Inside the world's best-dressed subcultures

Inside the world’s best-dressed subcultures

Written by Els van der Plas, CNN

This is an edited excerpt from a new book called “Fashion Tribes: Global Street Style” by Daniele Tamagni, published by Abrams.

Els van der Plas is the former director of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development and general director of the Dutch National Opera and Ballet in Amsterdam.

“Tell me the truth, boy, am I losing you for good/We used to kiss all night, but now there’s just no use.” So sings American pop star Solange Knowles, surrounded by well-dressed African men in the music video for her hit song Losing You (2012).

These are Congolese dandies, sapeurs, winding up in a popular music video that won awards for song, video, and styling. Inspired by photographer Daniele Tamagni’s book “Gentlemen of Bacongo,” a photographic classic that portrays the men’s long tradition of public fashion, Solange, with the contribution of Tamagni and Dixy Ndalla, picked up the sapeurs and their style in London and Cape Town. And soon after, African street culture and its protagonists ended up in a video watched by more than 12 million people.

Often, fashion is not created and defined in ateliers, but on the street. Think of postcolonial Kinshasa, London in the sixties, and Tokyo in the eighties. At those times, in those places, being cool was the thing to do. And many of the people who lived there made it their goal to be trendsetters. Some wanted attention, social status, and respect, while others wanted to express their own political views and artistic drives.

In its postcolonial period, during the 1960s and ’70s, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, was a hopeful place but desperately poor. Its people had nothing and rebelled against their colonial masters, yet at the same time, they—especially the men—used the colonial look to acquire social status and draw attention.

They exaggerated the Western suit, using clothing to confront their past and gain good standing—honor, respect—in an uncertain future. They called themselves the “sapeurs.” The acronym SAPE stands for La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People).

In the sixties, London was relatively rich, and in those postwar years it had a young population that wanted to express its political and social opinions and revolt against the older generation. To that end they created their own look and style, as well as an inspiring music scene to go with it.

In the eighties, Tokyo youth rebelled against the establishment by choosing to spend a few hours a week dressed as rock ‘n’ rollers with transistor radios on a blocked-off two-lane road, effectively denying access for many other people. They lived in a fantasy world that revolved around music, looking good, and being cool.

By dressing up and showing off in flashy outfits on the street, these people got attention, prestige, and power in what were often very poor neighborhoods. At the same time, they inspired other young people to express themselves creatively and independently. And this was frequently accompanied by social and political messages as well

Looking good, being cool, or making a statement (or a combination of the three) and the search for respect and identity are elements shared by these people worldwide. They use the street as a theater, a public catwalk — or a T, as the Africans call it—a boulevard on which to parade. Artistic motives play a major role in this public form of life; at the end of the day, standing out means attracting the gaze.

Reflecting the gaze

What many of these subcultures have in common is that they imitate the West, but with a twist. They look back, as it were. Just as the colonists gazed at them for centuries, they now gaze back. They use, ridicule, criticize, and honor them. Take, for example, the aggressive-looking metalheads who populate the Botswana rock scene—cowboys wearing leather suits and silver buckles in the African heat. Tamagni wants to record the clothing, the style, and the codes of their context and environment.

The metalheads are mostly youths from poor backgrounds who want to show that they are someone. They mix eighties heavy metal and Western cowboy style with African accents, which results in a tough, cool, and intimidating demeanor. As with the sapeurs, it is a matter of appearance, identity, and gaining respect. And at the same time it is a challenging of social and cultural stereotypes and prejudices, especially for the female metalheads, whose appearances tend to violate the established norms.

Fashion is not created and defined in ateliers, but on the street.

Some subcultures were picked up by the West, but perhaps in unexpected ways. As previously mentioned, Solange Knowles appropriated the Congolese street style for her music video, which was filmed in various townships in Cape Town with the help of Congolese sapeurs and Tamagni. It is the West looking back to those who look back and then adapt that look to their own taste. Subculture becomes mainstream.

Knowles was inspired by the music video for Janet Jackson’s “Got ’til It’s Gone” (1997), which, although it was set in Cape Town during the apartheid period, was actually filmed in Los Angeles. Inspired by images from African photographers Seydou Keïta (1921-2001), Samuel Fosso (1962-), and J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014), we see echoes of those images in the mise-en-scène of her video. Photographs of subcultures inspire fashion, and political messaging becomes a trending topic.

