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The Big Gun Falls Silent: Madhavsinh Solanki Carried the Secrets of Bofors to his Grave

File photo of Madhavsinh Solanki

File photo of Madhavsinh Solanki

Solanki proved loyal to his party and its top leader till his last breath and paid a heavy price by going into political oblivion. He was neither a fool nor an inexperienced minister. He knew how dangerous it was to get embroiled in this. But despite that, if he did so, then it was surely to protect the honour of a high-level leader of the Congress or the family who could have suffered immensely due to this investigation.

The last rites of four-time Gujarat chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki, who died on Saturday at the age of 94, were carried out on Sunday. Solanki was external affairs minister in PV Narasimha Rao's cabinet, but he quit his post in March 1992 after being accused of trying to sabotage the investigation in the Bofors case and was never part of any other government again. A close associate of Indira Gandhi, Solanki never opened his mouth on Bofors till his death even as he had to pay a heavy political price for it.

Madhavsinh Solanki had been ailing for some time. In the past five decades of Gujarat's politics, Solanki, who had been the biggest star before Narendra Modi, had his memory failing him in his final days. After quitting active politics, he devoted himself to academics, something he was renowned for just like his politics. If you visited his home, the first thing that drew your attention was his abundant library. He would often talk about a new book or suggest reading one.

The first and final extensive conversation I had with Solanki was 15 years ago at the Ahmedabad airport. It was probably December 2006. Solanki was headed to Delhi and I to Mumbai. My friend and the-then airport manager Sant Kumar informed me about Solanki’s presence in the VIP lounge. I went to see him out of courtesy. Our meeting lasted for 45 minutes of which 40 were devoted to books while we talked for five minutes about other things. It was time for boarding and we had to leave. But even as we got up to go, he took out an instrument that was in his bag along with two books. He switched on the device which was a portable reader system (PRS) that was launched just a few months ago in the United States by Sony. One of his friends had sent it to him, as he was so fond of reading. He told me that he read e-books on it and it was very convenient because he could increase or decrease the font size as needed. It was for the first time that I had seen such a system and my respect for Solanki as a political leader and more so as a well-mannered scholar only increased many times.

I was in Gujarat in 1999 and at the time Solanki was a Rajya Sabha member. His term was to complete in 2000. But after his term came to a close, he was not nominated again. Solanki supporters blamed Ahmed Patel for this who finally influenced any decision of the Congress high command regarding Gujarat. It was Solanki who was instrumental in Ahmed Patel getting a ticket to fight the parliamentary election in 1977 from Bharuch on the suggestion of his friend Hari Singh Mahida and Patel managed to win this election despite the Janata wave. But there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. Solanki opened up a front against Ahmed Patel and brought his son Bharatsinh Solanki and his supporters, including Alka Balram Kshatriya who was later sent to the Rajya Sabha.

In a rally in June 2000 in Gandhinagar, Solanki supporters attacked Ahmed Patel directly. It was significant that none of the top leaders of AICC, including Sonia Gandhi, said a word against Solanki. It was a dilemma for Sonia as Patel was her confidante but Solanki had been a close associate of the Gandhi family for many decades. Madhavsinh Solanki was one of the leaders entrusted with the task by Indira Gandhi to make Rajiv Gandhi agree to enter politics after the death of Sanjay Gandhi. After the Emergency in 1977, Indira lost power and at that time Madhavsinh Solanki was one among a few who stood with her like a rock in her moment of crisis. That is why, when she returned in power in 1980, Indira Gandhi toppled many state governments ruled by rival parties including Gujarat, and when re-elections were held, the Congress formed the government in those states. Solanki was made the chief minister of Gujarat. After Indira Gandhi, Solanki remained loyal to Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. When Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister, he was external affairs minister and was forced to resign as it was alleged that he obstructed the investigation in the Bofors scandal. Sonia Gandhi could not forget this either.

Ahmed Patel resigned as treasurer of Congress in July 2000 and alleged that Solanki and his supporters had waged a war against him. Patel, who owed his entry into politics to Solanki, reached Ahmedabad to show his strength and his supporters staged a massive roadshow there. This led to the tensions between the Solanki and Patel camps. But the party high command was sympathetic towards both factions. Once again Ahmed Patel came close to Sonia Gandhi and became her political secretary and became the Congress treasurer in 2018 after 18 years and remained on the post till his death last year.

