“ON PAPER WE WERE PERSONAL STAFF of the PM, but in principle reporting to both the PM and his daughter,” recounted Janak Raj Jai. “Nehru would often say to officials who came to meet him—Indu se bhi mil ke jana.”
Eighty-one-year-old Jai is a former personal assistant to the Nehru-Gandhi family, whose position allowed him to observe at close quarters how relationships with the family were created and destroyed. This August, law books publisher Universal brought out Jai’s autobiography Strokes on Law & Democracy in India. Over 586 pages of breezy, barely edited prose, with section headings like “When Nehru Snubbed Me” and “The Story of Indira’s Chappals”, Jai tells the story of a life spent in close proximity to power.
Sitting in his modest quarters on Delhi’s Pandara Road, dressed in a pair of jeans and an olive green T-shirt, Jai recounted some stories for me, including of Indira Gandhi’s personal yoga guru, Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari. “[He] was the biggest embarrassment to the family,” Jai said.
In 1963, Brahmachari made a request to the education ministry to renew the grant for his yoga centre in Delhi. The ministry was at that point in the hands of senior parliamentarian KL Shrimali. Shrimali, following procedure, asked Brahmachari to first submit an audit of his yoga centre’s accounts of the previous year. Brahmachari refused, and complained to Indira. She, in turn, pestered Nehru to intervene. Shrimali assured Nehru that once the audit report was submitted, he wouldn’t get in the way of approving the grant. Indira persisted. “Almost every day one of us would hear her ask, ‘Papu, grant pass ho gaya?’” Jai recalled. Nehru grew so annoyed with the repeated requests that at one point Jai overheard him asking Indira, “Should I throw him [the minister] out of the window? Why can’t this man [Brahmachari] submit an audit report and be done?”
“None of us heard her raise the issue for another week,” Jai said. But her silence was temporary; she eventually resumed her attempts to persuade her father to act. “And finally he [Shrimali] lost his ministerial post,” Jai said.
Shrimali was one of the six senior ministers from the central government to resign on 24 August 1963 as part of the Kamaraj Plan, a political manoeuvre that aimed to give new strength to the Congress throughout the country. But according to Jai, in Shrimali’s case, it wasn’t a desire to help his party that led to his departure—rather, he was forced to leave by Nehru, a fact which was conveniently concealed by the timing of the move. Pointing out that Shrimali left his job within “two or three months” of Indira’s appeals to Nehru, Jai said firmly, “Res ipsa loquitor. The thing speaks for itself. We know [what happened].”
When Justice MC Chagla replaced Shrimali two months later, Indira invited him to stay at the PM’s residence. She played a generous host, even bringing in tailors to stitch him achkans and button-downs. On one of the days Chagla was there, Jai said, Indira asked Jai to call in the education secretary, and to instruct him to bring along the file for Brahmachari’s grant. In Jai’s account, the pampered Chagla approved its renewal with little fuss.
Jai also claims that it was his timely intervention that secured Indira her first ministerial post in 1964, after her father’s death. Recounting the story, Jai said Indira had rebuked Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri for offering her a cabinet post soon after she had returned from attending her father’s last rites. Some time after this, Jai happened to overhear Shastri mutter to himself, wondering aloud whether he should approach Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit instead. Jai promptly conveyed what he had heard to Indira, who instructed him to set up a meeting with Shastri. Jai wasn’t witness to the meeting, but when Indira emerged, she had obtained a position in Shastri’s cabinet. “People have written books saying that she never wanted to be [in politics], she had refused, she was persuaded,” Jai said. “I want to set the record straight.”
Leena Reghunath is a freelancer based in the US. She was formerly the editorial manager at The Caravan, and has written for the New Indian Express, The Hindu, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times. She has a law degree and a master’s in English literature. Reghunath also had a brief stint as a public prosecutor and civil lawyer. She received the Mumbai Press Club’s RedInk award for her reporting in 2015 and 2018.