Published: 26th November 2020
Wajahat Habibullah at OLF 2020: Rajiv was taken aback when news came about Babri Masjid being opened
The former bureaucrat gives us an insider account of his years serving with Rajiv Gandhi and the conversations that ensued in that period
Many think that Rajiv Gandhi was the one who opened the locks of the Babri Masjid and many see this as an act to control the outrage from the Shah Bano Case. But that's not the case, said Wajahat Habibullah, former bureaucrat and author of the book My Years with Rajiv: Triumph and Tragedy, "He was on tour when the decision came and he was taken aback. He told me it was not his order. But he never denied it. He has, even later, taken responsibility for mistaken decisions that he was not responsible for. This was a characteristic of his," said the former bureaucrat. Habibullah was part of the second session of the ninth edition of the Odisha Literary Festival 2020 which is being held virtually. The session also had former JNU professor and political scientist Dr Pushpesh Pant, TNIE Editorial Director Prabhu Chawla and journalist and author Kaveree Bamzai.
Habibullah not only worked with former PM Indira Gandhi and subsequently Rajiv, but was also his schoolmate. "We were not really very close friends even though our families were close. I was rather more close to his younger brother Sanjay. The family connection continued and we would meet occasionally until he entered politics. I was in the PMO working with his mother. We were brought up the same way — the Awadhi framework. Then we went to the same school. So I understood him very well. I later realised that I had certain discussions with him that revealed some of his characteristics which no one else knew or few others knew. Thus I felt I should write it down," said Wajahat Habibullah.
The former PM, who was assassinated in 1991, is still regarded as an elitist of sorts by some circles. Talking about the 'Doon School effect' in Rajiv Gandhi's politics and answering Prabhu Chawla's question on whether Rajiv was guided by his Doon School mates, Habibullah said that he (Rajiv) was open to ideas. "He might have been more comfortable talking to the Doon School friends but he was, in general, an open-minded person who was always open to ideas. But that was his strength and his weakness at the same time," he added.
Answering Dr Pant's question on the impacts of Rajiv Gandhi's administrative reforms, Habibullah said that Rajiv did see the faults in the system but was not able to come up with a solution. "He experimented with the idea of having parliamentary secretaries and not secretaries but that did not quite work out. The PMO was, in fact, more integrity by the end of his tenure than when he started. He had clear intentions to change the bureaucratic structure but he wasn't able to implement those with the exception of the Panchayati Raj. But it was meant to replace the existing District Administration which it has not done," said Habibullah.
The Shah Bano Case is one issue that comes up every time one discusses Rajiv Gandhi. But Habibullah had a very different take on it. "There was an outcry by the bulk of the Muslim clergy. Looking back, the mistake that I made then, the mistake that MJ Akbar also made, was to believe that the voice of the clergy was the voice of the community. And this was only because the clergy was the only vocal element of the Muslim community at that point. Nevertheless, I had advised, for administrative reasons, that the PMO or the government should not interfere with the decisions of the Supreme Court of India," he said. "If there was a mistaken decision, the parties were free to go with a review appeal. MJ Akbar's view, also based on the same presumption, was that the Muslim community has been his (Rajiv Gandhi) ardent supporter and he can't seem to show himself as being separate from the community. He was part of this community as much he was part of any other Indian community. This is the argument, I think, that won over Rajiv," he added.
Discussing Rajiv Gandhi's relations with the then President Gyani Dayal Singh, Habibullah said that Singh felt Rajiv was not treating him with respect. "Gyani Dayal Singh felt that Rajiv was not treating him with respect. Not only as the President of India but also as an elder and senior member in the party. I do remember that he intended to not be too respectful to Gyani Dayal Singh. And it is my impression that Gyaniji resented that," he added.
Shifting focus from the former Prime Minister and answering Dr Pant's question on the Assam and Mizo Accords and why it did not go the way it should have gone, Habibullah said that in conceding the demands of the major communities it triggered a host of other demands. "The Assam Accord led to the escalation of other separatist tendencies which were already rampant in the area. This resulted in the creation of separate states in the Northeast," he said.