As far as Solanki is concerned, he was out of active politics after 2000. His son Bharatsinh Solanki was made the Gujarat Congress president and also held a ministerial position in the UPA government. Bharatsinh Solanki managed to repair his relationship with Ahmed Patel. In 2000, he was suspended for a brief period from the party for attacking Patel. Along with him, Solanki supporters like Navin Shastri, Kasam Bapu Tirmizi and Jagdish Thakor were also suspended from the party. Bharatsinh Solanki took up the reins from his father and Madhavsinh Solanki confined himself to his home in Gandhinagar where he devoted most of his time to academic activities and meeting visitors, well-wishers and friends.

Madhavsinh Solanki had a very humble beginning and he created his own place in politics. He was born on July 29, 1927, in a village called Piludara which falls under Jambusar taluka of Bharuch district. He spent his childhood in Badalpur which is now part of Borsad taluka in Anand district. His father Phoolsinh was a farmer and mother Ramba was a housewife. Coming from a humble background and a rural area, he did his BA Hons and LLB. He practised law in the beginning and later took up a job as a publishing officer in the Ahmedabad municipal corporation and also worked in a newspaper named Gujarat Samachar. There he was responsible for accommodating national and international issues on the front page. At that time, he did not know that one day he would himself make headlines for decades in newspapers and magazines.

His background in law and journalism helped him in politics and played important roles in the politics of the Centre and the state. Solanki started his political innings when Gujarat had still not become an independent state. He became an MLA in 1957 for the first time and Gujarat was still part of the larger Bombay state. In 1960 when the Gujarat state came into being, Solanki was part of the legislature as its member. The first election in the state was held in 1962. From the first to the seventh term, he remained part of the state legislature. His father in-law Ishwarsinh Chavda was an influential leader of central Gujarat and was a pillar of support for him.

Solanki was part of the first government in the state in 1962 as a deputy minister. He gathered valuable experience as deputy revenue, home, forest, law and justice minister. During 1975-76 and 1977-80, he was leader of opposition in the state assembly. He held the post of chief minister of the state for the first time from December 24, 1976 to April 11, 1977.

After the Emergency, elections were held in 1977 and Indira Gandhi lost. But the Janata Party suffered from internal bickering and even the Congress faced some problems. However, Madhavsinh Solanki stood with Indira Gandhi like a rock. When Indira returned to power in 1980, she rewarded all the loyal leaders who stood with her, including Solanki. Gandhi toppled many state governments and re-elections were held there which saw the return of Congress in those states. In 1980, assembly elections were also held in Gujarat and Madhavsinh Solanki returned as chief minister of the state for the second time. He took oath on June 6, 1980.

Solanki remained the CM for the next five years which was a record for the state at that time. Another leader who completed his second full term after Solanki was Narendra Modi who became chief minister of the state in October 2001 and remained on the post till 2014 when he became the Prime Minister.

For Madhavsinh Solanki, 1980 was a special year. He managed to get a firm grip on politics and grew close to Indira Gandhi. This enabled him to play a crucial role in the social, economic and industrial development of Gujarat. After her victory in 1980, Gandhi had come to Gujarat for a darshan of the deity Ambaji. A retired IAS officer, SK Nanda, still remembers those days when Solanki used his good offices with Indira Gandhi to take Gujarat to a new level of development.

Gandhi had great faith in Ambaji and she had visited the shrine previously too. In 1978, when she broke away from the Congress, she chose 'the hand' as the symbol of her breakaway Congress party. An old Congress leader in Bengaluru, RK Rajratnam, has claimed that on February 2, 1978, he had suggested to her to choose this symbol. But Nanda has another story to tell. According to him, when Indira Gandhi had come to have a darshan of Ambaji, she said that the mother’s hand had helped her and because of her blessings, she had won the elections. At the shrine, devotees have a darshan of Ambaji in the form of a hand.

