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Mainstream, VOL LII No 11, March 8, 2014

Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi: Standard-bearer of Congress’ Core Values

Tuesday 11 March 2014, by Neerja Chowdhury



He was the quintessential backroom boy of Indian politics, and he came into his own during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s premeirship.

Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi, who died on March 2 in a Kota hospital after an illness, was Narasimha Rao’s MOS in the Prime Minister’s Office in 1993-96. It was a period of far-reaching changes, even though Rao handled them in his inimitable low-key style.

The period was marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a unipolar world, which posed challenges of a new kind for India and the economy opened up under Rao’s stewardship, with Dr Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister.

He would recount how Dr Manmohan Singh was appointed the Finance Minister. In his condolence message after Bhuvanesh Chatur-vedi’s death the Prime Minister said that he had lost “a personal friend”.

In 1991, it was very courageous, Chaturvedi used to say, for PV to reverse the economic policies of the previous 40 years, with their focus on socialism.

Soon after he took over in mid-1991, one of the first tasks before Narasimha Rao was to find a Finance Minister who would be suitable to lead the country into a new era of liberalisation and globalisation. He held consultations with R. Venkataraman and they zeroed in on two names—those of I.G. Patel and Manmohan Singh. I.G. Patel turned down the offer. Manmohan Singh became the Finance Minister.

Chaturvedi said that there was an under-standing between the PM and his FM. The direction used to come from the PM and Manmohan Singh was able to translate it into action. Dr Singh’s personal image ensured that things went smoothly in those early years of the structural changes that had to be effected.

Chaturvedi used to say often that had Narasimha Rao continued to run a minority government, at which he was so adept, he might not have faced some of the troubles that he encountered.

Rao relied on Chaturvedi for political inputs. Chaturvedi kept tabs on a host of decisions that needed to be made, like retiring Governors and ambassadors, and initiated “exercises” on who could replace them in “good time” so that these decisions were not left till the last moment.

And he was privy to a lot of the behind-the- scenes drama that surrounded decision-making at the top in the “PV’ years.

Among other things, Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi played a role in the makings of R. Venkataraman and Shankar Dayal Sharma as Rashtrapatis, and K.R. Narayanan as the Vice President.

PV brought back into the Congress Pranab Mukherjee, who had formed his own party in 1986, and made him the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. But what is not so well known is this it was Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi who was the link between the two.

Every Prime Minister has his coterie, without which he cannot function. It comprises trusted men and women, who are his eyes and ears and execute tasks on his behalf. Indira Gandhi relied on P.N. Haksar, a figure Chaturvedi knew and respected. Also his hero, and one who influenced him, was former Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon, in whose memory he held annual lectures in his home town of Kota.

An advisor, an input-giver, sometimes an executor of the PM’s decisions, sometimes Chaturvedi was also a participant in some of the dramatic moves that were made on behalf of the Prime Minister.

Rao wanted to tackle the militancy in Punjab, and had decided that the way to do it would be to hold free and fair elections in the troubled State. He was obviously in touch with the militants through the back channels.

Chaturvedi had once related a lovely story about how “PV” sent him to Punjab to talk to some of the militants to try and bring them around. As a journalist, I had made notes of it as he talked, and it is best told in his own word.

“One day, PV called me at 7.30 in the morning to ask me to come to 3, RCR (the Prime Minister’s residence at 3, Race Course Road). He called me himself. He asked me, ‘How long will you take to reach here?’ I said, ‘Half-an-hour.‘

“He told me, ‘Punjab maen extremists se baat karni hai.’ Then he asked me, ‘Ghar par to nahin bologe.’ I said, ‘No.’ At this stage I became very emotional. ‘Ünko meri marne ki khabar milegi,jaane ki nahi,‘ I said. PV reacted by saying, ‘Don’t talk to me like this.’ He told me he had asked other Ministers, but they had avoided going.

