New Delhi: It was 2004 and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was contesting elections for the first time. Reporters were stationed in UP’s Amethi a few days before he was to file his nomination.
While most local Congress leaders were fawning over the Gandhis and trying to out-do each other in getting close to the family, one man stood out for going about his work quietly and meticulously.
“It has to be perfect. I can’t take a chance,” said HR Bhardwaj, busy sorting out the affidavits which would have to be submitted with the nomination forms.
On nomination day, the entire Gandhi family was huddled around the table as Rahul Gandhi filed his election papers. Bhardwaj stood close to them, quietly passing on the papers one by one. The Gandhis left and Bhardwaj sat down with a drink to relax and regale journalists with stories of how he prepared the affidavit.
Some would call this indiscreet, but then, that was HR Bhardwaj. An old-style Congress neta, Bhardwaj couldn’t be faulted for his loyalty to the Gandhis. Rajiv Gandhi had once told him to look after his family, and Panditji, as Bhardwaj was called, never let him down. This loyalty sometimes breached protocol, and at times, went overboard.
For example, in 2009, he was criticised for de-freezing two bank accounts belonging to Ottavio Quattrocchi, an accused in the Bofors defence scandal. In fact, Bhardwaj was accused of not even consulting the CBI, which had frozen Quattrocchi’s assets.
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi valued his unflinching loyalty and he was sent to Karnataka as the governor where he earned the reputation for politicising the governor’s office. It was Bhardwaj who gave the order for prosecution of BS Yediyruppa in under the Prevention of Corruption Act in 2011.
It is said that even when Ashwini Kumar was the law minister, then prime minister Manmohan Singh would take advice from Bhardwaj. In fact, when Ashwini Kumar called CBI officers in his chamber over the coal scam case, in which Manmohan Singh’s name was also dragged, Bhardwaj scolded him for being indiscreet.
In many ways, Bhardwaj died a disappointed man. He felt he was abandoned by the Gandhi family and would speak to reporters criticising Rahul Gandhi, whom he held accountable for his rift with the family. Bhardwaj put up a brave face when he was dropped from the Manmohan Singh cabinet in 2009 and said it isn’t necessary that everyone becomes a mantri. But in private, he blamed a coterie within the Congress.
Though Sonia Gandhi did send him to the Karnataka Raj Bhavan for old times’ sake, Bhardwaj could never fit into the changed Congress with Rahul Gandhi as vice-president. Not one to mince words or be bothered about negative press coverage, Panditji fielded criticism for the way he conducted the Raj Bhavan.
With his demise, the Congress has lost another old-timer who could have taught the current crop of party leaders a lesson or two in effectively countering the BJP. But then, he perhaps realised that his time was up and the Congress too had moved on.