One gave The Family its surname; the other gave it a bad name. This is the tale of two sons-in-law, both outsiders, and the family they married into. Let’s call them the nation’s sons-in-law or desh ke damaad—sobriquets bestowed on them by the political class and the media. Feroze Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru’s son-in-law and Indira Gandhi’s husband, gave the family a name that has enabled them to keep it forever associated with the Mahatma, however tenuously, in the minds of lots of people. It’s also a name that has kept the family at the head of the Congress party right into the 21st century. And Robert Vadra, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law and Priyanka’s husband, seems to be giving the family more than its share of headaches and embarrassing moments.
There is no way of knowing how Feroze would have reacted in an era of 24x7 television and social media that is forever tweeting observations of and responses to the doings and sayings of anyone in the public eye, but consummate politician that he was, he would have handled the mike and camera with aplomb, something businessman-and-wannabe-realtor Vadra simply cannot dream of doing. Some days ago, outside the Amantra Club at the plush, government-owned Ashoka hotel, Vadra not only delivered some memorable quotes (‘Are you serious?’, repeated four times, and ‘Are you nuts?’, interjected once), he thrust away the mike that managed to catch these remarks. He left the media in a paroxysm of indignation for 48 hours. Watching the scene unfold on prime-time television, repeated in capsule form ad nauseam, the public was treated to an unseemly display of wannabe-aristocratic petulance. Some were vociferous that the media was under attack. Either way, Vadra has been an embarrassment to the Nehru-Gandhi family, right from the time he chortled on Facebook about “mango people” in a “banana republic”. Every now and then, he has forced the Congress to end up defending the indefensible.
Would Feroze, who was the Member of Parliament from Rae Bareli, have marshalled such support from Congressmen when he took on Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself in a memorable expose that came to be known as the Mundra affair? From books, we know, he spoke his mind without fear. Perhaps, he was also motivated by personal animosity towards some who were close to Nehru. We also know that he had parted ways with his wife Indira—over several issues, some deeply political, some deeply personal—and lived in a bungalow on Rajendra Prasad Marg in Lutyens’ Delhi.
Inder Malhotra, a senior journalist and good friend of Feroze, says, “My dear friend had a glad eye and had his share of relationships, most notably with a lady from Lucknow, where Feroze had been the general manager of the National Herald.” In Indira, The Life of Indira Nehru, Katherine Frank writes: “...the most serious of Feroze’s liaisons was with a young Muslim woman who was the daughter of a Lucknow politician named Ali Zaheer. Feroze met her in Lucknow, but she actually worked in New Delhi for All India Radio. Unlike his other affairs, before and after this one, Feroze’s relationship with the Zaheer woman was serious. Feroze fell in love with the Zaheer woman and told her that he wanted to divorce Indira and marry her.”
Says Malhotra, “I was aware that he confided a lot in me as a friend and I was able to keep my personal and professional life apart. I think it was also the strain of living apart that led to the affairs.” But, he adds, “There’s no denying that Feroze raised some of the most important and pertinent issues of the time in Parliament. He came well-prepared and did his research well. But it is also a fact that for the first two years after becoming an MP, he did nothing. He just sat there and earned for himself the sobriquet ‘son-in-law of the nation’ and yet, suddenly and inexplicably, he blossomed into a parliamentarian.”
Sometimes referred to as independent India’s first whistle-blower, Feroze red-flagged the issue of corruption between insurance companies and businessmen—the afore-mentioned Mundra scam—which eventually led to the nationalistation of life insurance in India. The expose led to the resignation of then finance minister T.T.K. Krishnamachari. The press too has Feroze to thank for: he had moved a private member’s bill that led to the publishing of parliamentary proceedings without the fear of being held in contempt by Parliament. Says veteran journalist B.G. Verghese, who as a reporter covered parliamentary proceedings, “This bill removed the barrier and gave the press the right to report on Parliament. I met him in the line of my profession and saw him in action in Parliament. He was diligent and thorough in his preparation.”
These two outsiders had a thing or two in common. Both, when they wanted to marry, faced stiff opposition from the political family they finally wedded into. Both lacked a certain class affiliation and pedigree, qualifications that Nehru, as the future father-in-law, and Sonia, as future mother-in-law, probably desired. Says journalist Kalyani Shanker, “The wedding of Priyanka Gandhi and Robert Vadra was a low-key affair and I think only one or two Congressmen were invited. Natwar Singh and Sheila Dikshit. Only 150 invitations were sent out.”
In the first edition of his book on Sonia, biographer Rashid Kidwai writes about how Sonia cautioned party leaders to steer clear of close relatives of Vadra. This was followed by a public notice put out by Vadra which essentially stated that he was severing ties with his family. Variously spotted at clubs in Delhi and Mamagoto, an upscale Oriental cuisine restaurant in Khan Market, unafraid to flaunt his biceps, the result of long hours spent in a gym, Vadra remained pretty much in the shadows till he made his political ambition clear in 2010 before the elections in Uttar Pradesh. In an interview to the Times of India dated October 20, 2010, Vadra said, “I can definitely win (an election) from anywhere but I am a businessman. Why politics? I should be known for what I am.” That interview caused some anxious moments as Vadra let it be known that Congressmen were seeking his candidature in Sultanpur, but he had refused. “There was huge demand for me to stand (from Sultanpur) but I was clear that it was not my place. I was being recognised only because of the family,” he had told the Times of India.
Ironically, two years later, the businessman from Moradabad had no qualms about cashing in on the surname for striking his business deals in real estate. People close to Vadra describe him as “an ambitious man, and having stayed so close to power for so long, he fancies his chances as the Zardari of India.” The reference is to former president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, who rose from being Benazir Bhutto’s husband to president of that country.
On his Suzuki Boulevard 1800 cc motorbike, Vadra would hit the road and grab a lot of media attention. For a long time, that was the sort of thing one would keep hearing about Vadra—Vadra at a club, at a gym, on a cycling circuit. It was only after ambitions of other sorts began to make themselves evident in him that the Gandhi family’s jamai raja found himself being halted in his path by the media with some difficult questions.
Another close friend of Vadra says, “He’s been kept on a short leash by the Gandhis and is actually a victim of marrying into a powerful political family.” Victim he may be; he’s certainly no pauper. “The nation wants to know what magical model Robert Vadra has so that Rs 1 lakh becomes Rs 300 crore in less than three years,” asked Ravi Shankar Prasad before he became the law minister in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Vadra’s company, Skylight Hospitality Private Ltd, is under the scanner for buying land, getting its category changed from agricultural to commercial use, and making a killing out of it.
If independent India’s first son-in-law scalped the country’s first finance minister by making him quit on charges of corruption, the second is only now feeling the heat of similar charges being directed at him.
By Anuradha Raman with Mihir Srivastava