Why a grieving Indira Gandhi joined Shastri’s cabinet


New Delhi : A grieving Indira Gandhi decided to join Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet after her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s death when she realised he would otherwise invite her estranged aunt Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

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So says Janak Raj Jai, then a confidant of Gandhi who saw her snub Shastri initially when he urged her to join his government on their return after immersing Nehru’s ashes in Allahabad.

Writing in his book “Strokes on Law and Democracy in India” (Universal Law Publishing Co), Jai, now 82, says he overheard Shastri tell Gandhi that one person from the Nehru family must be in his government.

According to the 612-page book released Thursday, Shastri and Gandhi were then walking together at the New Delhi railway station, with the author within earshot.

In response to Shastri’s request, a visibly angry Gandhi responded that the prime minister was making this appeal when she was in grief.

“She virtually rebuked him… Shastri must have felt very embarrassed because she said all this in my presence.

“After having snubbed Shastri, Gandhi walked swiftly leaving behind Shastri.”

The prime minister then “spoke to himself: if Indira Gandhi does not join my ministry, I shall have to ask Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit to join my cabinet”.

The author says he conveyed this to Gandhi within a short time because “in all fairness I thought that Indira Gandhi was the right person to join the cabinet”.

When Gandhi realised Pandit may become a minister, she immediately asked Jai to fix an appointment with Shastri.

She called on Shastri and told him that she would be “too glad to join his cabinet” but asked him to give her “a lighter portfolio”.

Gandhi thus became the information and broadcasting minister, before becoming the prime minister after Shastri’s death.

Jai, who served Nehru and was then in Gandhi’s office before later becoming her fierce critic, has recounted countless anecdotes from his political and legal career in the book.

– When Amitabh Bachchan wanted a job, he came to Indira Gandhi, who told Jai to write a letter to West Bengal governor Padmaja Naidu “requesting her to fix Amitabh in some suitable place. This is how Amitabh got his first job in Calcutta”.

– Jawaharlal Nehru made “the biggest mistake” of asking M.O. Mathai to narrow down the differences between Indira Gandhi and Feroze Gandhi. “Mathai was not sincere in this effort and so (the couple) maintained distance from each other.”

– Then defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon would hit his driver’s legs with a stick if he drove his car slowly.

– Indira Gandhi prevented S. Radhakrishnan from becoming the president for a second term by quietly propping up Zakir Hussain. “This is how Gandhi betrayed Radhakrishnan, her patron saint who trained her as prime minister of India.”

– Once when Nehru was going to his office, his car suffered a puncture near South Avenue in Delhi. A taxi driver who witnessed this rushed to Nehru and asked him to board his taxi, which Nehru did to reach his office. Nehru had no money to pay for the taxi but the driver didn’t mind.

– An elderly couple from Lado Sarai in south Delhi once came to Nehru’s residence with a bucket of milk, and insisted that he taste it. He obliged them.

– Nehru asked his barber, a Muslim, if he wanted anything from London. The barber said: “Sir, sometimes I come late because I have no watch. If I can have a watch, it will be very good.” Nehru bought a watch for him from London.