 5am. If we asked him something, he would give us a vague reply. We couldn't understand why he was behaving like that till we were told by the doctor that he had Alzheimer's."

During the last few years of his life, he didn't speak much but he did recognise people. That day when Sonia Gandhi asked him, "Do you know who am I?" He replied, "Boss." She laughed and said, "Now, Sushmita's boss is Rajiv ji's (Rajiv Gandhi) son. Dev asked, "The man with the beard?"

Says Sushmita, "He obviously understood everything he saw on television."

In 2016, Dev moved to his hometown, Silchar. He was confined to his home, where he spent time watching Bengali classics. Sushmita's biggest regret is that her father could never see her in Parliament. "Every time we protest in Parliament, I think of him; he would have taken the bull by the horns. Sometimes, I wish he was with me in the Central Hall."

Even before he fell ill this time, rumours about his death would float up from time to time. Sushmita tells us that her mother - Bithika - would often joke and say these rumours were only adding more years to his life.

The 83-year-old passed away last Wednesday. Sushmita adds, "We admitted him to hospital. The doctor said he would not be able to survive the day. But my father was a fighter. He waited till each and every member of the family - my sisters and nieces - had arrived from different parts of the world. Only then he breathed his last."

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

The first non-Congress person to serve as Prime Minister for a full term. The BJP leader, who idolised Nehru, was PM in 1996, 1998 and from 1999-2004. Pokhran-II, Lahore Summit, Kargil, Gujarat riots - it all happened during his tenure

The last public appearance of the unyielding Atal ji dates back to March 27, 2015. The only available photographs show President Pranab Mukherjee about to garland the former PM with the peepal leaf-shaped Bharat Ratna medallion. The tasselled tray in the hands of the President's aide, on which rests the sanad, or certificate, covers most of the face of the man who was known as BJP's " vikas purush". A cream shawl draped over his left shoulder covers his left arm.

At his residence on Krishna Menon Marg in Lutyens' Delhi, Vajpayee spends a quiet life. He is often visited by old colleagues like L.K. Advani, and occasionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But nothing ever emerges of what transpires in those meetings; perhaps they are no more than social calls. He reads newspapers and watches news and sports on television. The master orator whose speeches in Parliament sparkled with wit, erudition and political savvy, lost his speech after a stroke in 2009. "He is aware of what's happening around. But he doesn't speak," says Vajpayee's old friend and senior advocate, N.M. Ghatate, who visits him every week.

At 92, his mobility is restricted but he can walk with assistance. The three-time Prime Minister can recognise people too. "I feel he doesn't want to meet many people, especially new visitors. He is comfortable meeting his old associates," says Ghatate. "He is resigned to his fate and he looks peaceful."

George Fernandes

One-time socialist rebel, feisty labour leader, Samata Party founder. Was minister in the post-Emergency Janata and, later, NDA governments

Dressed in a mustard shirt and white pyjamas, George Fernandes is lying in bed. His emaciated face has turned him beyond recognition - gaunt in the extreme. He is 87. His mouth is half-open and his eyes are fixed on the ceiling. His wife, Leila, leans in and says, "The country is in crisis. People are remembering you." Fernandes coughs.

"This is the way he responds when I speak to him," says Leila, who came back to him in 2009 after a two-decade-long separation.

Fernandes has Alzheimer's, last stage. The firebrand socialist leader, who emerged during the dark days of Emergency, has been immobile the past seven years. His speech is impaired too. The greater part of his day is spent in bed but every morning he is wheeled out into the lawns of his Panchsheel Park residence, where he spends some time.

Barring some visitors such as long-term associate Jaya Jaitly, Leila doesn't encourage many people to see him these days as he is prone to infections. PM Modi visited him in 2015. The Dalai Lama also visited Fernandes, once this February and previously in 2011.

There is a photograph from the earlier visit but not from the recent one. Leila, however, doesn't like her husband to be photographed in his present condition. She is now planning a peaceful life for Fernandes at Ranikhet in Uttarakhand. "I told him, 'George, we are going to the mountains.' He flickered his eyes. I know, he also wants to go," she says. "We want to watch the sunset together in the mountains."

Jaswant Singh

Former BJP leader. Served as Finance Minister in Vajpayee's short-lived government in 1996. He was Minister for External Affairs from 1998 to 2002

Like his former mates in government, Vajpayee and Fernandes, Jaswant Singh's public life ended rather abruptly. He suffered a head injury after he had a fall in his house in 2014 and, thereafter, slipped into coma. After four months of hospitalisation, he was brought home in a minimally conscious state but he had to be hospitalised again. There was a slight improvement but for the past one year, the 79-year-old, who had represented Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha, has been static, says his son, Manvendra, an MLA from Sheo in Rajasthan. Singh, who controversially conducted the Kandahar terror swap during the Vajpayee premiership, is the author of a widely-acclaimed political memoir; alas, he cannot express himself anymore. "He is not responsive; he is under home care. We hope he recovers," says Manvendra.

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi

Congress leader, football enthusiast. Was Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Information and Broadcasting during the first term of the Manmohan Singh government

In 2008, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi suffered a stroke and slipped into coma. "Part of his brain is not responding," says his wife and former MP, Deepa. "He cannot talk or recognise anyone." He is 71.

He had all but faded from public memory when his name was included in the 90-member campaign committee of the Congress for the West Bengal Assembly polls in 2016. The move led to a huge uproar within the party.

Over the years, doctors have reportedly said he is not conscious of his surroundings but Deepa hasn't given up. She says she keeps him informed about current politics. "He winks, he moves his head, he coughs. I feel he is responding but I am not sure if medically this can be considered a response."

There have been reports that the hospital authorities want his family members to take him home but that hasn't happened yet. "I believe that miracles do happen. They can happen at any time," says Deepa.