Ranoj Basu, a permanent secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), says he is the only Congress leader in the party’s 125-year history who has worked with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi—all the Congress presidents from the Nehru- Gandhi family.
The constant secretary: Basu has served all the Congress presidents from the Nehru-Gandhi family. Rajkumar / Mint
He doesn’t divulge his exact age. “You can say 81-plus,” he says with a smile that exposes his toothless gums. “I started working in the Congress headquarters during Pandit Nehru’s time.” In 1951, when Nehru became Congress president, replacing Purushottam Das Tandon, Basu says he was “just a chhokra (youth)” at the party office at 7, Jantar Mantar Road in New Delhi.
Basu’s job was to assist M.P. Bhargava, who was “permanent secretary” to the Congress presidents, and P.R. Chakraborty, another secretary who used to take care of Nehru’s parliamentary duties. Chakraborty, a friend of Basu’s eldest brother, facilitated Basu’s entry into Nehru’s office.
“One day, while I was sitting in the office, Chakraborty caught me by my collar and took me to Nehru’s office,” Basu recalls. “It was empty. He showed me a small chair in the corner and asked me to sit there. I was really scared. After a few minutes, Panditji came in. Bhargava told him that I would be sitting in that chair to assist him. He looked at me. I was really scared and trembling. Panditji asked me ‘What’s your name?’ I answered.
‘Can you speak English and Hindi?’
‘Will you sit here quietly?’
After a few minutes, Panditji called me. He asked me if I knew K. Santhanam (the railway minister in Nehru’s cabinet).
‘Go and find him. Bring him to come to my room,’ he said, adding, ‘Go through this back door. Do not tell anyone else.’
I found the gentleman in the corridor, looking very tense.
When I told him the president was looking for him, he started trembling.
‘Why? What have I done?’ he said.
‘You come with me,’ I said in response.
A flood of questions followed: ‘What did he tell you? Did he actually ask me to come? Was he angry?’
He and Panditji had a brief conversation in the office which I could not follow. He left through the back door.”
Basu was once witness to Nehru’s short temper at a central election committee meeting at the party office. “The three of us assistants were sitting right behind Nehruji at the meeting. Suddenly, he became very angry as he was looking at a file. ‘What rubbish! Who made this file?’ He shouted and threw away that file. ‘Correct it and bring it to me by 9.30am.’ I took the file to the office and started typing it. Mridula Sarabhai and Padmaja Naidu—two Congress leaders—came offering help, but I completed the work myself.”
The other memory he has of Nehru is of the day Feroze Gandhi, Nehru’s son-in-law, died: “His face, otherwise very fair, looked very dark that day.”
Basu clearly remembers the day Nehru died. “We all knew that Panditji was ill. On that fateful day—27 May 1964—I saw a crowd in front of the Hindustan Times news ticker at Connaught Place. I went there and came to know that Panditji died. I cannot explain how I felt. I came back to office. Nobody there was talking. We all were worried about the future of the Congress and the country. We could not imagine how the country would go forward without Panditji,” Basu says.