Cappy or Panditji to many, is no more. In Captain Satish Sharma’s demise, Sonia Gandhi has lost a precious link with the life and times of Rajiv and Indira Gandhi.
Sharma’s friendship with Rajiv predates the two Indian Airlines commercial pilots entering politics. Rajiv had a wide circle of friends in the Indian Airlines where ‘Cappy’ Captain Sharma and HR Singh stood out.
Singh fell out with Rajiv after Maneka Gandhi had to walk out of Indira's residence months after Sanjay Gandhi’s death but Captain Sharma stayed on almost like a shadow to Rajiv when he donned political colours in 1981, months after the death of his younger brother. Captain Sharma, trained as a pilot in Kansas City, Missouri, too chucked a rather lucrative job to join politics.
According to ML Fotedar, had Sharma not been close to Rajiv, perhaps Priyanka Gandhi would have had a different name, ‘Sharika'. Apparently, Indira Gandhi wanted to name her granddaughter after the Nehru family deity Sharika Bhagwati [Ashtadash], the goddess with 18 arms, a manifestation of Shakti.
As luck would have it, both Sonia Gandhi, and Captain Sharma’s Danish wife Sterre were pregnant around the same time. The Sharmas were blessed with a daughter and approached Indira to give a name to their newborn. Fotedar has quoted Indira saying, “Sharika was on my mind, and I simply could not resist mentioning it so their child was given the name!” This instance showcases Captain Sharma's lifelong proximity to the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Captain Sharma became a key member of Rajiv’s durbar along with Vijay Dhar, Lalit Suri, Amitabh Bachchan and Arun Singh.
When Rajiv was Prime Minister, Sharma’s primary job was to look after the PM’s Amethi constituency, and act as an interface between constituents and Rajiv Gandhi. He would often accompany Sonia Gandhi to Amethi to distribute medical supplies and undertake other welfare activities. They would listen to the people’s grievances. Sonia used to avoid making political speeches, restricting herself to asking them to vote for Rajiv.
‘Patiji ko vote dijiye (vote for my husband)", was one of her favourite sentences. She would giggle after finishing it, much to the amusement of everyone present. In 1986, Sharma was drafted in the Rajya Sabha.
There was a strict demarcation between 7, Race Course Road and the adjoining 5, Race Course Road that were part of Rajiv’s office and residence inside the prime minister’s home.
No one, including such close associates as Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer Mani Shankar Aiyar and senior IAS officer Wajahat Habibullah, who were in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and close associates like Sam Pitroda and P Chidambaram, were allowed inside Rajiv’s family quarters. Both Mani and Habibullah had studied with Rajiv in Doon School but their proximity-cum-friendship was not enough to have easy access to the Sonia household.
Captain Satish Sharma had access to the shuttle between 7 and 5, Race Course Road without any hindrance. He was a man of all seasons and disliked by many who claimed proximity to Rajiv. Sanjay Singh, former Raja of Amethi, was one such prominent leader.
Captain Sharma, however, continued to be in a league with a handful of persons such as Suman Dubey, Amitabh Bachchan, Arun Singh, Mohan Thadani, Michael Albuquerque, who were considered the prime minister’s personal friends and occasionally seen having meals at the prime minister’s residence along with their spouses. Like Madhavrao Scindia, he did not have to go through ML Fotedar, RK Dhawan or V George to meet Rajiv Gandhi.
During lunchtime, Captain Sharma would invariably walk across to Hotel Ashoka in Chanakyapuri area and occupy the last table, away from the public glare. He would quietly eat soup and sandwich, pay and return to work at the prime minister’s office-cum-residence at 7, Race Course Road.
Things were moving smoothly for Rajiv till April 16, 1987, when a Swedish radio station made a startling disclosure, the reverberations of which were felt till Rajiv was around. Many around Rajiv faced the glare and VP Singh, who served as the prime minister’s bete noire, constantly targeted his former boss and Captain Sharma.
Post Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, in September 1991, the Election Commission announced by-elections for the Amethi Lok Sabha seat that was represented by Rajiv. The Congress’s in-house shouting brigade, often called Sonia brigade, swung into action. Ratnakar Pandey, SS Ahluwalia and Suresh Pachauri openly asked Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to call on Sonia and persuade her to contest from Amethi as Rajiv’s successor.
There was a ‘Sonia lao’ (draft Sonia) campaign. Sonia was not interested. Instead, she, Rahul and Priyanka, the family, decided to go on a tour of Europe and America. When Rao heard of Sonia’s travel plans, he immediately called on her. The meeting lasted for an hour. Sonia made it clear that she had no intention to contest Amethi. When Rao reportedly told her that there was a view in the party that Captain Sharma should be given the party ticket, Sonai told Rao that a ticket to Captain Sharma should be given on merit, in keeping with political considerations.
Captain Sharma was given the ticket. The Rao camp gave an impression that Sonia had recommended him. His own statements corroborated this view. Taking a leaf out of the Ramayana, he said like Bharat, he was keeping the seat secure for Bhaujai (sister-in-law). He succeeded in convincing the Amethi electorate that his candidature had Sonia’s blessings and that she would soon be contesting the polls to look after Amethi. That did not happen till 1999. In fact, in the 1998 parliamentary polls, Captain Sharma lost from Amethi to Sanjay Singh who had joined the BJP. He was elected again to the Lok Sabha from Raebareli in 1999 when Sonia won the 1999 parliamentary polls from Amethi.
During the Narasimha Rao era, Sharma had become union minister of petroleum and natural gas from 1993 to 1996. By 1996, Captain Sharma had come under a cloud following a complaint by HD Shourie, director of Common Cause, who had alleged that petroleum and natural gas ministry officials showed favour to different allottees for sanctioning of petrol pumps and gas agencies by abusing their official position as public servants.
A case of criminal conspiracy and criminal breach of trust by a public servant under the Indian Penal Code and Prevention of Corruption Act was registered against Sharma and allottees of the petrol pumps and gas agencies.
The political grapevine of that era had it that one of the close aides of Sharma, who was nursing a grudge against the minister, had leaked the vital information to Shourie.
In the absence of any confirmation, it was often said Sonia Gandhi was not too happy with Captain Sharma, particularly after the petrol pump scam. The fact that Sharma did not become a union minister during the ten years of UPA has been cited as a pointer. But the counter argument is that Sharma continued to get Rajya Sabha nominations from Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.