Farewell, beloved friend, farewell

Print edition : October 13, 2001

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past...

- Shakespeare (1564-1616)

SOME of the radiance that shone over our lives deserted us on September 30, 2001. Madhavrao Scindia lived a rapturous life, and some of that rapture rubbed off on his friends. He was also immune from that most common and vile of human faults - envy. Most politicians are busy tidying up their past. Not Madhavrao. Yes, he was once with the Jan Sangh, but he soon got rid of that uncomfortable embrace. He never made any attempt to deny any part of his past. God gave us a neck so that we can stick it out. Most of us are too cautious or careful to do so. Madhav loved to stick his neck out. Not for trivial matters. He did so when scruples and political principles were at stake. He had political courage of a special kind. He could be obstinate, but this was not a vice. Only a part of his nature.

He was a very sensual person. Women found him irresistible. While he did not flaunt his sensuality, neither did he hide it under a bushel. We live life on a number of levels. In his case there were numerous levels. Most present-day politicians are rightly considered insufferable bores. Most are, because they have no other interest except politics. And that too the politics of the sleight of hand, the stab in the back. Literature, sport, music, good conversation have no attraction for them. Most of us are time-servers, fair-weather friends. Madhav never let friends down. Madhavrao had a multiplicity of interests. Thus he was always a wonderful companion. I sometimes pulled his leg, calling him comrade Maharaja. He found that amusing.

Madhavrao Scindia with Muhammad Yunus, Chairman, Bangladesh Gramin Bank, and Natwar Singh (centre), at a social gathering.-

His premature death came as a stunning blow to the Congress. It was a personal loss to Sonia Gandhi, who contrary to media myth, depended heavily on him in the Lok Sabha. His seniority (No. 2 after Deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed) gave him a natural authority in the House. His relations with Opposition leaders were cordial. They had confidence in him. If he gave his word, he would stick to it. The Lok Sabha sizes up a member quickly. And the judgment is unsparing. Members can see a lightweight a mile away. Scindia became a heavyweight the moment he presented his first Railway Budget in 1985. I was present in the House. It was an astonishing performance. He was the best Railway Minister we have had. Hence, not only the Congress party but the Lok Sabha as a whole will feel his absence acutely.

SCINDIA was a gifted speaker. He spent long hours preparing his Lok Sabha speeches. He tapped several sources - political, journalistic, bureaucratic, academic - while working on an important speech. When the final document was ready he would go over it again and yet again. He was at ease with Hindi and English. His last major speech in the Lok Sabha was on the Agra Summit. I made a modest contribution to it. I heard him from the distinguished visitors' gallery. He spoke with great feeling and presented his facts with subtlety and skill. He made the lamentable Jaswant Singh squirm. He made the government look a bunch of blundering novices. He used irony and sarcasm with masterly precision.

I do not generally subscribe to the doctrine of indispensability. Nevertheless, exceptions there are. Madhavrao Scindia's place will take a long time to be adequately filled. In some ways he was unique. Thirty consecutive years in Parliament. Nine elections, nine victories. He had only a lone dicey election, that of 1998. That year I won my Bharatpur seat by 68,000 votes. Madhav carried Gwalior by, for him, a wafer thin 23,000. The other eight he won by lakhs.

What went wrong in 1998? Three days before polling he called me on the phone - the Maratha needs the help of the Jat. Could I come over for a couple of days to Gwalior? I did. Sure enough, the Jats had decided not to vote for him. Why? He neglected them, said their leaders. Was this the time to bring this up, I asked. And against a man who had done so much for them and Gwalior since 1971. I threw Bharatpur in their faces and that did the trick. They said they looked up to me. Bharatpur for them was what Udaipur was for Rajputs. They would vote for Madhavrao Scindia. They did. He won.

The last time I sat next to him was on September 27, 2001. Atal Behari Vajpayee had called a meeting of Opposition leaders to brief them on Afghanistan/Pakistan/America. I sat between Madhav and Manmohan Singh. Madhavrao intervened to ask - what would happen to the nuclear button if Gen. Musharraf was overthrown? Very pertinent question indeed, and terribly important.

The next day we spoke on the phone about the U.S. military plane that had landed at the New Delhi Airport. We had a common approach. He, nevertheless, wondered if Messrs. Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh were tilting too much to one side.

I HEARD of his death in Gurdaspur in Punjab. Motilal Vora, Ambika Soni, Amarinder Singh and the entire Punjab leadership was there. The attendance and response at the public meeting had boosted our morale. The Congress was set to replace the Akalis in the coming Assembly elections. We were on the way to lunch when Ambika Soni received a call from the AICC office on her cellphone. The plane carrying Scindia to Kanpur had crashed. Shock. Disbelief. Despair. Hope. Anxiety. Then my cellphone rang. Sheila Dixit said Madhav was on the plane with several mediapersons. The plane had crashed. Survival was unlikely.

We flew back to New Delhi from Pathankot. Before taking off, Madhavrao's death was confirmed. It was a miserable flight. Most of the time we sat in silence.

On October 4, 2001, in Gwalior, he was confined to the flames in the presence of a lakh and a half people. An equal number had filed past his body on October 2 and 3. I accompanied his body to Gwalior Motilal Vora and Mohsina Kidwai too escorted the flag-draped coffin.

The outpouring of grief is genuine and sustained. It is nation-wide. It cuts across caste, religion, region. The poor and the disabled turned up in large numbers to pay tearful homage. As did the former rulers of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kashmir, Patiala. And Sonia Gandhi, who between September 30 and October 4 spent almost 24 hours a day with the family. The government too paid Madhavrao Scindia a glowing tribute. This was an act of largeheartedness and would have pleased Madhav.

Why this flood of sympathy, sorrow, sadness? Madhavrao Scindia was a very special person and won the hearts of the Indian people. The slogan that was chanted when his body left for the cremation round summed it all. " Har Dil Pe Nam Likkh Dia Madhav Rao Scindia." The rough translation is: On every heart is written the name Madhavrao Scindia.

K. Natwar Singh, the chairman of the Congress(I) foreign affairs committee, has been Ambassador in Pakistan and Minister of State for External Affairs.

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