- Gandhi was known for her closeness with her yoga teacher, Dhirendra Brahmachari, and Dinesh Singh, once a foreign minister in her cabinet.
- Tales of the prime minister's love affairs had been abound for quite some time.
- Since declaring a state of emergency in 1975, Gandhi increasingly turned to her “inner circle” of advisers for consultations.
In mid-1975, New Delhi was abuzz with a rumor about Indira Gandhi’s secret romance with her aide R.K. Dhawan. Tales of the prime minister’s love affairs had been abound for quite some time, including her alleged affair with Mohammad Yunus, a close friend of hers and a former Indian diplomat. Long ago, M.O. Mathai, her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s private secretary, was rumored to have had an affair with Gandhi. Her yoga teacher, Dhirendra Brahmachari, and Dinesh Singh, once a foreign minister in her cabinet, were also among her reported consorts.
Gandhi was known for her closeness with Brahmachari. The fitness guru not only helped her make some decisions but also executed certain top-level political tasks on her behalf, especially from 1975 to 1977 when she dissolved parliament, declared a state of emergency, suspended civil liberties and gagged the press. The nature of their relationship was the subject of intense gossip, and he was known in some circles as “the Indian Rasputin.”
Despite the existence of such a long list, Dhawan caught the attention of American diplomats, perhaps because of his position in the prime minister’s secretariat. They set out to trace the rumor’s source and verify its validity. What they uncovered ended up in the U.S. National Archives thousands of miles away from India, thanks to a secret cable from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi to the State Department sent on 5 August 1975.
Gandhi might have had many lovers, but Dhawan was not one of them, the U.S. diplomats concluded. “We find speculation that R.K. Dhawan is Mrs. Gandhi’s lover ludicrous,” the embassy reported in the two-page document that demystified the rumor.
The cable detailed the origins of the rumor. It also included a thorough biographical study of her son, Sanjay Gandhi, along with an analysis of his potential influence on Indian politics. The information on Sanjay, which was pouched to Washington, still remains classified.
Dhawan, once a member of the upper house of Indian parliament, the Rajya Sabha, thrust himself into national limelight once by advising Gandhi’s grandson, Rahul, not to heed advice of relatives and friends, as did his father, Rajiv. Rahul, ruling Congress party general secretary, who attended Cambridge, following the footsteps of his great grandfather, Nehru, India’s first prime minister, is considered future prime ministerial material by some.
Dhawan, 38 years old in 1975, was a personal secretary and confidante to Gandhi, popularly dubbed as India’s modern Durga after her triumph over Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War in which the Nixon administration opposed India. He had attained unparalleled power and influence, particularly during the emergency. As the door keeper to the prime minister, he was well-positioned to control information and access. He also proved himself instrumental in civil service appointments.
He was a witness to her assassination in 1984 by her security guards. A judicial inquiry commission implicated him in the killing for allegedly changing the prime minister’s schedule for that day and assigning the guards who killed her. The suspicion was unfounded; Dhawan was later exonerated. Still, when Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother, he fired the Gandhi loyalist. He subsequently recalled Dhawan to salvage his fledgling administration.
Origin of ‘lover’ rumor
Dhawan is Yashpal Kappor’s nephew. Kapoor arranged for Dhawan to replace him as a personal assistant to the prime minister when he left to organize Gandhi’s first Lok Sabha (lower house of Indian parliament) election campaign in the Rae Bareli constituency in 1967. Dhawan was a clerk-typist with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting before moving over to the prime minister’s secretariat.
His formal title was additional private secretary to the prime minister. He had done well since moving to the prime minister’s office. His influence stemmed from his omnipresence around the prime minister till late in the evening.
“Perhaps this is where the ‘lover’ rumor comes from,” the embassy speculated. “We are told he works by passing materials, comments, information, suggestions to the prime minister at times when his experience tells him she is most susceptible to receiving these.”
Dhawan controlled whom Gandhi met at her residence where her important meetings and discussions took place, as opposed to her offices in the South Block or parliament, where visitors generally got at the most fifteen minutes. He skillfully attached himself to Sanjay and worked as a purveyor of his as well as Gandhi’s instructions. His main objective was to preserve his prestige and position as her chief operational staff assistant.
“He is an object of some fear since he has occasionally fed or even created suspicions on the part of the prime minister about specific individuals. One source indignantly told an embassy official of several occasions when he had great difficulty in clearing himself of absolutely false rumors, which he was convinced the prime minister could only have picked up from Dhawan.”
“We believe Dhawan is essentially a purveyor of instructions for the prime minister and more recently Sanjay Gandhi. We doubt that he plays a ‘policy’ role except in strictly operational and personnel matters, although he is a middle-man in intrigues, where he may serve as a conduit for views to the prime minister. We have no information about his personal views. His uncle is strongly anti-Communist; Dhawan sounds to us essentially an opportunist,” the embassy commented.
Gandhi’s inner circle
Since declaring a state of emergency in 1975, which curbed civil rights and imposed press censorship, Gandhi increasingly turned to her “inner circle” of advisers for consultations on political assignments. She still made all major policy and many operational decisions herself. After a lifetime in or near the cockpit of Indian politics, the Iron Lady called her own shots on virtually all major as well as many minor matters.
Given her advisers’ personal or familial relationship with her, Gandhi continued to call on their services. It was, however, doubtful that aside from Sanjay any one in her inner circle had the potential to expand his individual influence with the prime minister beyond that of giving advice and performing specific tasks for her.
Despite his denial in subsequent years, Dhawan was a mover and shaker in Gandhi’s inner circle. He assumed an even more important role after the prime minister had imposed the emergency.
“The names most commonly heard as the key figures behind Mrs. Gandhi at this point are her son, Sanjay Gandhi, and her secretary, Dhawan. This is confirmed by a source close to the prime minister’s household. Both are non-ideological, extremely authoritarian in their general approach, and focused only on keeping Mrs. Gandhi in power.”
After imposing the state of emergency, Gandhi consulted S.S. Ray, West Bengal chief minister, D.K. Barooah, Congress president, and Rajni Patel, the Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee president. Each had been a personal acquaintance for decades. Ray’s family enjoyed ties with the Nehrus since the 1920s. By one account, Gandhi had known Patel since her student days in England. He emerged as the key figure on Maharashtra’s political scene during the emergency, overshadowing the state’s long-time political boss, External Affairs Minister Y.B. Chavan. Unlike Chavan, however, the former member of the Communist Party of India had no independent power base of his own, his power and influence deriving from his close personal relationship with Gandhi.
Though in the inner circle, each was in the “revolving door” section. Gandhi used them for their political advice, ideological balance or for fund raising. They could look back to several generations of predecessors – L.K. Jha, India’s ambassador to Washington in 1971; D.P. Mishra, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh; P.N. Haksar, Gandhi’s principal secretary; and D.P. Dhar, India’s ambassador to Moscow – who had come and gone.
Those with especially close personal ties to the prime minister, such as fellow Kashmiri Brahmins Haksar – who fell out of favor for advising Gandhi to resign after the Allahabad High Court had invalidated her election to parliament – and Dhar, had never completely fallen from grace. Others like Mishra faded from national significance. Dhawan remained fixed forever, but in an unintended way.