Why Margaret Alva’s Vice-Presidential nomination is a bitter pill for the Gandhis

The choice of Margret Alva and Yashwant Sinha for the Vice-Presidential and Presidential contests, respectively, indicates the Grand Old Party’s deteriorating and diminishing clout within the Opposition. The Congress leadership had months to shortlist and negotiate with non-NDA parties about the choice of nominees for the coveted posts. But it dithered. Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi failed to be proactive, leaving the job to the likes of Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, and Sitaram Yechury. The Congress, consisting of Mallikarjun Kharge and Jairam Ramesh, went along with Pawar and Yechury.

Alva, herself a veteran Congress leader, has been a known critic of the Gandhis. Her memoir — ‘Courage and Commitment’ — published in July 2016, has created a flutter of sorts. She had taken a few direct and indirect potshots at the Congress leadership. Sinha, coming from anti-Congress parties such as the Janata Dal and the BJP, has a long and substantive track record of opposing the Gandhis — Indira, Rajiv, Sonia, and Rahul. Alva also wrote about Congress’s connections to the AgustaWestland scam accused Christian Michel’s father Wolfgang Michel.

A section of the Congress laments the Gandhis’ inoperativeness for another reason. According to them, the Congress and Gandhis could have shown themselves as democracy’s David, fielding critics and dissenters for the post of vice-president and president. The Congress also missed a point in the Narendra Modi-led NDA picking loyalists, while the Opposition opted for vocal detractors.

Incidentally, Alva’s mother-in-law, Violet, a freedom fighter and Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson in 1969, was a candidate for vice-presidential polls when President Zakir Hussain had died and incumbent Vice-President VV Giri was elevated, necessitating vice-presidential election. Indira had reportedly overruled Violet’s claim, fielding GS Pathak, a former union minister and governor. Barely four months later, Violet resigned as deputy chairperson of Rajya Sabha in November 1969, and died from cerebral hemorrhage at her residence five days later.

Dissent and disquiet

Margret Alva’s long and distinguished career in Congress has been chequered with dissent and disquiet. In 1978, when the Congress split after the 1977 electoral defeat, Alva had left Indira Gandhi’s group to join hands with Devraj Urs and Sharad Pawar. She, however, returned to the Congress and was given ministerial responsibility in the Rajiv Gandhi government.

In the years and decades to come, Alva continued to have several skirmishes with the high and mighty in the grand old party. In 2008, when the UPA was in power, she accused the Karnakata unit of the party of ‘selling assembly tickets’ an allegation that did not go down well with the leadership.

READ | Meet Margaret Alva, former governor and now Opposition’s vice presidential candidate

Alva, however, remained unfazed. In her memoirs, she went on to claim that her family’s name and reputation was seen as a challenge. “Once I had made the mistake of saying: ‘The Alvas are the only political family to have a member in Parliament without a break for almost half a century.’”. This statement, Alva wrote in her autobiography, sealed her fate. “It was seen as a challenge.”

When Rao denied RS nomination to Sonia’s secretary

Interestingly, Alva’s candidature to the Rajya Sabha in 1992 had reportedly caused a lot of bad blood between the then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi’s somewhat apolitical widow Sonia Gandhi. Rao denied a Rajya Sabha nomination to Sonia’s private secretary Vincent George in January 1992 in favour of Margaret Alva, which proved costly.

The Congress was to select party nominees for the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka, and some senior party leaders ganged up against Margaret Alva, who was seeking an unprecedented fourth successive term. They propped up George’s name, though he actually hailed from Kerala. Rao was hesitant to clear George’s name, though almost all the party bigwigs, particularly K Karunakaran and Arjun Singh, were keen that he be nominated.

There was no word from Sonia Gandhi either in favour of or against George. As Rao was leaving for Russia, he called on Sonia to inquire if she wanted George to be in the Upper House. Sonia, who had declined to head the Congress after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991, made it clear that if the party wanted to give a ticket to George, the decision should be based on merit and in keeping with political considerations. Rao understood the point. When the list of candidates was faxed from abroad, George was denied a ticket and Alva’s name was on the list.

This issue was a major factor in the distrust that characterized the relationship between 10 Janpath and 7 Race Course Road over the next four years (1992-96). Sonia’s private secretary, it was claimed, became hostile towards Rao. George was singularly responsible for widening the wedge between the two, and he had a role to play in the events that finally led to the split of the party in 1995 when Congress (Tiwari) was formed and the defeat of the party in 1996 general elections.

Hawala probe and ‘fixing of opponents’

Alva, however, did not spare Rao in her memoirs making it clear that the prime minister in 1995 was determined to fix some of his cabinet colleagues and key Opposition leaders, including L.K. Advani, in the Jain hawala case.

