When I was a young reporter, I was in awe of Margaret Alva. She was a respected leader of the Congress in Karnataka, though she spent most of her time in Delhi. Besides, she had the sort of good looks that women had in her Dakshina Kannada district, which is also the native land of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. A bindi the size of a one-rupee coin on her forehead only enhanced her charm.
On the other hand, Margaret Alva always made the local Congress leaders very nervous. They lowered their voices when she approached. And in her presence, I noticed that even Congress chief ministers fidgeted in their seats as if the upholstery had suddenly grown cactus thorns. This was because she was thought to be a "spy" of the Congress High Command.
Alva was elected to the Rajya Sabha four times, the Lok Sabha once, was part of the ministries of Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao and was an AICC general secretary. A favourite of Indira Gandhi, she continued to be part of the inner coterie of the Gandhi clan — till now.
Like John Le Carre's spies turning defectors, Alva has decided to expose the "inside" of the Congress through her book Courage and Commitment – An Autobiography.
According to excerpts available and the glimpses of the book that the 74-year-old Karnataka leader provided on Karan Thapar's show on Friday, some of her revelations are:
-- The decision by the Narasimha Rao government to appeal against a Delhi High court order quashing the Bofors case linking Rajiv Gandhi made Sonia Gandhi suspicious of him. Alva, who was the minister in charge of CBI at that time, says Sonia once asked her whether Rao wanted to send her to jail.
-- CPN Singh, a minister in Indira Gandhi's government, and Sanjay Gandhi had links with Wolfgang Michel, father of middleman Christian Michel whose name figures in the AgustaWestland chopper deal.
--Sanjay Gandhi's Emergency atrocities had Indira Gandhi's approval.
--The functioning of the Congress is centralised and arbitrary.
There is nothing new about the cold relationship between "PV" and the Gandhi family. It's one of the worst-kept secrets, and Alva's revelation throws no major light on it. And Wolfgang Michel, Sanjay Gandhi and CPN Singh are all dead: Alva's revelation is not going to end up in a major breakthrough in the investigations of either the Bofors or the Augusta Westland scams.
But Alva's expose on the style of functioning — if we can call it that — of the Congress High Command offers some disturbing insights.
It reminds us of some fictional and real emperors who allowed their courtiers to write poems in their praise. It also brings to our minds rulers who let their courtiers fight, either for the fun of it or to make sure that they didn't grow too big for their boots. If Alva is telling us the truth, she is hinting at the dark possibility that Sonia believes in letting the cronies fight it out.
What Alva stops short of saying is that Sonia lacks the sagacity of an Emperor Akbar who, in a Birbal story, knew exactly how to handle "jealous courtiers".
She gives us the instance of the Congress party's miserable performance in Kerala in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. The rival Left Front walked away with 19 of the 20 seats, leaving a lone seat to the Indian Union Muslim League, an ally of the Congress. AK Antony, also of the Gandhi family's "inner circle", was the state's chief minister then. And Alva says Sonia Gandhi despatched her and RL Bhatia to Kerala to find out what had gone wrong.
"The complaint was," Alva writes, "that AK Antony cared only about his image, to the exclusion of all else. He neglected the party."
Then one thing led to another and Antony was replaced by Oommen Chandy.
Then in 2008, Alva shook the Congress party by alleging openly that the party lost the Assembly election to the BJP in Karnataka only because it had "sold" tickets, offering them to the highest bidders instead of deserving ones. This caused nationwide consternation.
"I came to learn from friends in the inner circle of the AICC that Antony, who had been asked to look into the entire controversy (over her statement on the "selling" of tickets), had actually recommended my expulsion," reveals Alva.
So Antony returned a favour to Alva.
It's also sufficiently clear from Alva's observations that, in the byzantine politics of the Congress, Sonia and Rahul have their own, separate inner circles, which may overlap but which are neither concentric nor coterminous.
Yet the book is unlikely to place the Karnataka leader on a high pedestal of moral rectitude. And nobody, leave alone the cynical Karnataka voter, is likely to be convinced that Alva's motives are altruistic. It's no secret that her anger stems solely from the fact that the Congress leadership had denied her son Nivedith a ticket to contest the 2008 Karnataka assembly election. It was this that caused her fulminations about tickets being sold in the first place.
And the man who was responsible for this? Digvijaya Singh, who was suspected to be more a part of Rahul's "inner circle" than Sonia's. Singh headed the party's screening committee that decided on the tickets in Karnataka in 2008.
What infuriated Alva was that while her son had to forgo the ticket on the ostensible ground that family members should not contest the polls, the relatives of many other leaders had been accommodated.
Faced with disciplinary action, Alva resigned as the Congress general secretary but was pretty quick to patch up with Sonia Gandhi. She seemed happy when she was made the governor of Uttarakhand in 2009 and of Rajasthan in 2012. In 2014, her son Nivedith was made the chairman of the Karnataka Coastal Development Authority, a post that carries ministerial perks.
Despite this compromise, Alva has come up with what she calls a "tell-all" book and it only shows that her anger over the party's denial of what is due to her and her son has hardly subsided. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?
Alva's autobiography is unlikely to toss the party's central leadership into any major upheaval. But it is sure to ruffle many leaders in Karnataka, beginning with RV Deshpande, a senior minister in the government of Congress Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah. Deshpande belongs to the coastal district of Uttara Kannada that neighbours Alva's Dakshina Kannada and is her arch rival. He was instrumental in the denial of a ticket to her son in 2008.
Already in deep soup over the suicides of two deputy superintendents of police earlier this month, Siddaramaiah may now have to contend with a churn in the politics of coastal Karnataka as well.
The author tweets @sprasadindia