When Indira Gandhi came out of the temple, Solanki wanted her to meet his officers including Nanda, though she was not too keen on this. She wanted to keep her trip private, but on Solanki's request, she agreed to meet the officials. At that time, all the top officers of the state were present there, including chief secretary HKL Kapoor, additional chief secretary in the department of home Chandramauli and additional chief secretary in the department of industry Shivgyanam. A famous officer of Gujarat, HK Khan, was director, industries, in those days and Nanda was the juniormost officer who was a 1978-batch IAS officer and at the time was sub-divisional magistrate in Vadodara.

Upon the instructions of Madhavsinh Solanki, Shivgyanam had said that the gas found in Bombay High should be used in the whole country and not just in Maharashtra, as Morarji Desai had announced. He had suggested developing Hazira near Surat for this as a distribution centre which was a small village by the sea in those days. At the time, Indira Gandhi did not promise anything but later she gave the order of developing Hazira as a distribution point. After this, the development of Hazira picked up and now it has become one of the most densely industrialised areas of the country. It boasts of being home to dozens of government and private companies.

This is an example of how efficient Solanki was in using opportunities. From 1980 to 1985, Solanki launched many social welfare programmes. This included the first mid-day meal scheme to programmes connected with girls' education and making it free. Through the public distribution system, he started delivering cheap food grains to middle-class people. Programmes for adult education were launched. To popularise savings among the poor, the Kutumb Pothi Scheme was launched and for the welfare of labourers, he increased the limit of minimum wages and created the post of rural labour commissioner. He took the help of his colleagues in the fields of journalism and literature. He appointed his fellow journalist Bhupatbhai Vadodariya as information director and made his poet friend Sheikh Adam Abuwala as advisor in the department of information. To encourage films in the state, studios were opened at many places and films of Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar were often made tax-free. The film Prem Rog was made tax-free because it promoted widow remarriage and inter-caste marriage. Famous film actresses were impressed with Solanki, like Rita Bhaduri and Aruna Irani.

Apart from socio-cultural fields, Solanki also exhibited his farsightedness in industrial development. Many industrial estates were developed in the state under the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) which attracted investment in the state. Industries were established and factories were started. He made the rule that 85 per cent seats in these factories should be reserved for local people so that they could get employment. This helped Gujarat become the second-most industrialised state of the country from its earlier eighth position. To produce fertiliser, GNFC was created. Works started on the Narmada river project which is called the lifeline of Gujarat and for this a loan of ₹500 crore was obtained from the World Bank.

Gujarati pride was instrumental in the creation of the new state of Gujarat based on the Gujarati language. But Solanki did not adopt a partial attitude in appointments among Gujaratis and non-Gujaratis. Another IAS officer of Gujarat cadre, Ravi Saxena, recalls how Solanki chose officers who were not only efficient but also smart. HK Khan, KC Kapoor, SK Shailat, LNS Mukundan, KD Buddha were such officers who played crucial roles in the industrial development during the rule of Solanki. KC Kapoor became the youngest MD of the GIDC and he was just a deputy secretary before that.

SK Nanda has a very fond memory of Solanki. In 1980, Nanda was a district magistrate in charge of Vadodara because the regular DM, SK Chaudhari, was undergoing treatment for cancer in Bombay. Chaudhari was close to the-then governor Sharda Mukherji and, considering this, Solanki kept Sharda Mukherji on this post but he delegated the authority to Nanda. During this time, Solanki visited Vadodara and in those days all the traffic of the city was routed through the middle of the city as it had no bypass route which caused many accidents.

Solanki asked Nanda how much time it would take to create a bypass for the city. Nanda said he would take 90 days to complete it if he were given all the power. Solanki discussed the issue with chief secretary HKL Kapoor who was not in favour of the idea but Solanki was firm and Nanda was given the task with full authority. Nanda got the bypass ready in 86 days. Madhavsinh Solanki had an eye for talent, be it for officers, or workers, or guessing the mood of the people.

That is why Solanki, who came from a backward caste, has such a unique record to his name which no one has been able to better. The record is of winning the most seats in any assembly election. In the assembly polls held in 1985, he managed to win 149 out of the total of 182 seats. This is a record till today. The BJP has aimed to better this record in many polls, but has failed so far.