Embracing tradition

On the other side of the world, the opposite is happening. In Bolivia, women are opting for their own tradition. They wear traditional Bolivian clothing and are choosing the same profession as many of their men—wrestling. The male wrestlers dress like Batman and other Western comic-book heroes; the women go for traditional attire. Their motives are the same—to be seen, to establish a place for themselves, to create identity.

In fact, in Bolivia, women used to function on the very margin of the margin; they stood behind their men, who, coming from a deprived background, chose wrestling and made something out of it by dressing as superheroes. Yet it’s the women—proudly in action in the ring and with their men—on which Tamagni focuses. For these women, the code is tradition. The way they look attests to courage and an awareness of history.

For these women, the code is tradition. The way they look attests to courage and an awareness of history.

Clearly, for many of these groups, a focus on the West is important. However, Tamagni always shows that each culture is unique and significant in its local context. For example, even the Cubans he photographed on the streets of Havana wear T-shirts and other items from well-known brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Nike, Louis Vuitton, and Armani, despite the fact that the average income there is around twenty dollars per month.

But Cubans have little more than their bodies. As with the sapeurs, their bodies are the only things that they can be certain of, and so they decorate them with Western brands as a show of status and parade them through the streets.

Tamagni photographs these people with respect for who they are, where they live, and what they dream of for the future. He spends days with them to gain their trust, which allows him to take the photographs he wants. And while his subjects’ clothes make a statement, the environment often plays a leading part in the complete image.

A dilapidated house, a backyard with clothing hanging on a wash line, a barking dog running around—it all shows that ordinary life, their reality, is never far away. But, at the same time, it does not stop them from dreaming and hoping for a bright future. You never know, you might end up in an American pop star’s music video.

Read Full Story

The Vajpayee years - Cover Story News

The Vajpayee years – Cover Story News

If Politics is an exercise in the rhetoric of posturing, it is also the art of forgetting the lessons of history. In NDA’s hour of conflict over the intolerance debate, it would serve the government and the BJP to remember the lessons of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era and adopt his Idea of India. His style, substance, intellectual and aesthetic depth, and the wry sense of humour with which he handled victories and defeats alike hold lessons to follow. After retirement from politics, Vajpayee spends his time in a quiet, leafy enclave of Lutyens’ Delhi. But his presence and vision continue to be relevant at a time when the BJP’s first standalone government is trying to find its feet in governance and the adversarial arena of statecraft.

Vajpayee believed in an India where the common man triumphed by example. Almost two decades before Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of a tea-seller’s son becoming the nation’s supreme leader, Vajpayee had spoken on August 15, 1996, “It is a symbol of strength and the potential of the Indian democracy that the son of a school teacher hailing from the dusty and smoky environs of a village has the privilege of unfurling the Tricolour from the ramparts of the Red Fort on this auspicious Independence Day.”

Prabhu Chawla @1987

He can be called India’s most secular Hindu, history’s most inclusive nationalist, or the greatest leader the country has ever had who could reconcile geopolitical contradictions with astute diplomacy and elegant intelligence. In an interview in January 2004, Vajpayee had explained to me ‘swaraj’ in a nutshell: “Yes, I am (a swadeshi). But the difference between swadeshi and videshi has narrowed considerably.” Yet he has been always conscious of being an Indian first. His motto-“a sense of oneness, a sense of Indianness, requires to be created among our youth to halt the mad rush towards an imported five-star video culture”-can direct his party to reconcile India with Bharat.

More than a decade after he stepped down as the Prime Minister, Vajpayee is still known as the “Great Connector”. Connectivity is the essence of harmony, an ancient law that has helped the evolution of cultures and civilisations. It has been Vajpayee’s signature-in politics by achieving consensus and respect from both allies and opponents; in governance through linking India by creating a vast new network of highways and envisaging linking the country’s rivers; and for the common man by heralding the telecom revolution engineered by his Lakshman, Pramod Mahajan. The India he envisaged is a celestial allegory of the cosmos, where different galaxies existed without conflict, each one containing its own solar systems, where planets orbited the Centre, obeying natural laws. It is also an allegory for different intellectual universes of varied cultural and socio-political opinions, which he enjoined with the quiet charisma of his paternal presence.

Vajpayee’s greatest virtue is to have become the connector who created an image of India in the world as a harmonious whole. He also connected the world with India, through his visits to the US, Russia, China as well Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia to ink economic deals and push neighbourly ties. Integrating India is Vajpayee’s main legacy. But India had to become a power by itself, breaking away from its moribund socialist past which made the poor poorer and the rich richer, where the economy and society were controlled by a cabal of the rich and powerful, who influenced government policies.

