Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar Image Credit: IANS

Indian National Congress leader and former union minister Mani Shankar Aiyar set the cat among the pigeons at the launch of his book Memoirs of a Maverick: The First Fifty Years when he said that Narasimha Rao was the country’s first ‘BJP prime minister.’

In his autobiography Aiyar opens up about not finding place in the Congress Working Committee, his relationship with the Gandhi family, and why he thinks Rajiv Gandhi is India’s most misunderstood prime minister.

The diplomat turned politician also shares an in-depth account of his years in Karachi as the Consul-General where he was the Bhutto family neighbour.

‘The people of Pakistan are not the enemy, on the contrary, they are our single biggest asset,’ he tells Jyotsna Mohan for Gulf News. Excerpts from the interview 

Q: Was your relationship with Pakistan personal?

A: Of course, it was personal. Three of the most impressionable years of my life were spent as the Consul General in Karachi and my wife said at an early stage of our stay there that ‘is this an enemy country’ and that question reverberated in my mind all through my stay in Karachi. But it has a much larger implication.

I think we should recognise that the Pakistani people are not the enemies of India, that the Pakistani people are in fact our single biggest asset and you need to leverage their goodwill for determining state to state relations.

Q: The other aspect that has prominence is your book is your relationship with Rajiv Gandhi and how it evolved over time.

A: He just followed what you call mummy’s direction after his brother was killed. So, when it was announced that this airlines pilot would be the prime minister of India, I was utterly amazed. Then came the Sikh Program and I never forgave him for that and then later I saw from very close his evolving as the prime minister and my scepticism grew into admiration.

Q: You find no place in the Congress Working Committee anymore. So, are you done with the Congress the way the Congress seems to be done with you?

A: I am not done with the Congress; the Congress perhaps is not interested in furthering my political career anymore, but I became a Nehruvian socialist at a very young age and I continue to be imbued with the philosophy of Jawahar Lal Nehru. And as one, I have a place in the Congress pantheon but if it’s denied to me and I must be among the worshippers of the pantheon, then so be it.

Mani Shankar Aiyar interview YouTube/ Jyotsna Mohan

Q: I quote you from the book, ‘My life in politics rose in spurts to its highs and then sputtered out to the point where I find myself sidelined by Rajiv Gandhi’s heirs and marginalised even in the party’. Where does this leave your relationship with Sonia Gandhi?

A: Sonia ji was present throughout the book launch. She had warned me in advance that she might walk out after half an hour, but she was so fascinated that she kept smiling and nodding. So, it would appear that at a personal level my relationship with at least Sonia Gandhi is intact but I have had such little acquaintance with Rahul and Priyanka that I just can’t claim to know them, and I believe they don’t know me.

But there is a new generation that has taken over the party under the leadership of a man who is only about six months younger than me. So maybe I shouldn’t be regarded as Jurassic Park. But in a political party you have to live with what a leadership decides and not allow yourself to wallow in self-pity. So, I continue my life and I have the freedom to speak and to write.

Image Credit: Supplied

Q: Do you remain unapologetically unapologetic?

A: That is a very good statement, I wish I had made it, but I will borrow it from you. I think the greatest asset a human being can have is the independence of thought, independence of speech and freedom of expression. I hope our constitution will continue to guarantee this to us in this very difficult period through which our country is passing.