This quality of Solanki, however, proved a bane for his political career. To win the election in 1980, he had devised a particular strategy and he was helped in this by fellow Congress leader Jinabhai Darji. This is a unique equation unparalleled in politics. He gave the slogan of KHAM which meant Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim. With this equation, he kept the upper castes at bay and won the election with the help of the four groups. But this game of politics ultimately devoured him. The upper castes were not happy with him because he had neglected them. And secondly, just before the assembly elections in 1985, Solanki announced to implement the recommendations of the Rane Commission. In 1981, a five-member commission was appointed under the leadership of retired high court judge Justice CV Rane. This commission was given the task to identify those castes which did not come under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes or identified by the Baxi Commission Report, implemented in 1978, but were socially and educationally very backward and could be empowered through expansion of the reservation quota for the OBC from 10 to 28 per cent. The Rane Commission submitted its report in 1983.

The announcement to implement the Rane Commission report in January 1985 raised a huge furore in the state. Many Congress leaders opposed this and the opposition led by the BJP confronted the government. The movement soon took a communal turn and the situation went out of hand in the state. At that time, Rajiv Gandhi was heading the Congress government at the Centre. Rajiv asked Solanki to take effective steps to handle the explosive situation including the deferment of the announcement of quota extension. In the meantime, more incidents of violence were reported from the state. The office of the Gujarat Samachar was set on fire and Solanki supporters were blamed for this incident. In such a situation, Solanki had to resign on the instructions from Rajiv and Amarsinh Chaudhary, who was from the tribal community, was made the chief minister. The situation was so bad that the government had to bring a senior IPS officer and make him DGP of the state to control the law and order situation. This officer was Julio Ribeiro who had started his career at the time of the Greater Bombay Province, from Bharuch. Madhavsinh Solanki was born there.

Solanki, who left the post of chief minister on July 6, 1985, returned again as CM for the fourth time on December 10, 1989. By then the Lok Sabha election in Gujarat was over and the Janata Dal and BJP had handed a defeat to the Congress. In such a situation, Rajiv Gandhi once again had to fall back on Solanki to win the elections in the state. But Solanki was running out of time and barely three months were left before polls could be held. As was feared, the Congress was defeated in 1990 and Madhavsinh Solanki’s fourth term came to an end.

Chimanbhai Patel became chief minister of the state. This was a government formed jointly by the BJP and Janata Dal. But the BJP withdrew support from the Chimanbhai government and he had to take the support of the Congress. Later Chimanbhai switched to the Congress party and remained the chief minister for four years. After the death of Chimanbhai, his close aide Chhabildas Mehta became the CM after the elections in 1995. The BJP has been winning all the assembly polls in the state after that but the record of winning the polls with the most number of seats still remains in Solanki’s name.

In 1991, Madhavsinh Solanki moved to the Centre when PV Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister. On June 21, 1991, when Rao took oath, Solanki was also sworn in as cabinet minister and was later given charge of the external affairs ministry.

Solanki was fit for this new role. He had command over Gujarati, Hindi and English and was an avid reader. His huge library with thousands of books was proof of this. Apart from classic literature, he was very fond of reading biographies and books on international relations. His interests touched almost all important aspects of intellectual life. He had a good collection of Abraham Lincoln’s quotes. He loved to visit different parts of the world and travel around by train.

But as external affairs minister, his tenure proved to be a short one and the Bofors investigation proved to be his undoing. In February 1992, during a World Trade Organization meeting in Davos, Solanki had handed over an informal note, known as non-paper in diplomatic language, to René Felber, the then foreign minister of Switzerland. Through this note he had allegedly requested the minister not to proceed with the investigation in the Bofors scandal and claimed that the Government of India was not interested in the issue which was politically motivated.

This issue came to light when the CBI was told about this by the federal department of justice and police of Switzerland. According to sources in CBI, the foreign minister of Switzerland had handed over this note from Solanki to the federal department of justice and police. In the meantime, the CBI asked for the documents related to the kickbacks of ₹64 crore which was transferred to some Swiss Bank accounts from the Swedish company Bofors. Had the CBI got the documents soon, it could have led to a speedy investigation of this case. The world had come to know about this scandal after a Swedish radio station had revealed this in one of its broadcasts in 1987. But the CBI had filed the case only in 1990 after VP Singh became Prime Minister.