Connectivity is part of ancient Indian heritage, achieved by glorious empires like Ashoka’s and Chandragupta’s, which made Bharatvarsha the hub of commerce by building a vast grid of roads, rivers, canals and ports and helped commerce and industry. Determined to upgrade the country’s infra-structure, destroyed by years of colonialism, Vajpayee pulled General Khanduri out of retirement and appointed him the minister in charge of road transport and highways in 2000. The Golden Quadrilateral-the largest highway project in India-came into being in 2001, and was finished under the budget with 21 km of roads having been built daily. Mahatma Gandhi, who said India lives in its villages, was an inspiration for Vajpayee-both as a selfless emancipator and reformer. The Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana linking 5 lakh villages to cities took off. The connectivity that followed increased immigration from the hinterlands to cities, offering millions of villagers a dream. Prosperity and semi-urbanisation helped in obfuscating entrenched prejudices such as caste and backwardness in education. The Sarva Siksha Abhiyan gave education a much-needed impetus.

The Delhi Metro, which began under Vajpayee, changed the way the common man travelled in the Capital, connecting slums, non-glamorous colonies and upscale areas, thereby becoming the great equaliser. The modern is being replicated successfully all over the country: SEZs flourished, connecting expansion with results. The NDA 1 government lowered interest rates to boost the economy. The foundation Vajpayee’s economic policies laid enabled Manmohan Singh to claim the title of India’s Reform Man.

This is because Vajpayee understood his connection with India as a holistic covenant. He grew with India. He didn’t become the Prime Minister because of hierarchical reason, heading a state or an important Union ministry. He is India’s true face even today. At the age of 35, his admirers called Vajpayee Hriday Samrat. Even before the age of India’s television blitzkrieg made its brash entrance, he had acquired a mass following in major parts of India-I remember walking for three miles to listen to Vajpayee’s speech in a trans-Yamuna area in Delhi. He is a man who wins both the mind and the heart-a symbol of power, rarely feared but always revered.

Neither break nor bend

Over the last decade, Parliament has become a battlefield of invective and noisy grandstanding, to block development to score political points. As a parliamentarian, Vajpayee’s record has been unparalleled both as a resplendent orator and an uncompromising democrat. He is still known for his generosity cutting across political lines. Although he had clashed with Jawaharlal Nehru over Jammu and Kashmir when he was still a young MP, Vajpayee’s speech after Panditji’s death was perhaps the most moving tribute anyone has paid him, saying “a flame has vanished into the Unknown.” Later, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi would throw him in jail during the Emergency. He underwent surgery and suffered from extreme back pain but refused to be released on medical grounds. “Hum toot sakte hain jhuk nahi sakte (we can break but cannot bend),” he would say.

Vajpayee’s belief that India should neither break nor bend is the thrust of his personal and political philosophy. He realised that consensus is the key to economic reform, considering that he ran a smorgasbord of a government, populated by colleagues with divergent opinions. Coalition dharma was his mantra. “We are not the initiators of reform. We are carrying forward a process that was started by the Narasimha Rao government, and continued by two United Front governments. But we do take the credit for having broadened, depended and accelerated the reform process,” he told me in an interview. Three senior politicians who became Prime Ministers-Narasimha Rao, Chandrashekhar and Vajpayee used to confabulate often on national issues, exchanging views and advices. The spirit of democracy and gentlemanly conduct was one of Vajpayee’s traits.

One morning, sometime in mid-July 1998, I had gone to 7, Race Course Road to meet him. Vajpayee was with four of his ministers, who were forcefully advocating action against Sonia Gandhi. He sat silently like a contemplative Buddha, his chin sunk on his chest and his eyes partially closed. When they finished, he raised his head and looked at me, ignoring his companions. “Editorji,” he addressed me by the nickname he used for me. “Aise karenge toh phir Congress aur BJP mein farak kya hoga (If we do this, what is the difference between the Congress and the BJP)?” It provided a window to Vajpayee’s thinking: no vindictiveness, but adhere to the letter of the law.

The five qualities of Vajpayee can form the manifesto of today’s political conduct-one who inspires, delegates but also takes charge, accommodates, gives respect where it is due, and has a great vision. Even if he had strong reservations on any issue of policy or politics, Vajpayee was a magnanimous leader, never insecure about his position, always refraining from personal attacks on his adversaries. These are marks of a true visionary.

