Sat, Dec 10, 2016 | updated 06:37 AM IST

Margaret Alva, once called a "dumb doll" went on to prove her detractors wrong

Updated: Aug 04, 2016 08:18 IST

By I. Ramamohan Rao

New Delhi, Aug.4 (ANI): Like almost all women politicians in India, five term parliamentarian Margaret Alva has also been called a "dumb doll" by senior ministers.

A survivor who has worked under four Congress Prime Minsters, Alva honed her skills , rarely speaking out of turn. When she did speak, out of a sense of hurt, she was put to pasture. Margaret Alva's autobiography Courage and Commitment is honest, detailed and provides an interesting insight into the workings of Congress politics.

Elected as a member of the Rajya Sabha for four successive terms, Margaret Alva was made Central Minister at the age of 42, which in those days was a rarity.

Margaret Alva was born in Mangalore in 1942, grew up in different parts of the former Madras Presidency, and imbibed the culture of the state, parts of which now belong to Andhra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Her father belonged to the Indian Civil Service.

She was married into the Alva family, from Mangalore in South Kanara, which has a composite culture. She was drawn into the political scene while staying with her in-laws, both parliamentarians. She was elected for four successive terms to the Rajya Sabha, and one term in the Lok Sabha.

Alva assumed several responsibilities, under Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. Even during the non-Congress years, Alva was very much a part of the Lutyen's zone political narrative that she has penned down in the book and makes for interesting reading.

Of specific interest is the way she handled the fall out of the Jain Hawala case under P.V. Narasimha Rao. Not many politicians have spoken about that episode in Indian politics that changed the future course of succession in the BJP.

Alva continued to maintain the confidence of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, while dealing with the Bofors fallout, but later things soured when she remarked that the party was taking money before offering election nominations. She had questioned why her son Nivedith and the grandson of former Union minister C.K. Jaffer Sharief were not given nominations while relatives of two dozen leaders were given tickets in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir.

Her reaction expressed in a television interview created a controversy. The Congress Party, which conducted a probe under A. K. Antony, recommended her expulsion from the party. Put in cold storage for some time, Margaret Alva regained the confidence of Sonia Gandhi in 2009, when she was asked to contest on the Congress ticket for the Lok Sabha from Karwar, but was defeated.

Margaret Alva was then made Governor of Uttarakhand. Living in the "Golden Cage" in the Raj Bhavan in Dehradun and later in Rajasthan, she has written her autobiography, which gives us an insider's look at the way in which pesky politicians are banished or are given gubernatorial assignments.

Her autobiography also provides us an insider's look as to how the government functioned in the national capital.

She also provides us an insight into the politics of Karnataka and how it functioned during elections, particularly the hard work she had put in during the election of Indira Gandhi from Chikkamagalur.

The autobiography also gives us a close look of the role she played in projecting India during her visits abroad in various delegations, including as a delegate to the United Nations.

The report of her visit to Cuba in 1983 and her interaction with President Fidel Castro is memorable. Fidel Castro, in his long interaction with Margaret Alva, told her "Do you know how different history would have been if the Spanish had landed in India instead of Cuba?

She replied, "Yes, Fidel Castro would have been an Indian," which made Fidel Castro thump the table, and say, "I would have loved it! India is a great country." She recalls how after her long conversation with him he put his arms around her hugged her and thanked her for informing him about various issues concerning India.

On her return she prepared a report of the visit and the result was she was made in charge of the Women's Front of the AICC. Asked why, she was told to contact Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi, when contacted, said, "Don't waste time asking questions. Just start working".

She had earned the confidence of Rajiv Gandhi, and when he assumed power after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and won the elections held in December 1994, he personally rang up and asked her to be present in the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the swearing in as a Minister. He had trust in her ability to undertake any job. Asked what should she do, he said, "This is the problem with you! You talk too much. I have given you a job, now do it."

Rajiv Gandhi took personal interest in her career recalls Alva. When her term as a Rajya Sabha member was to end, he called her and told her to meet the Karnataka Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde, and ensured that she was re-elected.

She also recalls the role she played when she was a member of the Prime Minister's delegation to the Soviet Union, and her interaction with President Gorbachev who remarked about her speech "This Minister took Moscow by storm with her brilliant speech at the women's convention".

Alva has recounted several episodes, which seem to have disappeared from public memory. She recalls how the opposition coined the slogan in 1989 elections "Gali Gali me shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi Chor Hai." The Prime Minister, she recalls, was terribly hurt. The public perception had dramatically changed and the Congress lost the elections in 1989.

However, she continued her commitment to the Congress and she was a member of the team, which organized the elections in 1991.

She recalls that she had seen off Rajiv Gandhi when he was flying off to Orissa, which turned out to be his last election rally. Alva returned to Bangalore to prepare for his visit to parts of Karnataka, but tragedy stuck the next day.on the night of 21 May 1991 when he was assassinated.

Under Narasimha Rao, Alva functioned as the MOS for Personnel, Pensions and Public Grievances. The Central Bureau of Investigation reported to her, which was like a "ticking bomb landing in her lap". She had to make a statement on the Jain Hawala case, which named many former ministers. When she remarked to many who rang her up that she had no role to play, she was told "Then why are you sitting in this ministry like a dumb doll".

She also recalls that Sonia Gandhi was upset when the government decided to appeal against the Delhi High Court decision to quash complaints in the Bofors case. The instructions had gone from the office of the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, when Narasimha Rao was abroad, and Sonia Gandhi remarked "what does the Prime Minister want to do. Send me to jail?"

Margaret Alva recalls "I found myself playing an (unwilling) intercessor. While Soniaji remained angry, the Prime Minister would call me over now and then on Sunday evenings to know the 'mood'at Janpath. He seemed keen to avoid a confrontation, but was unable to break the ice. My sincere efforts to help made me a suspect in both çamps."

In a party where loyalty to the high command is the only criterion for long term survival, Margaret Alva has had a long and stellar innings. Her autobiography is remarkable without rancour and bitterness.

Courage & Commitment , an autobiography by Margaret Alva, Rupa Publications, pages 370, price Rs. 500/

Mr. I.Ramamohan Rao is a former Principal Information Officer of the Government of India. he can be reached on his e-mail raoramamohan@hotmail.com (ANI)