When Indira mistook ‘haath’ as ‘haathi’, but Narasimha Rao’s reference of ‘Panja’ gave Congress its symbol

It is not that Rasheed Kidwai has used anecdotes simply to spice up his story. Rather he, has used the charming anecdotes to throw lights on as complex as issues of dynastic politics, nepotism, corruption as well as niceties and decencies of Indian politics

“Unsure of which symbol to pick, Singh (Buta) booked a call to seek Indira’s approval. The line was, probably, not clear or, perhaps, Singh’s accent was thick but Indira kept hearing haathi or elephant instead of haath or hand when it came to the third option. She kept refusing even as he tried to explain that it was not elephant but the open palm symbol that he was advising her to pick. An exasperated Indira handed the telephone to Rao (P. V Narasimha Rao). In a matter of seconds, Rao, a master of more than dozen languages, understood what Singh was trying to convey and reportedly shouted out to Singh to call it Panja. Relieved Indira took the receiver and wholeheartedly agreed”.

This is the story of how Indira Gandhi approved open palm as her party’s symbol ahead of the 1980 elections that enabled her to regain power from the socialists, rightists and renegades from Congress who had joined hands to dethrone the redoubtable daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1977.

The above extract is a part of the BALLOT, telling the story of Panja (open palm) that is still the Congress’s symbol. The BALLOT also tells an enthralling account of how elephant and cycle—the two other symbols which Indira disapproved, falling for open palm– have been dominating the political landscape of Uttar Pradesh– India’s most populous state. The Samajvadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have cycle and elephant respectively as their symbols.

Ballot rasheed kidwai indian politics books
Rasheed Kidwai

Rasheed Kidwai—author of the BALLOT, published by Hachette (India) is a master raconteur in contemporary Indian politics. He has used the anecdotes with panache to produce an enchanting account on the complex politics of India.

The above extract is in the context of Indira’s selection of her party’s symbol. But it also tells about the power structure in Congress then. Buta Singh was a Congress general secretary, assigned to apply for a fresh symbol as Indira had lost interest in cow and calf. Indira was travelling in Vijaywada with P.V Narasimha Rao when the Election Commission gave open palm, cycle and elephant to the Congress to choose from. The mobile phone and Whatsapp were yet to arrive. Buta Singh booked a call to Indira in Vijaywada and it was how the polyglot Narasimha Rao helped her getting the symbol that catapulted her to power again.

It is not that Rasheed Kidwai has used anecdotes simply to spice up his story. Rather he, has used the charming anecdotes to throw lights on as complex as issues of dynastic politics, nepotism, corruption as well as niceties and decencies of Indian politics. The book takes the readers through the complex twists and turns apart from the tact, guile and camouflage which the politicians operate in.

It is refreshing as well as enlightening for the present generation to learn that Feroze Gandhi—a great freedom fighter and husband of Indira Gandhi—while contesting the Rai Baraili seat on the Congress’s ticket in 1952 had a breakfast at his Communist Party rival’s house and then proceeded on campaign. The first electoral roll got million of north Indian and central Indian women named as “B’s wife, A’ mother and C’s daughter” which the first chief election commissioner of India, Sukumar Sen had to deal with. The book brings to the fore how the custom and culture on play in Indian hinterlands then restricted the women from revealing their names.

The BALLOT has numerous anecdotes—so far unheard off and unrecorded but true and meaty—to tell the sweet and sour stories from the leaders ranging from Jawaharlal Nehru to Lal Bahadur Sashtri, to Indira to Morarji Desai to Rajiv Gandhi to A. B Vayapee to Manmohan Singh to Narendra Modi and the myriad political parties from Congress, Socialist, Jan Sangh, BJP besides regional parties in Indian states from south to north and from east to west.

Rasheed Kidwai has narrated the RSS as skilfully as skilful the right wing Hindu outfit has been over the years since the first general elections in making short term and long term goals.

The most enthralling aspect of the BALLOT is, it is a page turner. Few books on Indian politics can keep the readers as engaged. The BALLOT is an exception. It is the whole of the many enchanting tales. The captivating anecdotes will make you race through the pages with ease. Plus, it has been written in the simplest possible language.

Perhaps, the author—an avid political reporter—knows that the new generation in hurry is in no mood delve in complex words. I bet this generation will find it hard to put once it begins reading it.

I have seen the word “UNPUTDOWNABLE” in many advertisements. But I understood what “UNPUTDOWNABLE” really stands for when I started reading it….I am still in the middle of reading it.

Nalin Verma

is journalist, author and teacher. He is also Patron of eNewsroom India. The senior journalist loves writing on the rural India's folklore and on Indian politics. He has co-authered Gopalganj to Raisina Road with Lalu Prasad Yadav and The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar

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