Vajpayee was as comfortable with foreign policy nuances as he was with domes-tic political challenges. When the post of the Indian ambassador to the WTO fell vacant in 1999, foreign minister Jaswant Singh pushed Hardeep Singh Puri’s name, little knowing that the decision rested with the Commerce ministry. When commerce minister Murasoli Maran protested. Vajpayee did not take a moment to withdraw the decision and allow Maran to appoint K.M. Chandrasekhar instead. His respect for women power is evident in a different instance. In 2001, Lalit Mansingh was to retire as foreign secretary and Kanwal Sibal, then India’s ambassador to France, was one of the front-runners for the post and Jaswant Singh’s first choice.

Singh got his appointment cleared by Vajpayee, although it meant superseding over half-a-dozen others senior to Sibal. An officer from Vajpayee’s trusted circle pointed out that the Chokila Iyer’s claim for the job in New Delhi had been ignored. Vajpayee called for her file to study her profile. Iyer got the posting, and India its first woman foreign secretary.

A dramatic defeat but a moral victory

Vajpayee is perhaps the first South Asian leader to create a patent ideology of his own Vajpayeeism. While Marx and Mao may have provoked the masses to start bloody revolutions, Vajpayee could work wonders by steering a government comprising 25 parties which had hardly anything in common barring a noun: NDA.

The correct use, instead of its misuse, of power was ingrained in Vajpayee. When his government fell in 1996 after 13 days in power, Vajpayee told his political foes in Parliament, “We bow down to the strength of majority. We assure you that till the time the work that we started in national interest is not completed, we shall not rest. Respected Speaker, I am going to the President to tender my resignation.” It was a democratic defeat, but a moral victory. And Vajpayee was vindicated when the BJP formed the government after winning the next elections in less than two years. In May 1998, the Vajpayee government pulled off nuclear tests in Pokhran, named Operation Shakti, catching the big powers by surprise.

An uncompromising patriot, he declared India a full-fledged nuclear state, emphasising that there is “no compromise on national security; we will exercise all options, including nuclear, to protect security and sovereignty”. He took Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ forward by adding ‘Jai Vigyan’.

As with all Indian prime ministers, Vajpayee’s dream was also to leave behind everlasting peace with Pakistan as part of his legacy. Between July 14 and 16, 2001, he met Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf in Agra to resolve long-standing issues between the two countries. On the last day, the general told assembled editors that no accord was possible without including Kashmir: “Kashmir pehla mudda uthaayenge (the first issue we will raise will be Kashmir),” he said.

When I informed Vajpayee, he sound-ed incredulous. “Aise bola usne (Did he say that)?” he asked. When I replied in the affirmative, he refused to issue the joint statement planned at the end of the summit. This was after he had initiated the historic Lahore bus journey in 1999, meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and urging an end to Pakistan’s covert activities. “Friends can be changed but not neighbours. We either live as friends or we keep fighting, making ourselves the butt of ridicule before the world,” he said.

The nationalist message of Vajpayee is that a powerful neighbour should act with restraint even in the face of blatant aggression. He would always send out the message that India has the power to crush its enemy but was mature enough to wait and diplomatically push Pakistan towards a pariah status on the global stage.

On the morning of December 13, 2001, five terrorists stormed Parliament and killed nine people before being shot by security forces. Parliament was sacrosanct for Vajpayee – he was the only Prime Minister since the 1980s who had never missed a single day of session. Vajpayee’s kindred spirit, L.K. Advani and Army Chief General S. Padmanabhan were for decisive action. It almost brought the two countries to the edge of war. Vajpayee’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” policy paid off globally, with international leaders condemning Pakistan’s hospitality towards terrorists.

In April 2003, during a visit to Kashmir, he mooted friendship with Pakistan. A cease-fire agreement along the LoC and Siachen was signed in November the same year, but Vajpayee was firm that Pakistan should stop sponsoring terrorism and violence before dialogue could proceed. He responded to sceptical Indian diplomats by saying, “Plane to khada hi hai (The airplane is ready).”

Kashmir held its first free and fair elections in decades when Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, changing the narrative of the debate.

