Margaret Alva is a former parliamentarian who has worked with four prime ministers — Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh – and was governor of four states. In her autobiography Courage & Commitment, she writes of her journey as a politician, her courage, her trials and her confrontations with various leaders. Over the years, Alva witnessed several significant turns in India’s political narrative from close quarters. She spoke to BULA DEVI.
Why did you write the book now?
It’s a work of the past five years, I started when I was in Raj Bhavan in Uttarakhand. At times I was lonely. In the early days, I kept asking myself what am I doing here? Away from family, my surroundings, people I knew in Delhi or Bangalore. I felt totally cut off and then I began to reflect on my life that finally brought me there. I began writing and am not a writer otherwise. I don’t use a computer. I ended up writing 850 pages of hand-written drafts which were reduced to 350 pages after they were typed and edited.
So the disenchantment started since then?
It wasn’t disenchantment. I think it was more to do with my loneliness. I started the book with my childhood, how I came up and then 45 years in Delhi with different challenges, different regimes. I had no intention of going into politics. I was a happy housewife, doing everything at home. I was a law graduate but I didn’t even want to practice law. But my mother-in-law died in 1969 and I found that life had changed, from security and protection of a joint family. I literally got induced, not forced, to take interest in a party. They kept telling me that you have to keep the family tradition. In the meantime, my husband got posted to Bangalore. So we moved back to Bangalore in early ’70. I got involved in the party. It was easier there because of support system. That’s how I moved into politics.
In 1974, Mrs Indira Gandhi got me into Rajya Sabha although I never applied or wanted to. I was 32 years old and settled in Bangalore. But then I had to again move to Delhi. I lasted in Rajya Sabha for 24 years.
Do you agree with the high command culture in the Congress?
Why the Congress? Every party has a central leadership which takes decisions. It’s not just in the Congress. I am sure the committee of the BJP in Bangalore was
decided in Delhi. So is the case with every other party because the country is so large and there are so many conflicting interests in the states that the centre has to take the final decision. So it’s not just with the Congress, every party has a high command who takes the decisions. I don’t think the Congress is any way different from other political parties.
But in recent interviews you mentioned that she (Sonia Gandhi) recommended and then the prime minister did.
The party recommends a lot of things to the prime minister; after all, party cadres are not known to the prime minister. It’s the party that selects people who get automatically one place or the other.
Do you believe in dynastic politics?
I don’t know what you mean by dynastic politics. I have lived with the Congress party, I have lived with Indira Gandhi, who was a dynamic and an outstanding prime minister. An accident brought Rajiv Gandhi into politics, he never wanted to be there. He was literally landed there due to the tragedy (the assassination of Indira Gandhi). After him, we had PV Narasimha Rao who lasted a full five years and he was running a minority government. After that Sonia was offered but she refused. So where is the dynasty? It’s not a dynastic history. PV sahab was party president and after that Sitaram Kesri became the party president. Sonia refused to step out for eight years. Everybody forced her to come and take the leadership because the party was just losing every single election and everything it did.
In fact after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister, it was Lal Bahadur Shastri and after Shastri’s untimely death that brought Indira out. Whereas dynastic politics exist in every political party like the Samajwadi Party has Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav. If people vote, nobody can keep a leader out and if the party elects him, he becomes the leader. For instance, one hardly thought of Manmohan Singh but he lasted for 10 years as the prime minister. So where was the dynasty? I believe in capacity and leadership which, I think, any party is looking for.
So you also see similar kind of leadership quality in your son?
I am not saying in my son (Nivedith Alva). He has been the general secretary of the Youth Congress for five years and KPCC Secretary for past five years. He is chairman of the state coastal development authority. He is devoting all his time to the party. So what’s wrong in that? Shouldn’t my son ever do anything?
There was bitterness between you and the party over your son not getting ticket.
No, my son was not the issue. He didn’t get the ticket thrice. It doesn’t matter. In fact, I am glad that he has grown politically and he is on his feet. He will take his own decision on what his politics should be.
So that he doesn’t have to carry the tag that he is Margaret Alva’s son?
Exactly. This was the tag that was used (when his name was rejected) and I strongly object to it. He has degrees from abroad. He had a lot of exposure. But he is not the issue at all. He will find his way.
