Rajesh Pilot was christened by his father as Rajeshwar Prasad, we discover from his wife Rama Pilot, who has penned the biography of this six-time Lok Sabha MP. It’s her earnest homage to the former Union minister who died in his prime in an unfortunate road accident. Flying was his passion, profession and later, his identity, when midstream he changed horses and switched to politics.
Rajesh Pilot, an extremely charming and gregarious person who rose from a humble background, shared with Rajiv Gandhi a passion for controlling the steering wheel even as a minister and a senior Congress leader. Like Rajiv, he shared a zest for adventure. Pilot’s jeep had a head-on collision with a truck coming from the opposite direction while he was driving in his home constituency Dausa, near Jaipur in Rajasthan. I travelled with him in the worst of times through the Kashmir valley; he always drove the car himself.
Pilot was perceived by many to be an outspoken dissident. He declared his intent to contest against Narasimha Rao for the Congress president’s post, but the poll didn’t happen.
Pilot once told a group of journalists how he came to be named as Pilot. He said when he went to file his nomination first time to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Bharatpur in 1980, the election officer, seeing this young man with a non-descript name, asked what did he do for a living. He told the man he was a pilot, to which the officer suggested that he file his papers as Rajesh Pilot, for this will come to the people’s notice right away. In hindsight, it seemed to really work.
Many of us had a pretty close and frequent interaction with Pilot during the regime of former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Even though he was a member of Rao’s council of ministers, and a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) at one stage (Rao never elevated Pilot to the cabinet rank), he was perceived by many of us covering the Congress party those days as quite an outspoken dissident, though not really a rebel. And he went up further in the esteem of his numerous admirers when he declared his intent to contest against Rao for the Congress president’s post. Eventually, that election did not take place.
Curiously, Rama has skipped this and some other portions of Rajesh’s political life, which also show the man as a person with great deal of courage and fortitude. For instance, Rao, who had specially assigned Home and Internal Security to Rajesh, suddenly changed his portfolio and shifted him to Kamal Nath’s Union environment ministry, away from the heart of political activity to the Central Government Offices (CGO) complex on Lodhi Road, after he sought to arrest and try Rao’s favourite tantric, Chandraswamy. Perhaps Rama was mindful of the fact that it was also Rao who elevated Pilot as a member of the Congress’s highest decision making body, the CWC. Actually, Rama has skirted all the controversial issues of those turbulent times under Narasimha Rao, which proved to be the nemesis of the Congress party.
But once Pilot had put out the Chandraswamy information in the public domain, letting the outside world know, he did not protest or hesitate to join the environment ministry, for as a disciplined Congressman and a minister he told us he considered it the prime minister’s prerogative to assign whatever portfolio he chose. He proudly told us once, sitting in his 10, Akbar Road bungalow, “I once supplied milk to this very bungalow where I am living today.” But this never impinged on his present. In that sense, he truly broke the caste and class barrier.
Once, during those tempestuous years in Kashmir, where he went, he had at dinner four goshtabas, the Kashmiri variation of mutton kofta, except that its preparation requires beating the meat and not mincing as is done in the UP-Bihar plains. Therefore, each goshtaba contains about 250 grams of meat and thus four implied a kilo. One was enough for most of us. But then, the next morning by the time we came out in the Chashme Shahi rest house lawns for our breakfast under the sun, Rajesh Pilot came up running after a five km uphill and down-dale jog. Naturally, he had burnt all the extra fat accumulated the previous night, he told us smilingly.
Rajesh Pilot’s and before him Madhavrao Scindia’s untimely deaths left a real void in the Congress party led by Sonia Gandhi. Had both of them been alive, they would have been important and sturdy pillars of the Congress-led government from 2004 to 2014 and perhaps the Congress fortune would not have nose-dived so badly in 2014.