Vajpayee has often been called “the Prime Minister the Congress never had” and “the right man in the wrong party”. His gift of the gab was always self-deprecatory, but it won the day. During the BJP’s 1992 session in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, asked whether he was being marginalised in the party, Vajpayee replied, “No, but usually corrections are done in the margin.” As the BJP grew in stature during the 1990s, its leadership fell on the shoulders of two old comrades in arms, Advani and Vajpayee. They complemented each other-the warrior and the poet-philosopher. Ayodhya was a defining point in the life of the BJP, and of both the leaders. The Rath Yatra made Advani the new Ram. The pluralist in Vajpayee was not for aggressive Hindutva, although he remained a loyal member of the party. Yet, on December 6, 2000, the eighth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Vajpayee told the Lok Sabha that the Ram Mandir issue was a “nationalist movement”, and “kaam adhura reh gaya hai (the mission is unfinished).”

The Opposition exploded. The next day, at an iftaar hosted by minister Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, Vajpayee explained that what he meant was not that no temple construction would begin but that the dispute continues. Vajpayee chose to stay enigmatic over the demolition. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, which lowered the BJP’s ratings as a modern Hindutva party, Vajpayee was unsure whether Narendra Modi should stay on as chief minister.

After the riots were brought under control, various meetings were held in Delhi between George Fernandez, Nitish Kumar and senior Opposition leaders, who felt that Modi should quit arguing that it affected the NDA’s image. At a meeting at 7-RCR, attended by Advani, Venkaiah Naidu and allies, the non-BJP leaders urged Vajpayee to sack Modi. He conveyed to the RSS leadership that Modi had to go, or else he wouldn’t go to Gujarat to campaign for the party. Eventually, the RSS persuaded Vajpayee to change his views in the party’s interests-for he was the Prime Minister, not just any politician, and moreover it would send out the message that the PM was protesting against the riots because Muslims were killed.

As long as Vajpayee was in power, however, the extreme right gunned for him, using the deadly troika of RSS boss V. Sudarshan, VHP’s Ashok Singhal and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh’s leader Dattopant Thengadi. They even roped in ABVP to attack Vajpayee-who had dropped out of school to edit an RSS magazine-for what they said were his faulty educational policies. They were so upset that an RSS leader even told a cabinet minister that they would not mind if the government fell. He also candidly admitted that Vajpayee became PM not because of the RSS, but in spite of it. Vajpayee, however, never abandoned any of the lessons he learnt as an RSS pracharak. He remains an open book, which, if read between the lines, can guide leaders present and in future to learn the art of keeping the gigantic entity that is India together.

Magical, magnetic, large-hearted In January 2004, I met Vajpayee to interview him for the third and final time, when he was the Prime Minister, for India Today, an honour not given to any other Indian journalist. Rumours about midterm polls were flying thick and fast. Advani had already announced the slogan ‘India Shining’. Jaswant Singh was on a publicity binge even though the elections were due only later in the year. I asked Vajpayee whether the BJP would go for early elections. “Prashan hi nahin uthta. Chunav samay per honge (The question doesn’t arise. The elections will be held on schedule),” he answered. But later on, BJP leaders such as Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Venkaiah Naidu, Pramod Mahajan and others persuaded the Prime Minister to cash in on the goodwill and feel-good factor they believed the government had generated. Vajpayee agreed, although he knew he was signing off as India’s most magical, magnetic and large-hearted leader. He is known for creating institutions and healthy connections, thus defining the fine contours of India’s political dialogue.

This is the essence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, even in retirement, he remains above any party or organisation. Ultimately he belongs to India. It is Vajpayee Shining. It always will be.


January 12, 2004

The artful navigator

Vajpayee has never been a favourite of Nagpur, the headquarters of the RSS. He is not Hindu enough for the swayamsevaks. The prime minister knows that confrontation is not the way out, but containment is. The grand old man of the saffron parivar is smarter. Madan Das Devi, RSS joint general secretary, at 59, and M. Venkaiah Naidu, the BJP president, at 55, are former ABVP colleagues and get along smoothly. In the early 1970s, Devi was the ABVP organisation secretary and Naidu the general secretary. The Class of 70 is in power in the states as well as the Centre. The rise of Devi and Naidu has provided Vajpayee with a politically useful link between Reshmi Bagh in Nagpur and Race Course Road in Delhi. The patriarch uses the generational shift in the family as a personal source of consolidation-and peace.

by Prabhu Chawla

Prabhu Chawla is editorial director, The New Indian Express and The Sunday Standard

Read Full Story

If Sanjay Gandhi had lived

If Sanjay Gandhi had lived

Early on the morning of June 23, 1980, Sanjay Gandhi drove to the Delhi Flying Club to test out a two-seater plane, a Pitts S-2A, along with a flying instructor. Diving and looping in aerobatic manoeuvres, he lost control, and the plane crashed near Teen Murti house. He and his co-pilot were killed instantly. Sanjay was 34 and left behind a young widow and a three-and-a-half-month-old son. Six months earlier, after adroit backroom machinations that wrecked the Janata Party government, he had been elected MP from Amethi and reanointed his mother as “Empress of India”.