“Then he told me, ‘You talk to them (militants) on holding elections and assure them that there will be no rigging. You won’t succeed in one go, but we will have to make many efforts to bring them around.’

 “The he asked me, ‘How long will you take to reach home?’

I said, ‘Half-an-hour.’ I caught a three-wheeler to go home. Neither did he offer me a car nor did I ask for one. He told me that once I reached home, someone would come and meet me, and ‘he will tell you what is to be done.’

“I reached home and sure enough, half-an hour later, a man came. He was clean shaven and called himself Samuel. He told me to arrive in Amritsar the next morning, and he would meet me there. This must have been around 9.30 am.

“That night I took out my suit, an imported one, and wore it the next morning instead of my usual khadi attire to avoid attracting attention to myself. I took a morning flight and I paid for my ticket myself.

“He met me at the Rajasansi airport. He was driving himself, I think it was a Maruti or a Fiat. We drove out for around 40 kms, about an hour’s drive, to a village in the interior. He parked the car at the back of the house. He did not tell me the name of the village. I was silent all through. I did not display any curiosity.

“He did not take me into the house through the backdoor. Instead he asked me to climb over the back wall of the house. We landed in the angan of the house. I thought to myself, ‘PV nemujheacha parkha.’ We walked into a room. One Sikh was sitting there on a mattress on the floor. He, I discovered later, was a relative of Bhindranwale. We must have started talking around 11 am, and we went on till 4 pm. He gave me tea but no food.

“He said it went against his dharma to talk to a Congressman. He narrated the whole history of how the police had killed people in encounters in Punjab, and repeated that the government would have to concede Khalistan.

“I kept listening. Then I said to him, ‘I have heard you. Now you listen to me.’ I said I had come to Amritsar as a Congress observer. I agreed, I said to him, that the police had committed excesses in Punjab, and many inno-cent people had died. And that Indira Gandhi had been very sad about having to do ‘Operation Bluestar’, and that I knew this from personal knowledge. But that she had paid a personal price for it .. ‘Ab kya khoon-kharaba hee hota rahega?’ I asked him. He said they too did not want the khoon-kharaba to continue.. You don’t want it, we don’t want it, i said, then we will have to talk further.

“He then told me that we would have to talk to all the five groups amongst the militants, and that if the government talked to them with ‘imaandari’, it was possible to find a way out.

“I then asked where should the talks be held. He replied they could be held anywhere but Delhi. ‘We do not trust what you will do to us in Delhi.’

“He then asked whether other leaders who had been talking to them behind-the-scenes had the PM’s authority behind them. I told him I would check this and let him know. At this stage he looked quite happy.

“When I was leaving, he embraced me. All the pistols strapped on his body started to tickle my ribs. I laughed and said, ‘So you have come armed with all these.‘ The atmosphere relaxed. I asked him, ‘Kitnae mare?’ ‘Maine to 40-50 mare honge, par marwaye bahut hain.’”

Chaturvedi came back to Delhi. Much later the IB chief had told him how they had kept tabs on him on his Mission Amritsar. ”On my return I called PV. He remarked, ‘Aa gaye bach ke?’”

The meeting, according to Bhuvanesh Chatur-vedi, had turned out to be an ‘icebreaker’. Finally the process led to elections in Punjab, and to normalcy. Officially the militants did not participate in the elections that followed, but they had put up candidates as independents or backed independents. The Akalis too had not participated in that poll.

Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi executed Narasimha Rao’s political vision.

Even though he had been close the Rajiv Gandhi, he walked into the sunset after Sonia Gandhi took over as the Congress President.

Chaturvedi was a man completely dedicated to the Congress party, a man of rare integrity who lived very simply even when he wielded immense power in Rao’s PMO and must have had to withstand all kinds of pressures.

He represented the old and core values of the Congress so difficult to come by today.

The author is a senior journalist and political commentator whose columns regularly appear in different publications.

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