-By Rajeev Gowda
Way back in 1969, I was a young lad of six. Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister and Nijalingappa was the President of the All India Congress Committee. Suddenly, over a few days, there was a tremendous hubbub at home as my father and uncle went into political overdrive. The excitement, it turned out, was due to the election of the President of India.
My uncle and father were totally with Indira Gandhi when she called for a conscience vote in favour of Vice President VV Giri. This was despite my uncle being a good friend of the party’s official candidate, former Congress President, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy. As we all sat through the night listening to news bulletins on All India Radio, the flash finally came: Giri had triumphed. Indira Gandhi had gambled and won. She had taken on the Syndicate. She had shown these powerful regional satraps that she could take them on politically and best them.
The Congress split vertically thereafter. My uncle, the late M. V. Krishnappa, gave his MP residence in Delhi, 15 Windsor Place, to serve as the headquarters of the Congress (R), as the new Indira Gandhi-led Congress was called. And, as the pioneer of the dairy cooperative movement in Karnataka, he suggested the Cow and Calf as the new party’s electoral symbol. My father, M. V. Venkatappa, an MLC then, was one among only a dozen legislators who joined Indira Gandhi. The majority of Congressmen in Karnataka stayed with Nijalingappa’s Organization Congress, which was ruling the state.
Devaraj Urs became party president in Karnataka and my father its secretary. The two would get together all the time and would be in and out of each others’ houses. I would tag along and sit in on meetings like a founding member of the new party. Then, when the historic mid-term election campaign came in 1971, Indira Gandhi arrived in Bangalore late in the evening to a tumultuous welcome at Yeshwantpur Circle. A Congress activist, all of 8 years old, was entrusted with the task of welcoming her to the city with a bouquet. Yes, you guessed it—it was me!
The year was 1978, and I was in tenth standard at St. Joseph’s Boys High School in Bangalore. Our class was getting ready for its Valedictory function, where all of us who were moving on to college would be cheered on by our parents and teachers. It was customary to have all sorts of cultural programmes as part of the Valedictory function.
Some of us decided to stage a play. We had been studying Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as part of the ICSE syllabus. In our search for a suitable play to enact for the function, we came across a version of Julius Caesar adapted to India’s recent history by some intrepid engineers at the Regional Engineering College, Surathkal. We were ecstatic. It was just what we were looking for. Something topical and Indian but based on the Shakespearean classic which we had learned to love.
In this Indianized version, Julius Caesar’s place was taken by Indira Gandhi. Jagjivan Ram, the long-time Congressman and her Defence Minister, but who had defected just before the 1977 elections, became Brutus. Jayaprakash Narayan was Cassius. Various other Opposition politicians played assorted Roman conspirators. Sanjay Gandhi was Mark Anthony.
Of course, ours was a boys-only school, so we had to find someone to play the lead. And lo and behold, central casting chose me. You wouldn’t believe it if you saw my 6 foot, filled-out frame today, but I was a lithe, lissome lad in my youth. And if you see my face in profile, (a sight that I never get to see, thankfully), you’ll be accosted by my pronounced aquiline nose. (Apparently, if I stand on this side of the Wagah border, my nose will have crossed no-man’s land and invaded Pakistan!)
Anyway, I donned an elegant cotton sari, covered enough hair with talcum powder to approximate that famous shock of white, and entered stage right, aquiline nose leading the way. The scene had me walking in while talking to a Sindhi classmate in a kurta pyjama who could well have been Sanjay Gandhi’s twin. We were greeted with such thunderous applause, as classmates and parents and teachers howled and hooted that it took us five minutes to actually declaim our first lines.