Hearing the news, Mrs Gandhi rushed to the scene and scrabbling amidst the wreckage, fished out Sanjay’s watch from his mutilated remains. An image after his funeral, stark and telling, by Raghu Rai published in India Today that week foretells the future of the Gandhi dynasty. Indira Gandhi’s face is crumpled in tears; her elder son Rajiv, his arm around her, supports her helpless limp body. “Mummy needs me,” was Rajiv’s simple reply to friends who, alongside his wife’s protestations, asked why he was plunging into the turbulent world of politics.

But what if Sanjay had lived? It would have been his branch of the Gandhis that ruled a different Congress Party, spawning harsher, malevolent politics. It would have been another kind of country.

Sunil Sethi @1999

Never a votary of parliamentary democracy, Sanjay Gandhi would have taken over from his mother as President of the Republic. In late 1976, as the horrors of the Emergency-with its forced sterilisations and slum-clearance campaigns that brought untold misery-peaked, and Mrs Gandhi, assailed by doubts, decided to call elections, Sanjay strongly resisted the move. He wanted the Emergency to continue, with Parliament to be replaced by a constituent assembly that would switch to a presidential system. His followers in the state legislatures of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh had passed resolutions to that effect. An ardent Sanjay-ite, Bansi Lal, then defence minister, told Mrs Gandhi’s cousin B.K. Nehru, “Get rid of all this election nonsense… Just make our sister president for life and there’s no need to do anything else.”

India under Sanjay would have been like the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos-a calibrated dictatorship, with thousands of political prisoners in jail, control over armed forces and the media, and an economy propped up by dollops of US dollars and huge World Bank handouts. On top of his hate list were Communists (“I don’t think you’d find richer or more corrupt people anywhere,” he told an interviewer); he loathed all his mother’s Leftist advisers and friends. Although an admirer of free markets, he was a failed entrepreneur-his Maruti enterprise never produced a marketable car, and proved a flimsy cover for a growing scandal that embroiled the prime minister’s office.

The phrase coined to describe the Filipino dictator’s kinky wife Imelda was “Imeldific”. Implacable, whimsical Maneka Gandhi as India’s First Lady would have been dubbed “Manekafique”. The freckled 19-year-old he married in 1974 had attitude: Maneka likened Sanjay to Howard Roark, the tormented, romantic hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Claiming his intentions “were totally pure, crystal clear as Mahatma Gandhi’s”, she remained his indefatigable champion in good times and bad.

After Mrs Gandhi, Sanjay and the Congress party’s humiliating defeat in the historic election of 1977, Maneka set up Surya magazine that vilified and undermined the Janata Party’s squabbling khich-hdi sarkar with gusto. Her best-remembered scoop was a series of photos showing Suresh Ram-son of Babu Jagjivan Ram, a leading light of the Janata Party-romping naked with a college girl. That put paid to the old Dalit leader’s dream of becoming prime minister.

Like his mother before him, Sanjay would have split the Congress party, dumping the harrumphing old guard to form the Congress (S)-he Sanjay-Maneka combine to be known as Congress (S-M). Whether or not she held elected office, Maneka would have been an imperious presence at Sanjay’s side-a litigious Jill of Trades to his Master of All Jack-saving animals, denigrating dairy products, propagating vegetarianism and buying up boatloads of art.

If Sanjay had lived, Varun Gandhi would have been Congress (S-M)’s indisputable crown prince and poet laureate with a penchant for producing volumes of excruciating verse with titles like Stillness (Example: “I lie in a patchwork of the impossible present and the invisible future”) and a living room hung with a king’s ransom in contemporary Indian art. Taking a journalist from Business Standard around his living room recently, he boasted, “You must visit my farm, I have about 2,000 paintings, I rotate them on my walls.”