As was natural, the Swiss officials could not make sense of the contradictory positions of India. On one side, the investigating agency was asking for documents from the Swiss government while on the other side, the external affairs minister of India was pressing for not going forward with the investigation. A baffled Swiss agency handed over the note of Solanki to the CBI and asked what it was supposed to do.

As is obvious, when the CBI came to know about this note, it raised the matter vociferously. The note was clearly an indication to stall the investigation that was heading towards indicting the Hinduja Brothers. It was alleged that a huge amount of money in the form of kickbacks was paid in a dummy account. The Hinduja Brothers’ name had also cropped up in connection with Germany’s HDW submarine scandal when the Indian ambassador in Bonn informed the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1987 that the supplier of SSK subs had quoted a higher price for two submarines. This was because it had paid a 7 per cent commission to the Indian agents. When VP Singh started to investigate this issue, he was removed from the finance ministry and was given the charge of defence ministry. Three months after that, it came to light that kickbacks had been paid in the Bofors gun purchase and, making this an issue, VP Singh quit the Rajiv Gandhi government. He later went on to create the Janata Dal and formed the government at the Centre with the help of the BJP in 1989 and later an FIR was filed with the CBI in the Bofors scandal.

Five years after the news of this scandal broke, the request to the Swiss government to not move ahead with the investigation in the case by the Congress minister created a huge row and this took the country by storm. Solanki accepted in Parliament that he had handed over a note to this effect to his Swiss counterpart and he resigned from his post on March 31, 1992. PM Narasimha Rao had no other choice but to accept his resignation. After this incident, Rao was so perturbed that for a long time he kept the portfolio of external affairs ministry with himself and carried out the business of this ministry through two state ministers, RL Bhatia and Salman Khurshid. After this, Dinesh Singh was made foreign minister for some time and later Pranab Mukherjee was given charge of this ministry at the end of the tenure of the government. It was the same Pranab Mukherjee whom Solanki had sent to Rajya Sabha in 1981 from Gujarat.

Madhavsinh Solanki never opened his mouth on the Bofors scandal. He did not say who told him to forward the informal request through the note to stall the investigation in this scandal which ultimately ended his political career. The CBI even filed a charge sheet against Solanki and his reputation was tarnished.

It is anybody’s guess that Solanki was not a fool nor an inexperienced minister. He knew how dangerous it was to get embroiled in this. But despite that, if he did so, then it was surely to protect the honour of a high-level leader of the party or the family who could have suffered immensely due to this investigation. If the Hinduja Brothers were trapped in this scandal, then those who have even a little bit of political knowledge may guess, who ultimately would have been caught. As is natural, Solanki proved loyal to his party and its prime leader till his last breath and paid a heavy price by going into political oblivion. As far as the question of who prepared the informal note is concerned, if CBI sources are to be believed, it was a prominent leader of the party itself who also had a legal background and who apart from commanding the affairs of the law ministry, also later became the governor of a state. Now, all the prominent actors of this scandal have left this world, and the last of them was Solanki. It does not seem like anybody would come forward to reveal the name.

Now the question is, how will history remember Madhavsinh Solanki? Will he be remembered as a leader who reached the top from a humble beginning and who had a shining career as a chief minister of Gujarat which is remarkable in the history of the state? Or as a leader under whom the caste politics in the state reached its crescendo and one who did not care to rein in corruption and bad law and order situation in the state, and paid a price for it? Or as a leader who was very successful as an administrator and did not let the heat reach the supreme leader of his party? Or as a person who despite being in politics was not a hypocrite, who smoked Dunhill in the circuit house, wore a suit and was fond of non-veg food and was an expert in solving the most intricate political problem? Or as a quiet, sombre person who came to the limelight due to politics but who still delved into poetry and found satisfaction in immersing himself in books and this is the way he remained till his end at the age of 94? Even PM Narendra Modi has pointed to these facets of his personality in his condolences. Madhavsinh Solanki has left this world and now history will have to start its work.

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