It was October 1995, and elections were round the corner, when Rao ordered the hawala probe that “fixed” the political careers of many stalwarts. The list of accused included Advani, Madhavrao Scindia, Kamal Nath, Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari, Buta Singh, Bhajan Lal, V.C. Shukla and Sharad Yadav.

While each accused got acquitted, Advani did not contest the 1996 elections and perhaps missed the chance of becoming Prime Minister when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was chosen to head the 13-day BJP government.

Alva was the Minister of State looking after the department of personnel, which supervised the CBI then. “Suddenly, a ticking bomb landed on my lap. The CBI was under my charge. The then Director of the CBI, K Vijaya Rama Rao, called on me one evening to inform me that the union Home Minister Shankar Rao Chavan, on instructions from the PMO, had directed him to submit the names under investigation to the Supreme Court — this was in response to a notice from the court,” she wrote recalling how she had turned speechless.

“Many of those under the scanner were my colleagues. I asked Rama Rao to wait and went to meet the Prime Minister to ask, ‘How can we do this to your Ministers? They are a part of your team. Call them, explain the circumstances, and let them resign, if they so wish, or sack them. But what we are doing is wrong, sir. Please think of the fallout,’ Alva recalls telling Rao.

“Are you convinced they are all innocent?” Rao, Alva says, asked her after a pause.

“How can I say, sir?” she responded.

“Then keep quiet and do not interfere!” Rao told her.

In that case, Alva says, she told Rao she would keep quiet in Parliament too. “I cannot defend this,” she said as she got up to leave.

“Don’t worry, I will defend my decision,” Rao shot back “as I left”, Alva writes.

Alva had a difficult time telling her party colleagues and politicians that she had little to do with the probe. “The CBI began investigating together with the Enforcement Directorate. I was caught in the crossfire. I got nasty phone calls from MPs and party leaders. No one would believe me when I said I had no role to play in this,” she says.

“Then why are you sitting in this ministry like a dumb doll?” a senior minister had asked her, recalled Alva in her memoirs.

Alva says she had no answers. “All I knew was that decisions were being taken at the “highest level”.

As the drama unfolded, the cabinet and the party were vertically divided, Alva says. To justify his position before the party, the Prime Minister, she writes, claimed: “This is a question of national security; the same source is funding Ministers, politicians, bureaucrats and terrorist outfits. Can I ignore the issue?”

When Parliament met during the winter session of 1995, Vajpayee had opened the debate and spoke with a mix of anger, humour and sarcasm.

Alva was told the Prime Minister would respond.

But there was a twist. She was told that as the minister in charge of the CBI, she would have to respond to the debate.

“Me? But you had said you were doing it!” Alva recalled asking Rao.

“You are the Minister in charge of the CBI. I will intervene at the end, if necessary. You will do a good job, don’t worry,” Rao is said to have assured her.

Alva prepared her reply that revolved around the argument that the matter was in court and the law would take its course. Alva also wrote that she was confident and hopeful that her colleagues would come out clean. “The Prime Minister read the additions and cut out the last sentence, saying, ‘This is not necessary!’” she says.

Alva said she stood in Parliament with the papers in her trembling hands. She heard Vajpayee say “Arey! Kiya sab kaam aapne, our khada kiya us bichari mantri ko (You are responsible for all this, and you make that poor Minister stand up here)’ as the whole House thumped the desks.

In her autobiography, Alva says it was obvious that everyone, whether named or unnamed, saw the probe as a ploy to fix or finish political opponents and critics. “Many of those charge-sheeted were denied tickets in the 1996 elections. The Hawala case dragged on — despite a change of governments. On 8 April 1997, the Delhi High Court Judge, Mohammad Shamim, acquitted LK Advani and VC Shukla, saying that there was no clinching evidence — only coded entries in private dairies that proved no trail of payments. After this, there was one common intent and resolve across all parties — to bury the Jain Hawala case.”

Dig at Sonia

In her memoirs, Alva has taken several digs at Congress president Sonia Gandhi. She has accused Sonia of running the party “arbitrarily” and claimed she was often told by Manmohan Singh that he wanted her (Alva) in his cabinet, but Sonia vetoed it.

Alva’s memoirs mention an incident when the Rao government appealed against Delhi High Court’s decision to quash complaints in the Bofors case and quotes Sonia as saying, “What does the Prime Minister want to do? Send me to jail?”

Alva then quotes Sonia as saying, “What has the Congress government (Rao regime) done for me? This house (10 Janpath) was allotted to me by the Chandra Shekhar government.”

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