Stillness was never a quality associated with Sanjay Gandhi; he had little use for banal poetry or smart art. His mother’s confidante Pupul Jayakar described him as “a wild wayward youth… rebellious, destructive… altogether unmanageable”; his great aunt Vijayalakshmi Pandit thought he was “rude and crude”. Khushwant Singh adored him as “a loveable goonda” and heaped reams of praise extolling the “heavy load on his young shoulders”. Five days after Sanjay’s death, Singh wrote: “The only possible inheritor of the Sanjay cult figure is Maneka. She is like her late husband, utterly fearless when aroused, the very reincarnation of Durga astride a tiger.” (His torrents of praise turned to tears; how fearsome Maneka could be, he discovered, when she legally restrained the publication of his autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice; it took Singh a long and costly battle to have the injunction lifted.)

I only met Sanjay Gandhi twice. He was small built, balding with long sideburns, and dressed in regulation khadi and kohlapuris. Given that journalists ranked just below Communists on his hate list, both encounters were unpleasant. The first was shortly before he lost the Amethi election in March 1977 in the Gauriganj rest house. Looking up from files on his desk, he barked at my photographer colleague Mandira Purie, “Out, out…you there, get out!” When she asked why, he said, “I can’t concentrate”. Surely a camera click was no disturbance, she asked. “No, it irritates me.” End of exchange. The opaque Q&A in India Today that appeared was a study in obfuscation, Sanjay Gandhi style (see excerpt).

On the second occasion, when he was in the political wilderness, Rukhsana Sultana, a cheerleader who had led his notorious nasbandi campaign in Old Delhi (and whom I knew as Meenu, because her brother was in college with me) said he was ready to give an interview. The Gandhis were in the doldrums-they had moved from 1 Safdarjung Road to 12 Willingdon Crescent-and I presumed she had his permission. I lurked in the veranda as giddy Meenu-swathed in chiffon, tossing back glossy tresses-swept inside. After a while they both emerged smiling. His lightning change of mood is imprinted in my memory to this day-thunderous face, attacking voice: “No,” he snarled in that Gauriganj tone, “no interviews…please leave,” and stomped off, banging the door shut and leaving poor Meenu, flustered and shaken.

At the heart of Sanjay’s leap to power was a complex, unfathomable mother-son dynamic. He exacerbated her fear that any loss of political power would endanger her family’s life and her own. She came to rely on him as her only trustworthy pillar of strength. “She was aware of how entangled her life had been with her younger son,” wrote her friend and biographer Pupul Jayakar. “‘No one can take Sanjay’s place. He was my son, but was like an elder brother in his support,'” she told Jayakar after his death.

It was his recklessness with machines-cars and planes-that earned him notoriety and eventually killed him. As journalist Coomi Kapoor points out in her carefully researched recent book The Emergency: A Personal History, “the story of Maruti is inextricably linked to the Emergency…and [Sanjay’s] political friendships and enmities were based largely on attitudes towards his small-car project.”

Essentially, Maruti Ltd. turned out to be a huge land grab and financial scam-290 acres at throwaway prices in Gurgaon, a sycophantic loan mela by nationalised banks, extortion and blackmail to squeeze funds from business groups and traders. Bankers, cabinet ministers and captains of industry who opposed or resisted Sanjay’s muscle-flexing were threatened or sent packing; Mrs Gandhi remained impervious to the outcry in Parliament or the raging disquiet in the PMO. Her most senior and trusted advisers, for instance, principal secretary and diplomat P.N. Haksar, or P.N. Dhar, the distinguished economist, were shunted aside. There was no roadworthy car, of course, only faltering Maruti front-companies to be milked for cash.

A vacuum at the vortex of power sucked in a motley crew of courtiers. By early 1975, an expansion of the palace guard came to be known as “Sanjay’s coterie”. Early recruits were Haryana’s tyrannical chief minister Bansi Lal, Mrs Gandhi’s Rasputin-like yoga instructor Dhirendra Brahmachari and a mechanic, Arjan Das, who did the rounds of second-hand car repair shops with Sanjay. Helping to tighten his control of Delhi were yes-men like R.K. Dhawan, the prime minister’s chief factotum, IAS officer Navin Chawla and Om Mehta, later Union home minister. They busily propelled Sanjay into the driver’s seat.

