How the family romped home

A few passages from All These Years (Penguin Books, 1991), Raj Thapar’s candid insider account of court life in the age of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi may be relevant in today’s irreverent age, when an outsider Prime Minister is questioning the fundamentals of entitlement.

“It was within ten days of Nehru’s death that

Indira rang Romesh [Thapar] one morning, sounding desperate. Meher Chand Khanna, the then Housing Minister, had apparently sent his minions to ask her if they could remove the furniture and that she plan to vacate the [Teen Murti] House as soon as possible. She was alarmed. ‘What shall I do?’ she asked, almost in tears. He told her to sit tight, take her time, and he would see that no one dare throw her out…

“Teen Murti House seemed to have a life quite independent of the occupants. Rumour had it that Shastri’s wife declined to use it as a residence because Nehru’s ghost must haunt the rambling structure since the kriya ceremony had not been performed and his spirit not been released in the way it should have been…No way could Shastri be persuaded to step into a defiled space. It was not a question of contaminating his soul, but of putting an uncertainty over his future, his political future.

“Meanwhile Indira called a meeting of a hundred citizens, from the big industrialists downwards, to form the Nehru Memorial Trust. She co-opted Romesh on to the panel of original trustees…The Fund was created, Teen Murti was dedicated to the nation and the ‘people of India’ and new expansion plans were put into operation…”

What Raj Thapar, with a charming measure of feigned innocence, described in her memoirs was a well-executed and ruthless land-grab operation. First, Indira Gandhi is tearfully outraged that she is asked to vacate a public building that served as Nehru’s official residence for 17 years. Encouraged by her courtiers, she is determined to not lose control of a property she now views as an inheritance.

 Therefore, after seeking sympathy that naturally comes to any family after a bereavement, her supporters whisper that the unrefined Lal Bahadur Shastri is not fit to occupy a place that housed the great Nehru.

The point of this psychological warfare is two-fold. Shastri must be intimidated into believing that it would be sacrilegious for him to move into Teen Murti. In the process, there is a distinction made between Teen Murti House, the Prime Minister’s official residence, and Teen Murti House, the residence of Nehru. Once Shastri is bullied into not moving into Teen Murti, it loses its undefined status as the PM’s official residence. It comes to be associated solely with Nehru.

The dynasty then moves fast. It sets up the mandataory trust, arm-twists the industrialists it otherwise despises into making handsome contributions and creates the conditions for Teen Murti House to become a family shrine. True, Indira didn’t get to live in Teen Murti House—I guess she didn’t factor the possibility of her becoming PM in less than two years—but at least a principle was established: the dynasty doesn’t relinquish real estate that easily.

A casual look at the map would indicate the extent of land-grab. Teen Murti houses the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library that is nominally under the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India. It was deemed sufficiently important for the Congress dispensation for its tenured director to be appointed in the interregnum between the last date of polling and the declaration of results in May 2014. The Director is no doubt an eminent historian, but the manner of his appointment was distinctly dodgy.

Then there is the  Indira Gandhi Memorial at the junction of Safdarjung Road and Akbar Road—two Lutyens’ bungalows that also doubled up as the unofficial headquarters of the Congress(I) in the last years of the Narasimha Rao Government, before Sonia assumed charge of the party. There is also the single bungalow office of the Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Trust on Willingdon Crescent.

The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation is located on Raisina Road, on premises that were initially given to the Congress to use as its permanent headquarters. The Congress remains exactly where it was in a spacious Akbar Road bungalow, but the new building has been transferred to the dynasty’s trust. The same fate would have befallen the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts that had proposed Sonia Gandhi for a lifelong role. But with a change of government, this institution can perhaps be salvaged and made to play the role it was set up for.

And this is not to forget the case of Herald House, the prime property on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg that now serves as a passport office. The irony of the government paying rent to a family-controlled trust that secured government land at subsidised rate for the ostensible purpose of bringing out a publication is inescapable.

Maybe someone should do an audit of the value of the real estate in Delhi that is under the direct or indirect control of the Gandhi family. The nation, it would seem, owes this family everything and it has repaid the debt by entrusting prime real estate to institutions set up by them. And this does not include the government-provided residences in Lutyens’ Delhi—some, no doubt, legitimate—to all of Nehru’s remaining heirs.

Is it any wonder that Ajit Singh, the son of Charan Singh, believes he is being short-changed by a government that views government buildings as a hotel—where you check in but must also check out? The Modi Government is being pilloried because it doesn’t view the state as private property.

Swapan Dasgupta

Free Press Journal