Book Extract: How A Sex Scandal Nailed Jagjivan Ram
NEW DELHI, (IANS) – In a book packed with riveting accounts of how important decisions have been taken by India’s prime ministers — from Rajiv Gandhi‘s waffling over Shah Bano to Manmohan Singh on the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal — a tragi-comical story recounted by the author, veteran political journalist and television commentator Neerja Chowdhury, is about Suresh Ram, the wayward son of Jagjivan Ram, one of India’s longest-serving Union ministers.
Chowdhury, in her book, ‘How Prime Ministers Decide’ (Aleph Book Company), outlines how a strange coalition of people acted in unison to expose Suresh Ram, who was having an affair with a college student from the Jat community and kept pictures of their bedroom escapades shot on a Polaroid camera in the glove compartment of his car.
The dramatis personae included the late liquor baron Kapil Mohan (who was close to both Indira Gandhi and her bete noire, the then Health Minister Raj Narain); Indira Gandhi, who could not forgive Jagjivan Ram for turning against her after the Emergency was lifted, and teaming up with the opposition; Morarji Desai, the then prime minister, who was getting insecure about Jagjivan Ram, his defense minister; Charan Singh, who was conspiring against Desai to become prime minister; Krishan Kant, a former Congressman who was Jagjivan Ram’s confidant (he later became India’s Vice-President); Raj Narain, whose henchman got the photographs that nailed Suresh Ram; and of course, Sanjay Gandhi, whose wife Maneka ran the pictures and shamed Jagjivan Ram in her ‘Surya’ magazine, darkly suggesting that it was a Chinese operation to get to India’s defense secrets.
The scandal shattered Jagjivan Ram, but it did not help Charan Singh or his ‘Hanuman’ Raj Narain (who, incidentally, had moved the Allahabad High Court against alleged electoral malpractices by Indira Gandhi and got her unseated). It was Indira Gandhi who not only effectively terminated the political ambitions of Jagjivan Ram, but also set in motion the demise of the Desai government and her dramatic comeback in 1980.
Excerpts from Neerja Chowdhury’s book, ‘How Prime Ministers Decide’:
Luck favored Indira Gandhi in the second half of 1978. The first windfall was a sex scam involving Suresh Ram, Jagjivan Ram’s son.
On 21 August 1978, there was a car accident in front of the gates of the Mohan Meakin plant in Mohan Nagar on the outskirts of Delhi. The car, a Mercedes, hit a man who died on the spot. Inside the car were a man and a young woman.
Fearful that they would be attacked by witnesses, they rushed towards the gates of the plant. The watchman, who had seen the accident, called up the office on the intercom.
Anil Bali, then the manager, came out. He recognized Suresh Ram, son of Defense Minister Jagjivan Ram, and took him inside. Suresh Ram told Bali that he was being followed and was trying to shake off his pursuers when the accident took place. His car had been tailed by two Janata Party workers, K.C. Tyagi and Om Pal Singh, proteges of Raj Narain, and they had been keeping Ram under surveillance for several days.
Raj Narain’s associate Om Pal Singh said that they had been tailing Suresh Ram because he was involved in all kinds of “nefarious activities”. They knew he used to take photographs with a Polaroid camera to keep his girlfriend, Sushma Chaudhary, a student at a Delhi college, who was from the Jat community, in check and get vicarious pleasure from the exercise.
They wanted to lay their hands on the photos and found them in the glove compartment of the car Suresh Ram was driving. As soon as Narain’s boys managed to lay their hands on photographs of Suresh Ram and his girlfriend, they rushed the pictures to their boss.
That night, Jagjivan Ram met Narain. The meeting was arranged by Kapil Mohan at his house. Though Kapil was close to Indira Gandhi, he had equally good relations with Ram and others across the political spectrum.
Narain quipped gleefully, “Babu Jagjivan Ram offered me anything I want — money, CMship of a state, anything at all in return for the photographs.” Apparently Jagjivan Ram also told him, I am going to become PM soon, let me know if you want anyone made minister.”
Despite all the blandishments offered by Ram, no deal was struck between him and Narain. Then Raj Narain handed over some of the photographs to Kapil Mohan, “around fifteen of them”, and kept the rest. “There must have been forty to fifty of them,” recalled Bali.
As soon as Narain left, Kapil Mohan turned to Bali with an urgency, “Take these photographs of Sanjay. Now. Immediately.” A surprised Bali drove to Indira Gandhi’s house in the dead of night.
The next morning the phone rang at 2, Telegraph Lane, the home of Krishan Kant, who was then a Janata Party MP. It was 9 a.m. The family was sitting at the dining table having breakfast. The phone was in Kant’s bedroom, and he went there to answer it. The call was from the defense minister’s residence. When he returned to the dining room he remarked, ” One more son is the undoing of his father.”
Ten minutes later, an official car came from the defense minister’s residence to pick him up. When he arrived at 6, Krishna Menon Marg, where Jagjivan Ram lived, he asked all those seated with him to leave the room.
When they were alone, Ram stood up, took off his Gandhi cap and placed it at Kant’s feet. My self-respect now is in your hands,” he said to Kant. Krishan Kant helped Jagjivan Ram deal with the media. Jagjivan Ram was worried because Suresh Ram’s photographs had made their way to newspaper offices. A front-page item appeared in the ‘Indian Express’. It was written by Saeed Naqvi — and it was a piece not unsympathetic to Suresh Ram.
Indian Express’ proprietor Ram Nath Goenka called Naqvi. He recalled years later, “and asked me to accompany him in the car. We sat in his Studebaker. When he used to go to meet important people, he would travel in his Studebaker. On the way, using four-letter words against Raj Narain, he said, ‘We have to help Babuji’.”
When they arrived at Jagjivan Ram’s house and went inside, “Ram was crying copiously”. Naqvi wrote his piece. “It was a command performance (by me),” he admitted ruefully.
Otherwise, the mainstream media remained silent on the sordid affair. Later, though, the matter rocked Lutyens’ Delhi — and the country. ‘Surya’ magazine, edited by Sanjay’s wife Maneka, published a two-page spread of photographs showing forty-six-year-old Suresh Ram and Sushma Chaudhary “indulging in sexual acrobatics’”. And Jagjivan Ram’s reputation nose-dived.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it was clear that the photos were part of a plan by Charan Singh and his henchman Raj Narain to entrap Jagjivan Ram’s only son, The idea was to damage Jagjivan Ram. Morarji Desai was not unhappy to see his rival cut to size
–Extracted from Neerja Chowdhury, ‘How Prime Minister’s Decide’, with permission from the publishers, Aleph Book Company, an independent publishing firm promoted by Rupa Publications India.