From joining politics under firebrand leader George Fernandes, to becoming the president of Samata Party — a key ally in the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government, Jaya Jaitly’s rise in mainstream politics invited both awe and envy. Her autobiography, “Life Among the Scorpions” makes a series of startling claims that may have lasting political implications.
She claims that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, was in constant touch with then Defence Minister Fernandes during the Gujarat riots of 2002. According to her account, Fernandes was at Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s residence when they received a fax from Modi, “asking for the army to be sent urgently to Ahmedabad to quell the violence”. Fernandes, she mentions, stayed at Raksha Bhavan for most of the night and early the next morning was in Ahmedabad.
“I know for a fact that Narendra Modi was in constant touch with the Defence Minister and even supported and cooperated when he later organised a citizen’s peace march of 7,000 people, including Muslims, through the city. I too was present. Modi addressed the marchers at the end of its journey, thanking everyone for working towards peace… There was not a moment’s tension or frustration in the relationship between Modi and Fernandes, whether before or after, and this is a fact even if this has annoyed many Modi-haters and some of Fernandes’ socialist compatriots,” Jaitly writes.
Jaitly goes on to refer to Modi as “quiet”, “serious” and “very respectful”, saying that he was “not given to small talk” which was “a pleasant change from useless banter that many men adopt with women in television studios”. This was when Jaitly often sat with Modi, who was then General Secretary of the BJP, to discuss election trends and results at television studios.
Jaitly also recalls how Lalu Prasad Yadav’s bid to become Prime Minister was foiled in 1996.
“The alliance in the ensuing election saw no campaigning on the Ram Mandir, Article 370 or any other contentious issue. There were no slogans of Jai Sri Ram that had filled the air a few years earlier. It was purely about the condition of Bihar. As usual, I was active behind the scenes. The result of the Bihar alliance was that we succeeded in ensuring that Lalu Yadav had fewer seats than H.D. Deve Gowda in the Janata Dal combine, enabling Gowda to be the Prime Minister,” she writes in the book.
Jaitly mentions that when Deve Gowda later “stepped down” in favour of I.K. Gujral, the latter telephoned her to seek George Fernandes’ and her support to be the Prime Minister.
“He had a good relationship with us, having attended our then-seen-as-maverick international conferences on Tibet and Burma when many others had stayed away.
“We were happy that our election strategy had saved the Party (we had six members in Parliament, including Nitish Kumar) and saved the country from having Lalu Yadav as Prime Minister,” she adds.
She further blames Lalu Prasad for protecting the attackers of Bhagalpur riots of October 1989. “It was clear to me that it was the large Muslim population that had been attacked and many of those who joined in doing so were part of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s caste. It was because of his interest in protecting the attackers (as was widely believed because of his failure to take any action) that even though some eye-wash commissions were set up later to get to the truth of these riots, they never got off the ground,” she maintains in the autobiography.
Jaitly also accuses Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of having given the Rajya Sabha seat, earlier promised to her, to a businessman in 2005.
“On the morning of the very last day for filing nominations, just after the last flight had left Delhi for Patna, George Sahib received a call from the Chief Minister saying he could not give me the seat as he had decided to give it to ‘King Mahendra’ (Mahendra Prasad), a businessman who had moved from Congress to RJD to Congress and now JD(U). He said he had helped the Party in the elections. George Sahib tried to argue that I too had done a lot for the Party over the years and that they all owed it to me. I watched him speak from across the room. His face became stiff and after a few moments of silence, he put the receiver down.”
Among other controversial issues that find elaborate mention in her book are “Operation West End”, which she calls farce and a shoddily created tale; her reference to Nitish Kumar as somebody who always puts his interest first; that BJP lost 2004 elections due to “arrogance” and “disrespecting alliance partners”; some shocking anecdotes of how defence deals are done in India; her revelation of how alleged arms middleman Christian Michel offered her an opportunity to make a “huge pile of money” for her party; and that Sonia Gandhi had asked then Finance Minister P. Chidambaram to shield Tehelka magazine’s financiers.