You were a minister during the Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi governments and were governor of four states. Is there anything more you would like to achieve?
Nothing, I am happy and contented. I wrote the book because I had the time and space. May be it was just a question of wanting to record what I have done during the past 40-50 years.
Going into state politics, how do you read (CM) Siddaramaiah’s performance in Karnataka?
He is doing his best. There are issues, in every state there will be differences. But he is an astute politician. He has followed D. Devraj Urs’ formula to bring the backward classes, the minorities, the scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes together on a platform. So that their welfare programmes could come on the centrestage. Siddaramaiah is trying to do it.
So you are satisfied with his performance?
There is always scope for improvement. Some of the schemes they have introduced are very good. The programmes are very good but the question is, how do you implement? The approach needs to be cohesive.
Is that what is missing?
More cohesion is needed between party and government because the party has to take the programmes to the people. There is no point having good programmes while the government machinery cannot take it to the people. The party has to provide the support system to ensure the programmes reach the people. This kind of mass contact is really the ethos of the Congress since the freedom movement.
Isn’t that ethos missing in the Congress?
Well, we have lost that somewhere along the line. The Youth Congress used to be such a vibrant, aggressive organisation. We have so many issues – price rise, minority bashing, etc – but where are those who are supposed to raise it? For instance, the women’s bank issue. I met the prime minister (Narendra Modi) to plead with him not to go ahead with the proposed women’s banks merger with other banks. We were the third country in the world to have a women’s bank; we lobbied and did everything to push for it. Just because it was done by the UPA government doesn’t mean it needs to be changed. The Congress as a party should have taken it up but nobody talks about it.
I disagreed with Sanjay Gandhi on many issues. But I must say the way Sanjay fought back in 1977, it gave a sense that the party was fighting back. Today, we do need a mass contact programme in Karnataka.
There is a lot of vendetta politics in the Congress. Don’t you think it is time the party reaches out to those who have left the party and consolidate it?
There is no vendetta politics. Some people feel slighted, others feel left out; some people might have had ambition but not fulfilled, and then there are those who want to be chief minister. Yes, it is true that the party general secretaries in charge of their respective states should work with all groups in the state and put them together.
You mention in your book that AK Antony took revenge against you. Isn’t that vendetta politics?
I don’t call it vendetta politics. But there must have been something that he was upset with me.
And you know the reason?
Yes, I have written it in the book. It’s not only in this case, it happens everywhere; politics is politics. You survive or you don’t.
Do you see a chance of the Congress coming back to power and what will be your prescription?
Yes, of course, it will but I have no prescription. Politics sees ups and downs. In 1977, the editorials after the elections wrote the Congress obituary. Indira Gandhi fought back and in three years, the very people who wanted her out voted her back and she formed a government on her own with Congress in majority. So, political parties do have the capacity to reinvent and fight back. Even the BJP had only two members in Parliament and see where they are now.
BJP had many states they lost, Congress was also ruling in many states, they too lost. So it’s a question of coming and going because people’s perceptions change sometimes because of events that take place. For instance, many people wrote off J. Jayalalithaa but she has bounced back. People sitting in Delhi thought otherwise. There were a lot of programmes she had brought in such as schemes on food, medical shops and so on. These are the things which reached the people.
I wrote and congratulated Jayalalithaa in advance. It’s not so much about programmes but administration. You can make tall promises but question is can you fulfill them? Otherwise disillusionment sets in.
It could be that the Congress is in its lowest ebb at the moment but I don’t see Congress being wiped out or Congress Mukt Bharat becoming a reality.
Do you think Rahul Gandhi has the ability to?
I am not going into all this. Rahul will grow in his own time and in his own way. It’s not for me to say who is good and who is not.
Do you think the only way to resist the BJP’s agenda of Congress Mukt Bharat is to hand over the baton to Priyanka?
I am not going to comment on that. It’s not my job.
You spoke about Uniform Civil Code in one of your interviews. When Arif Mohammed Khan could publicly speak on Shahbano case, how come you didn’t speak up then?
