Millennium Post

Rise and fall of Fotedar

Fotedar was integral to Indira Gandhi’s prowess and in bringing Rajiv Gandhi to politics; yet, the senior Congress leader, isolated from the helm of affairs, felt dejected in his last years .

I had the privilege of knowing ML Fotedar closely, from the early 1980s, few years after he became the powerful political secretary to Indira Gandhi. It was said he was the eyes and ears of Indira Gandhi. Fotedar died at the age of 85 last week as a dejected man; he was not given a Rajya Sabha berth when the Congress was in a position to do so, not given due importance by Sonia Gandhi and did not have a place to live in Delhi. He did not build a house in the Union capital even though he could have built a mansion comfortably, in a posh area. He had to move to neighbouring Gurgaon, where he lived with his family including a doctor son.

About four months before he passed away, he would visit the Central Hall at least twice a week irrespective of whether the Parliament was in session or not. He would spend a couple of hours there, talk to his friends over cups of tea and biscuits, recalling old days and how he was closely associated with important decisions. That included the appointment and removal of Congress Chief Ministers, Union Ministers and important bureaucrats.
I would often visit him, (he would readily give me an appointment) when he was Indira Gandhi's political secretary but never gave news or disclosed a secret, even though, he was aware of everything. Top Congress leaders, Chief Ministers, party leaders from the different states and bureaucrats would visit him. He would take down what they said, prepare brief notes and pass it on to the PM. In a lighter vein, he was called the post office of Lady Gandhi. This is one of the ways she would keep herself abreast of what was happening in the party ensuring that she always knew everything.
Fotedar would sit in one small room in 1, Akbar Road, occupied by late Sanjay Gandhi. Fotedar was at that time a chain smoker and he would puff one cigarette after another. He would hold a cigarette in his fingers as if smoking a "Hukka"; such that the cigarette would not touch his lip. Cups of tea would follow as if he survived only on tea. Later, he completely stopped smoking, possibly on medical advice.
Apart from my personal reminisces, I quote some instances from his recently published book—The Chinar Leaves: A political Memoir—to bring home the point about how close Fotedar was to the PM and how much she entrusted him.
Fotedar writes: "In early August 1980, Indiraji called my due attention to some important senior leaders in the party, like Pranab Mukherjee and P V Narasimha Rao. She asked me to make an assessment as to who among them, in case of need or exigency, could have acceptability or relevance in the country. Basically, she was asking me, who after me? 'How long will you take to do this?' I said, about a month. She said, 'Can't you do it in the next 10-15 days?' I said I would try. I used to meet people from different parts of the country, including senior officers. Indirectly, I would discuss with them too about their perception of leaders and their impressions. I examined all relevant aspects. After about two weeks, I was ready with my assessment.
"I said to Indiraji, 'you had mentioned two names, but without your brief, I examined a third person also'. She asked, 'who?' I said, R Venkataraman. All these three are efficient ministers. Pranab is competent, and also loyal. You have kept him as number two in the Cabinet. He belongs to West Bengal, but in his home state, he has no relevance. He cannot get votes for the party. He cannot be projected before the people. As far as Narasimha Rao is concerned, he is an ideologue, a literary figure, a very competent scholar and a linguist, but he too has no support base worth the name in his home state or in any other state. He spoke well in the Parliament and functioned as a good minister, but he will not be able to muster strength amongst the people as he is not charismatic.
"As to the third person—R Venkataraman—he is there with the support of MG Ramachandran. MGR gave him complete support and through him, he could carry the state. But MGR is not the only leader there. M Karunanidhi is equally important. RV is dependent on one faction of the leadership, and cannot muster enough strength to even be a chief minister there. He can serve in the Parliament, be a good minister, a good orator, but he cannot fill the position of prime minister.
"Indiraji looked at me and asked, 'Then what?' I said to her she would have to persuade Rajiv Gandhi to give up his work as a pilot for the Airlines and pilot the political ship of the country instead. Indiraji was undecided on this: She asked, 'will he agree?' I said, 'it is for you to tell him and make him agree. He is not experienced, but he has inherited a charismatic personality and the qualities of the family'." This is the backdrop of Rajiv Gandhi entering politics. The rest is well-known history.
When Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister and the Congress President, he wanted to manage the party in his own way. Fotedar had become outdated and was not fitting in Rajiv's scheme of affairs. At the same time, Rajiv could not remove a loyal leader like Fotedar. He, therefore, included him in his ministry as a cabinet minister and allocated him the Health portfolio. Though Fotedar did not want to give up his key position, he had no option; he became a cabinet minister. He did good work as Health Minister. One of his contributions was to open a full-fledged dispensary, almost a modern hospital, in the Parliament Annexe equipped with all modern medical facility and services of specialists. Apart from MPs and ex MPs, journalists, holding the parliament card and staff were entitled to these facilities. MPs and journalists remain to this day indebted to him.
Fotedar virtually hated Narasimha Rao and whenever the former Prime Minister's name figured in conversation, he would flare up and say, "don't talk about that man." However, Fotedar helped PV to become PM by supporting his candidature all through. He even told Sonia Gandhi that PV is the fittest person to head the government. But Rao betrayed him.
PV promised that he would give up the post of the Congress President after becoming PM. Writes Fotedar, "Rao did not stay true to his word and he decided to distance himself from me. The first indication came when he initiated the process of ministry formation without consulting me on who should be a part of his cabinet. In the run-up to his election as CPP leader, Rao used to consult me on all crucial matters and keep me informed of important developments. Perhaps, he had another blueprint for himself. From the very beginning, he had the plan to give me short shrift. This became evident when he appointed me the Union minister for health and family welfare.
"On numerous occasions, I reminded Rao of his solemn promise to give up the post of Congress President and adhere to the party's one-man, one-post principle. He would not disagree with me on this, but he always used one pretext or another to postpone a decision on the matter. I could gauge that he had no intention to resign as Congress President and was, in fact, trying to gain time to consolidate his position within the party and the Government."
Fotedar, as a Cabinet member, urged Rao to save the Babri Masjid in many Cabinet meetings. But the PM did not listen. When the disputed structure was demolished, Fotedar had a tiff with Rao in the Cabinet following which he resigned vowing that, "I would ceaselessly work for Rao's removal as Prime Minister and party president." After that, the Congress split and Tiwari Congress was born. Many senior leaders besides, Fotedar, ND Tiwari and Arjun Singh, quit the Congress and joined the new party.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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