In death as in life, Arun Nehru remains the envy of many a wannabe politician
Arun is no more. But the idea of Arun Nehru still reverberates in the corridors of power. He had no ideology, but he was not a fence-sitter either. North Block’s high red stone walls still echo with the narrative which Arun wrote as India’s first Minister of State for internal security. His was an era of decisiveness. Now indecision rules the roost. He acquired power beyond his official designation, surveying Parliament from the window of his sprawling office. He was just a junior minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government. But he was a Nehru of his own kind—a symbol of ruthless authority. He knew the art of using power to demolish adversaries, but was also one who stood by his friends. Unlike his paternal uncle Jawaharlal Nehru, the portly Arun was not an articulate and affable diplomat. He applied the dirty tricks of corporate salesmanship to politics, but is credited with giving the governments of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv a modern and business-like look.
At his unsung funeral on Friday, the beneficiaries of his munificence were conspicuous by their absence. Sonia Gandhi and her children, however, graciously turned up to show their emotional family bonding with the person who was perceived a betrayer. They humbly stood in the queue to accept condolences from Arun’s friends and relatives.
Most of the 200 persons who turned up at the Lodhi cremation ground were unanimous on Arun’s capacity to acquire information. For him, raw information was power, which he used effectively during his 10 years in active politics. Indira invited him to join politics after Sanjay’s death in May 1980. She wanted someone from the family to assist Rajiv learn the political ropes. Arun, Vijay Dhar and Arun Singh made up the troika that advised Rajiv on the party and the government structure. They had no clue to practical politics. Yet, Arun became the Gandhis’ most important adviser. Indira brought him in to neutralise the growing impact of R K Dhawan, who was seen as a political threat to Rajiv. As Rajiv acquired more responsibilities as the party general secretary, Arun became his political guru. As Punjab terrorism, growing corruption, inflation and the growth of regional satraps made things difficult for Indira, Rajiv and Arun began to tackle all such issues. It was Arun’s idea to marginalise the old guard and get proactive in government. He once confided in me that Rajiv’s success would depend on his ability to drop his mother’s political baggage, otherwise the cabal would ensure his failure. Both cousins decided to fix deadline and accountability, which was reflected in the 1982 Asian Games. Arun Nehru, Arun Singh and Rajiv took direct charge and ensured the event’s success.
Arun’s ruthlessness became apparent when he inherited Indira’s trait of crushing foes without batting an eyelid. As regional leaders became a major threat, both Rajiv and Arun decided to teach some of them a lesson. In July 1984, the Congress decided to get rid of NT Rama Rao’s government in Andhra Pradesh. Defections were encouraged. Though the cousins did not favour the move, they were told to implement it; governor Ram Lal, a Gandhi loyalist, was directed to swear in N Bhasker Rao as CM. Rao survived just 31 days and NTR came back. Arun ensured that Ram Lal, who botched up by giving false assurances, was dismissed. In the same month, Indira fell out with Farooq Abdullah and J&K governor Jagmohan was asked to dismiss him.
When Mrs Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984, it was Arun’s strategy that made Rajiv PM. Along with Dhawan, he arrived at Palam airport to receive President Zail Singh returning from Yemen. Arun asked him to appoint Rajiv as the next PM; the formal meeting of the CPC would follow later. It was for the first time that a new PM was anointed without being elected as the leader of his party.
Arun’s skills as an administrator became visible after he became the internal security minister. All intelligence agencies reported to him. He conceptualised the Special Protection Group for the security of the PM and family members. Along with Arun Singh, he introduced new government departments and merged many into one. Both believed in a smaller government with clear, defined responsibilities. As his powers increased along with then finance minister V P Singh’s, Arun became the victim of feudal politics. They were blamed for undercutting Rajiv, who was misled by corporate and vested interests. When Arun suffered a heart attack while holidaying in Kashmir, most of his powers were taken away. A year later, V P Singh was removed as finance minister. They had lost both power and the Gandhi Parivar’s confidence. They became rebels and ensured that Rajiv lost power in 1989. Arun was the most powerful minister in V P Singh’s Cabinet, who stood firm on governance. When terrorists kidnapped Rubaiya Sayeed, Mufti Sayeed’s daughter, four days after he became home minister, Arun opposed the release of their jailed comrades in exchange for Rubaiya’s freedom. He was overruled. Later, when V P Singh opted for the Mandal Commission, Arun vehemently opposed it. Singh lost his government and Arun, being close to LK Advani, decided to join the BJP. Without a decisive role, however, he became a misfit in politics.
Until the end, however, he loved to gather political information. Political forecasting was his passion and Arun remained in touch with his contacts in the Congress and other parties. He also knew how not to live beyond his means. His name was associated with many scandals, none of which were proved to be true. He drove a Maruti, lived in a small farmhouse, which he had bought in early 1980s, and never regretted the loss of the aura of the Nehru pedigree. In death as in life, Arun remains the envy of many a wannabe politician who aspires to be a Nehru like him.
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