Mani Shankar Aiyar, who took India’s political discourse to a new low by describing Narendra Modi as “neech”, had lost his niche position in the Congress party as Rahul Gandhi began his ascent in the party organisation post his return from a visit to the United States.Nominated by Sonia Gandhi as one of the 15 members of the Communication Strategy Group in July, he tried to dominate its proceedings but was thwarted by stalwarts like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma, who cut him to size. Aiyar tried to complain to Rahul Gandhi.
To his utter dismay he discovered that the mobile number provided by the party vice president’s office to him was never responded to. He sought appointments repeatedly, but was not granted an audience by Rahul Gandhi. His suspension from the party and the rebuff which preceded on Twitter, therefore, have not come as a surprise to party insiders.
Styling himself as a “10 Janpath loyalist”, Aiyar, who was senior to Rajiv Gandhi in Doon School and later at Cambridge, refers to Mrs Sonia Gandhi as “Sonia” instead of the party’s customary “Madam Sonia”, and takes considerable pride in doing so. He had been blue-eyed boy of Rajiv Gandhi and was greatly responsible for many utterances of late Prime Minister, which had generated criticism.
He was made a Cabinet minister in 2004 and despite losing the Lok Sabha election, managed to return to Parliament as a nominated Rajya Sabha member—a distinction by itself, as no defeated politician had been so accommodated in the annals of any political party there before. In recent years, his clout had diminished, but he maintained the perception of his proximity to the Congress’ “first family”.
However, in a private conversation at the AICC headquarters with a journalist, who had asked him the difference in the perceptions of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi era, he had lamented, “Rajiv ke time par hum arsh par they, Sonia ke zamane mein farsh par hain (In Rajiv’s time I was in the sky, now I’m grounded).”
Born in Lahore, where he spent his nascent years and educated in Dehradun and Delhi, Aiyar speaks good Urdu. He skated on thin ice with his defence that Hindi not being his mother tongue he thinks in English and speaks the translation in Hindi. Public memory is short. In November 1998, as a spokesperson of Congress, he had caused embarrassment to Sonia Gandhi by describing Atal Behari Vajpayee as “nalayak”—then too he had tried to explain that away by saying that the word he had in mind in English was incompetent, which he should have said in Hindi as “ayogya”.
In the decade of the 1990s, when Congress (Tiwari) was emerging, Aiyar had described Sheila Dikshit as a “gangsters’ mole” and compared senior UP Congressman K.N. Singh of Sultanpur with the film villain of yore, who shared that name. Previous to that when Aiyar’s IFS mate and former colleague in Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), G. Parthasarathy was posted as India’s envoy to Cyprus, which was a strategic appointment considering Cyprus’ importance in the nonaligned movement at the time, Aiyar’s comment that “half a man has been posted to half a country” (as Cyprus is divided into Greek and Turkish zones) had caused chagrin in diplomatic circles.
Aiyar’s comment on Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2000 had invited the ire of Amar Singh. As minister, when he visited the Cellular Jail in Andamans and compared Veer Savarkar to Jinnah it caused embarrassment to the UPA government. There was furore in Parliament and agitation by Shiv Sena. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to disassociate his government from Aiyar’s statement.
In 2011, Aiyar tried to embarrass his colleague Ajay Maken by running down the latter’s alma mater, Delhi University’s prime campus college, Hansraj, while praising his own alma mater St Stephens College. He also mocked Kirorimal College. In the furore that ensued saw the St Stephens fraternity disassociating itself from Aiyar’s diatribe.
In October, as the process of electing a new Congress president was initiated, Aiyar had said, “I think only two people can be Congress president—mother or son”. This comment perhaps emboldened Shehzad Poonawalla, an Aiyar-like self propelled phenomenon in the Congress who gained importance due to perceived proximity to the “first family”, to come out with his recent jibes at Rahul Gandhi.
By suspending Mani Shankar Aiyar, Rahul Gandhi has made an auspicious beginning to his tenure, which is yet to formally commence. Aiyar’s “chaiwallah” comment in 2014 ought to have been stemmed at its very root—unfortunately, that was not to be. Hopefully, statesmanship bordering on sportsmanship will mark Rahul’s foray as the sixth generation Nehru-Gandhi at the helm of the world’s oldest political party. There is a need for introspection on the nadir reached in our political discourse. Politicians may like to ponder over an old Urdu couplet:
Dushmani jam karkaro, lekin, Itni gunjaish to ho,
Gar kal dost ban jayen, Sharmindana hon