Several reasons are ascribed for the imposition of the Emergency-certainly the Allahabad high court’s judgment on June 12, barring Mrs Gandhi from holding elected office, was the last straw-but all the previous year anti-corruption students’ agitations in Gujarat and Bihar had swelled into a major movement under Jayaprakash Narayan’s (JP) banner of revolt. Battling on several fronts, Mrs Gandhi became convinced that there were nefarious plots to unseat her and destabilise the country in conjunction with some unknown foreign hand. Within 24 hours of JP’s rally at Ramlila Ground on June 25 asking her to step down and West Bengal Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s constitutional advice, Opposition leaders and Congress dissidents were rounded up, electricity to newspapers cut off, civil rights suspended and a punitive ordinance passed for arbitrary arrests.

Sanjay was at centre of it, yelling at the mild-mannered I.K. Gujral, then I & B minister-“You don’t seem to know how to control your ministry. Can’t you tell them how to put out the news?”-and instantly replaced him with V.C. Shukla. As his mother conferred with officials, he would interrupt-“Mummy, come for a moment,”-and she would leave the room, apparently to comply with instructions. At its height over the 21-month period, 150,000 people filled the jails, a number greater than during the Quit India movement in 1942. If Indira was the Emergency’s presiding deity, Sanjay was its high priest.

Six months later, he had taken over the Youth Congress, galvanising his storm troopers on whistle stop nationwide tours. Although hailed as Mrs Gandhi’s ordained successor-“You have stolen our thunder”, she declared at a Congress party session near Chandigarh-Sanjay held no official position. Convinced that his future was unquestioned and indefinite, it was the practice of two dark arts-mass sterilisations and slum clearance drives-that were his undoing. Between 1975-76 and 1976-77 the number of sterilisations-many forced on the unmarried persons and one-child couples-rose from 26.24 lakh to 81.23 lakh. Targets were fixed for districts; junior officials and schoolteachers deprived of salaries or suspended if they were unmet. Slum demolitions and involuntary displacement of thousands were the second great brutalities of the reign of terror. The worst incident was at Turkman Gate in Old Delhi when mobs revolted against bulldozers and the police, and riots broke out.

Jagmohan, later Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and Governor Jammu and Kashmir, ordered the demolitions. Like Sanjay, he never regretted his actions. But many others who received a headstart as members of Sanjay’s coterie outlasted him in long public careers-Pranab Mukherjee, Kamal Nath, Ambika Soni, Navin Chawla, R.K. Dhawan and Ghulam Nabi Azad to mention a few. Delhi today is adorned with rich material architecture of the Sanjay era: luxury hotels like the Taj Mansingh, Le Meridien and The Lalit owe their existence to his flouting of municipal laws for the coterie.

In the 40th anniversary year of the Emergency the question is sometimes asked, “Could it happen again?” If the unequivocal answer is “No”, its supplementary would be, “But what if Sanjay had lived? The Emergency’s excesses are possibly unrepeatable but Sanjay’s abrasive authoritarianism, disdain for public opinion and quick-fix solutions are perhaps back in fashion. Their echo may be the beau ideal of current dispensations. Nearly every political party is stuffed with wannabe Sanjay Gandhis.

Then, again, what would have happened to the other Gandhis?

The easy-going Rajiv would have carried on being an airline pilot, Sonia a loving housewife and part-time art restorer, both cocooned in their circle of doting Doon School and Cambridge friends. The happiest escapee might have been Rahul Gandhi: moving to a favoured city like London (No mosquito-riddled nights in Dalit huts! No tearing up of ordinances!), he would have spent his free hours gymming or going to nice Chinese restaurants. Priyanka Gandhi, unfettered by the windfall of Robert Vadra’s real estate millions, would have gladly hopped out of her goldfish bowl in Lutyens’ Delhi to lend a helping hand in her husband’s Moradabad brassware exports. Rajiv and his family would have been airbrushed out of history.


April 1, 1977

Not a nice man to know

India Today: What made you stand for election?

Sanjay: No special reason.

IT: What do you offer your constituents?

Sanjay: What I have offered before.

IT: What do you think the Opposition has to offer?

Sanjay: (still signing papers): Nothing.

IT: What cause does your opponent advocate?

Sanjay: Dacoity, mostly.

IT: Would you change the Youth Congress?

Sanjay: We’ll see after Ambika Soni retires.

Maneka: Why don’t you explain.

Sanjay: He’ll go and write that.

Sanjay (to Maneka): He’s a journalist, he ought to know.

IT: Would you have time for Maruti if you are an MP?

Sanjay: It depends.

IT: On what?

Sanjay: On various things.

by Sunil Sethi

Sunil Sethi is a senior journalist and columnist

Read Full Story