Book Review | None too comfortable revelations from a Congress Party manager

The Asian Age.  | Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

In Azad’s telling he and Sonia Gandhi had a great working equation.

Cover photo of 'Azaad: An Autobiography' by Ghulam Nabi Azad. (Photo by arrangement)

Former Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s autobiography cannot fail to delight political hacks because it has some unenviable nuggets, which are to be believed until we get the other side. For example, Azad tells us that it was decided to approach Sonia Gandhi after the 1998 Lok Sabha election defeat under party president Sitaram Kesri. Apparently, A.K. Antony and Sharad Pawar were sent to 10, Janpath next door to get her consent. When they did not return for some time, Azad says he went and saw the three of them, Sonia Gandhi, Antony, Pawar sitting quietly in the sofas. Azad says he asked Sonia whether she is interested in entering politics, she said yes but wanted six months’ time. And here comes the Azad punchline. He says he told her that six month is too long a time in politics, and that after six months the post of Congress president may not remain vacant for her. And it is then she conceded to accept the offer there and then. It is a very juicy story, and until someone contradicts it, Azad’s version will stand. 

Another uncomfortable revelation that will hit the Congress image is Azad’s observation that there were many competent leaders in the Congress to take over as party president, and that he was senior to many others, the rule was no Muslim can be the president of Congress, and that this has been so since Independence. He writes: “…one thing was always clear in the minds of the Congress leaders — that a person belonging to a minority religion could not head the organisation. Even my friends and colleagues in the party would tell me that I would have been the best person to head the organisation had I not been a Muslim.” He however notes the fact that between 1885 and 1947, there were 16 presidents of the party who were from a minority community, “eight Muslims, five Christians and three Parsis.” More than anything else, this could really hurt the image of the Congress.

One of the distinguishing milestone in Azad’s life is his moment of ‘conversion’ to Gandhi, his ideals. It happened in the year of Gandhi centenary in 1969, and he and his friend Basharat Ahmed were drawn into it when they attended a week-long camp organised by Gandhi Smarak Nidhi (GSN) and the GSN chose them to go to Sri Lanka by the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement and visit 1,000 villages  that had been adopted as ‘Gandhian model villages’. The section ‘Mahatma and Me’ is moving part of the whole book. He writes about his visit to Sri Lanka: “My regret is that in India, the country of Gandhi, while the land donated to Acharya Bhave was distributed to the poor, we failed to promote the concept of the Gandhian model villages on the lines Acharya Bhave had envisaged and the way Ariyaratne had implemented in Sri Lanka.” Azad’s political baptism stands apart from the rest of his political career in the Congress Party.

Azad makes it clear that he was able to make his way through the Congress Party because the party was marginalised after the 1975 Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah Agreement by which Congress handed over the political reins to Sheikh Abdullah and his party, the National Conference (NC). Azad acknowledges his political apprenticeship with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who worked hard to strengthen the Congress Party in the state. He says that it was during these years that whenever he went to Delhi he made it a point to meet Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, and he came to know them. After the defeat in 1977, Congress split and in the new Congress he had an opportunity to make his presence felt as the secretary of Indian Youth Congress (IYC) when the party was out of power. Indira Gandhi took him under her wing and he could make headway. She chose a “safe” constituency for him in Washim in Maharashtra to fight the 1980 elections, and se inducted him as a junior minister a little later and told him that she wanted somebody from Jammu and Kashmir to be in her government. Apart working closely with Sanjay Gandhi, he also got to work with Rajiv Gandhi when he entered politics after Sanjay’s death. He says that Indira Gandhi told Rajiv Gandhi to travel with Azad across the country and meet people. Many of us thought that Indira Gandhi entrusted the job of inducting Rajiv into politics to Arun Nehru.

In Azad’s telling he and Sonia Gandhi had a great working equation. After the Assembly election in Uttarakhand in 2002 where Congress won, Sonia Gandhi asked him to meet N.D. Tiwari before the chief minister could be decided. When he met Tiwari, he sounded polite but immediately he sought an appointment with Sonia Gandhi and told her he wants to be the chief minister. Azad was not for it but he had to yield. He acknowledges that Tiwari had done a good job as chief minister of Uttarakhand. And when he told her that he wanted to be the health minister, she told him to speak to Manmohan Singh directly. Azad got the portfolio he wanted because he was interested in the sector.

Azaad: An Autobiography

By Ghulam Nabi Azad


pp. 309; Rs 795/-