I was a minister that time; I was with Rajivji. Everything need not be on a public platform. I have recorded in the book that I tried my best not to get that legislation passed and take away the rights given by the Supreme Court. But then there was tremendous pressure from the minorities within the party and outside which made it very difficult for the prime minister.
You have always been quite upfront, what stopped you to speak up publicly?
I was in the government and loyal to Rajivji. We were helping him. I was not going to create problems for him by creating a rift or by resigning. We felt tremendous responsibility in helping him succeed. For instance, when the sati incident happened (in Rajasthan), I offered my resignation and I said I can’t defend it in Parliament. But Rajivji said it was the chief minister who failed to stop it and the CM was made to resign. So one can make one’s point without going on a public platform and creating problem for the party.
When Quattrochhi left the country, you were MoS Personnel. The rumour then was that you had facilitated it. Who authorised Quattrochhi to leave the country?
Not at all. There is no question of authorisation if you look at the records. There was neither any FIR nor any look-out notice against him. There was no red corner notice against him. He was simply a person living in India. Unless there was a court order or restricting action from the court, it is not possible to restrict a person from leaving the country. He was not an Indian, he was a foreigner with a foreign passport. Under what circumstances was he supposed to be detained at that time? One has to look at the context. There was neither court order against him nor arrest warrant against him. There were only press reports, someone writing from aboard but there was no evidence of any kind.
So these things were discussed with you?
No, it wasn’t. The Bofors issue was directly handled by the PMO and not by me. Those files never came to me. It was probably a sensitive issue and Narasimha Rao dealt with it, at his level.
You also felt that justice was not done to Narasimha Rao on his death.
It was not just me, others have also written about it. Being a former prime minister, a Congress president and a former chief minister perhaps he could have been accorded a more honourable departure from Delhi.
But you remained silent that time. Why?
I felt (very bad) but more importantly the prime minister was Manmohan Singh who had been brought in by Narasimha Rao. I thought may be his cremation took place in Hyderabad because he belonged to the South. But I feel we did wrong by keeping his body outside the closed gates of AICC.
Do you think it was shameful?
It was painful.
Did you bring it up?
No, I didn’t because certain things are best experienced.
How is your relationship with Sonia Gandhi now?
Perfect. The first copy of the book I gave to my husband who had been the man who helped me reach where I have reached. The second copy I took to Sonia; I wrote inside thanking her for what she had done for me.
I have written about my life, my problems, my ups and downs, my successes and failures and I have been very honest in what hurt me or what I felt was a situation that I had to deal. It has nothing to do with personalities. I differed with Indiraji over Devraj Urs, I was expelled from the party and later she brought me back. I had differences even with Rajivji and in one or two occasions, I even offered to resign. But then you come to terms and you find answers. There are issues in the party that you don’t agree but that doesn’t mean that you walk out of the party or make a public issue out of it. There are ways to resolve the issues by talking within the party.
Are you softening your stand with Sonia?
It has always been the same. There is no question of softening it. She came and stayed with me in Dehradun when I was Governor, Uttarakhand and I used to visit her whenever I came here. Personal relationships have nothing to do with political thinking process. It is true that at times I even differed with decisions taken at Delhi. Even as general secretary when something was conveyed to me through intermediaries, I went and explained to her that it would cause problems and she immediately changed it. Most often people don’t go and explain to her in perspective and then blame her or someone else. It is very unfair if people don’t want to bring up issues to her notice and then blame her.
Do you think it was a correct move to make former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit the chief ministerial candidate for Uttar Pradesh because she is a Brahmin?
Who am I to decide what is right or wrong? That’s not part of my involvement because I am not in the party headquarters. When I was member of working committee, central election committee or other party fora, I could be asked. But why should I sit on judgement now? They have their own ways of fighting an election. They know best what is good for UP and I have never been in charge of UP. I don’t know UP. I only know that Sheila Dikshit is the daughter-in-law of Uma Shankar Dikshit who was a treasurer of the party and had been a stalwart in UP politics and had grown from the freedom movement, and Sheilaji had grown in his shadow and probably she knows UP well.
Do you think she is a charismatic leader?
Yes, she has nice ways of dealing with all generations - the young and the old, she can carry them along. But Delhi is a small state and UP is large, challenge is going to be much bigger.