Maneka Gandhi, feted for being the senior-most MP, has led a life of struggle.
The valedictory function of the old Parliament House, renamed Samvidhan Bhavan on 19 September, had a special podium set up in front of the dais, in the Central Hall, which seated the dignitaries: Vice President (Chairman, Rajya Sabha), Prime Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker, Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Leader of Treasury benches in Rajya Sabha and the Leaders of Opposition in both Houses of Parliament. It had been placed there to honour the senior-most serving MP.
As that honour belonged to Maneka Gandhi, who had first come to Lok Sabha in 1989 (she lost in 1991, but has been elected continuously thereafter since 1996), it was also became an occasion to honour “Nari Shakti”, the very purpose for which the Special Session of Parliament had been convened by the Government.
Maneka Gandhi’s struggle embodies “Nari Shakti”. Widowed at 24 in 1980 when husband Sanjay Gandhi died leaving her with a three-month-old son, she was asked to leave the Gandhi family home in March 1983. Maneka, who married Indira Gandhi’s younger son in 1974, had been her husband and mother-in-law’s constant companion in the days of Janata rule, 1977-79.
She had been alumnus of Delhi’s Dateline School of Journalism prior to her marriage. In 1976 she launched a monthly journal, “Surya India”. Reporting the development, in the midst of the Emergency on 20 October 1976, the New York Times said, “Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 20-year-old daughter-in-law has begun publishing a monthly magazine dedicated to describing the dynamics of a changing India in a positive, confident way.”
“Surya” proved useful as a political tool in destabilising the Janata regime and charting the return of Congress to power in 1980. Its exposé of the sex scandal surrounding Janata Deputy Prime Minister Jagjivan Ram’s son, Suresh Ram, was a major embarrassment faced by the Morarji Desai-led first-ever non-Congress government at the Centre.
Maneka’s passport was impounded in the Janata days. She fought in the courts and got it back. Supreme Court’s 1978 verdict on “Maneka Gandhi versus The Union of India” widened the scope of Article 21, expanding the definition of personal liberty and the Fundamental Right to Life.
In view of her role as a political associate of her husband and mother-in-law in the days when Congress was struggling (Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, being apolitical at that stage were somewhat aloof) after Sanjay Gandhi’s death when the Amethi Lok Sabha seat fell vacant, Maneka was hopeful that as per custom in Congress (as well as other parties) as widow she will be considered.
Rajiv Gandhi had been reluctant to enter politics. In April 1981, an Air India Boeing 707 aircraft with registration number VT-DPM, called Makalu, which was to fly Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on a foreign tour, was discovered to have been sabotaged. Prior to this Morarji Desai’s foreign travel aircraft too had been sabotaged—fortunately, surveillance by security agencies detected mischief in time. The Makalu incident played heavily on Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to accept his mother’s plea that he ought to join her in politics, fervent opposition from his spouse, Sonia, notwithstanding.
Maneka would have been eligible to seek the Amethi ticket had the byelection been held after her 25th birthday, 26 August 1981. Rajiv Gandhi’s candidature was declared in May and he was elected to Lok Sabha in June, and was sworn in as MP on 17 August 1981. Had Maneka’s claim to her husband’s political legacy been upheld, then perhaps she would have stood at the Central Hall on 19 September 2023 as an MP of not 1989, but of 1981 vintage.
Maneka, who had been the “political bahu” of the Gandhi family till then, slowly faded away. She rebelled, launched a political outfit “Sanjay Vichar Manch” (SVM) at an impressive rally in Lucknow’s Baradari in 1982. She led an SVM demonstration against Bihar Press Bill at Patna’s Raj Bhavan in October 1982. SVM workers were arrested in UP. Parties opposed to Congress, who had been critical of Sanjay Gandhi, extended support to Maneka in her struggle, to her mother-in-law’s chagrin.
Reports about tension in India’s “First Family” and a tussle between the two “bahus” started appearing in early December 1980, less than six months after Sanjay Gandhi’s air crash on 23 June 1980. The release of a pictorial book on Sanjay’s life, compiled by Maneka, scheduled for 14 December, his birth anniversary, by Union Home Minister Zail Singh at Vigyan Bhavan was abruptly cancelled. Apparently, at the eleventh hour, someone in the family had objected to a photo caption, which referred to Sanjay Gandhi as the person who resurrected Congress after the 1977 rout. The book was released without fanfare later; some captions in the book had been revised and pasted over.
Things came to a head when in March 1983, Maneka left Indira Gandhi’s 1, Safdarjung Road home with her three-year-old son Feroze Varun. She said that she had been asked to leave and asserted “I am still a Gandhi”. Acrimony had apparently reached its nadir. Newspaper reports said that Arun Nehru, then a Congress MP, had insisted that Maneka’s luggage be searched before she was allowed to leave. Nikhil Kumar, who became a Congress MP from Bihar post retirement, was the head of New Delhi district police—an upright officer, he bluntly refused, insisting on a court warrant if he were to proceed.
In the summer of 1988, Maneka merged her SVM into a Janata Party led by Chandrasekhar at a rally in Amethi. The Lucknow edition of the Times of India wrote, “Slogans in praise of Sanjay Gandhi reverberated from Janata platform in Amethi today”. Janata Party had been launched to fight the Indira-Sanjay domination of India’s politics. The news report highlighted an irony.
Maneka Gandhi has been part of non-Congress politics since. Vishwanath Pratap Singh as Prime Minister extended courtesy to her. Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani admitted her into BJP. Narendra Modi included her in his 2014 ministerial team. While Sanjay Gandhi’s close associate, Pranab Mukherjee, as President of India, administered her the oath of office in May 2014, she affirmed, “I, Maneka Sanjay Gandhi, do solemnly affirm…” Sanjay Gandhi’s legacy was with her as she became a BJP minister.
On 19 September 2023 too she began her address to the valedictory session of the old Parliament House by recalling that she had become MP nine years after her husband’s death. Hinting that women’s reservation was on the agenda of the government she said, “Prime Minister Modi does not see people as mere statistics, but in the light of their needs”. This assertion by the grand-daughter-in-law of Jawaharlal Nehru and the bahu of Feroze Gandhi, the MP who was the first to successfully expose a case of corruption in Parliament of India, provided a unique sheen to the last meeting held in the historic Central Hall of Parliament as a new era was ushered in.