‘I told Indira-ji there was no point in my always seconding what she said’

‘I told Indira-ji there was no point in my always seconding what she said’
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First Published: Fri, Dec 14 2007. 12 03 AM IST

Brushes with history: An Autobiography: Penguin/Viking, 655 pages, Rs650
Brushes with history: An Autobiography: Penguin/Viking, 655 pages, Rs650
Updated: Fri, Dec 14 2007. 12 03 AM IST
I had come to know Indira-ji in the early 1950s. The acquaintance had gradually matured into a close relationship. In 1971, came a slight chill when I stood for election from Jhunjhunu for the Lok Sabha on a Swatantra Party ticket. This, however, did not last long and in a few months’ time the relationship was normalized. From 1974 onward, my closeness to Indira-ji further strengthened. After her defeat in the 1977 election, when she was deserted by a large number of her followers, the relationship deepened considerably and she started regarding me as a member of the family. The relationship continued so till her tragic assassination in 1984.
Brushes with history: An Autobiography: Penguin/Viking, 655 pages, Rs650
Indira-ji was always kind and considerate towards me and even indulgent at times. She did not mind my expressing personal views frankly whenever I differed with her. In fact, many years earlier, when she was prime minister I once had a frank talk with her. I sought her permission to speak freely. I told her there was no point in my always seconding what she said, that it was better that I spoke to her openly about whatever I felt; I also asked her permission to tell her what the public reaction was to her statements, speeches and actions. I told her that so long as she accepted me as a friend she should not mind if, sometimes, she found that my ideas and advice ran counter to her own views. Indira-ji agreed with me. She was liberal and noble, and I always felt at ease in her presence. I would sometimes even make observations in a humorous vein. She did not mind at all and was very informal with me.
My warm relationship with Indira-ji was not liked by many high-ups in the Janata Party. The government, as a result of pressure by some of its ministers, began persecuting her friends and supporters.
An astrologer used to visit my house in Kolkata from time to time. I have had mixed luck with astrologers. Sometimes, I found their predictions came true but on most occasions, I found them to be wrong. One evening in July 1977, the astrologer met me. I had been hearing wild rumours about my safety, and out of sheer curiosity I asked him what the future had in store for me. He studied my horoscope. He felt rather ill at ease in answering. On my pressing him to tell me frankly what he foresaw, he said that I would be entering a troublesome period very shortly.
...Soon after this I went to Delhi. There, I heard a rumour that all those who had sided with Indira-ji were to be harassed in some way. I also heard that the wrath of the government was likely to fall on me soon. But I maintained a cheerful exterior. I soon discovered, much to my dismay, that my income tax cases were being reopened.
...I had known Atal-ji, who later became prime minister, also since the late 1950s. When I contested the Lok Sabha elections in 1971, he had visited my constituency at my invitation and had spoken at two or three places in my support. Atal-ji is a gentleman to the core.
Memory lane: Birla first met Gandhi after his election defeat in 1971; now 89, he lives in Kolkata.
Atal-ji enjoyed a very high status in the Janata government. Apart from being the external affairs minister, he was also the leader of the erstwhile Jan Sangh. I called on him.
Atal-ji did not like my continued friendship with Indira-ji but when I explained to him my viewpoint, he appreciated the fact that I had stood by Indira-ji, when she was no longer a political force to reckon with. Though Atal-ji was in the opposition camp, he did not approve of the manner in which Indira-ji was being persecuted.
When I met Atal-ji, I told him that I did not expect or demand any favour from the Janata Party; the only point I was trying to make, I said, was that natural justice should not be denied to me and to my business, and that the unnecessary harassment being meted out to me should cease.
Atal-ji, perhaps more to test me rather than question me seriously, asked whether I was prepared to desert Indira-ji’s camp and join the Janata camp. I told him that was not possible. Atal-ji did not press the point.
When I met Indira-ji I informed her of Atal-ji’s views and also how he felt unhappy about her persecution by some of the leaders of the Janata Party. She felt happy that Atal-ji displayed a sense of fairness.
On one occasion, after the incident over the proposed impounding of my passport, I got a message from the external affairs ministry that the government wanted to inspect my passport. That was a strange request. As I was required to go out of the country several times a year I became concerned as to why the government wanted to inspect my passport. I was suspicious that might be with the intention of impounding it. I immediately sought an appointment with Atal-ji, but, as luck would have it, he was out of the country. Being the external affairs minister, he was frequently out of the country—perhaps more often than was necessary. I then telephoned Shiv Kumar, his devoted secretary, and explained the position to him. Shiv Kumar spoke to the concerned people in the ministry and the idea of ‘inspecting’ my passport was dropped.
...After Indira-ji’s defeat, when I became anathema to the Janata Party government, I realized that it was only a question of time before I would be asked to resign from ICICI. That was what happened.
In early 1979, when I went to Mumbai to attend a meeting of ICICI, Jagdish Saxena, who was the then chairman of the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) and also a director of ICICI in that capacity, called me aside after the meeting was over. Saxena was a fine person, a thorough gentleman, and a friend of mine. He said that if I were to submit my resignation from the board of ICICI, it would be appreciated. He asked me not to put any queries to him about the matter. I had no intention of asking any questions and embarrassing him as it did not require much wisdom to guess what prompted him to make the suggestion. I, therefore, submitted my resignation, as desired by the government. Had I not resigned, I could have continued as a director till my term expired in the normal course and would, in all probability, have been re-elected. However, I did not want to stay on when the government did not want me to be on the board. But the actions showed the pettiness and the vindictiveness of the Janata government.
Excerpted from Brushes with History: An Autobiography, by K.K. Birla who is the chairman of HT Media Ltd which publishes Mint and Lounge.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Dec 14 2007. 12 03 AM IST