New Delhi, Feb 22.
Gandhi family loyalist and six-time MP Captain Satish Sharma, who passed away at 73 in Goa last Tuesday (Feb 16), kept to his heart interesting glimpses of personal life of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with whom he had close ties since their early flying days. While diligently protecting them, he would occasionally come out in driblets when drawn into conversation in close circles.
As Rajiv Gandhi’s close friend, Capt Sharma enjoyed enormous power and authority he exercised judiciously on behalf of the PM even though he was not a member of Gandhi’s cabinet. Few knew that the Captain was allotted a residential bunglow next to PM House at 7, Race Course Road. In spite of his busy schedule as PM, Rajiv Gandhi would often unwind himself with close friends. As recounted by Capt Sharma a few months before his death in close circles, one evening a friend lightly queried Rajiv Gandhi what he missed most after becoming PM. “Rajiv got up and went out without responding. We all thought he would be back shortly. Instead, he took a full 90 minutes to return. He then revealed he went to take a sortie of the Himalayas. We were all shocked to hear”, Capt Sharma exclaimed. Rajiv Gandhi had straight driven to Safdarjung Airport without any aide, got on to a small jet parked there and taken off, sending the traffic control in a tizzy. It was his way of saying that he missed flying the most. “Of course the ATC kept a track for all of 90 minutes which none of us were aware of that time”, revealed the Captain to a small group of friends in Parliament House premises in the presence of this writer.
The love of flying had brought both Capt Sharma and Rajiv Gandhi close to each other since early days. “ I would often be picked up by Rajiv for training sorties at Safdarjung Flying Club when we were in our twenties”, he said, adding “he would never flaunt as son of PM Indira Gandhi”. The Captain recalled how Rajiv Gandhi got very annoyed once when he told him that he would one day become Prime Minister of the country. “We had just completed our flight roaster in the Indian Airlines that day and were together in a five star hotel in Bombay. I cannot forget Rajiv’s reaction. But after he did become PM, Rajiv would curse me for my prophecy. This only strengthened our bond”, he would say.
As close confidante of the PM, Capt Sharma would carry out errands of his friend in all fields, including political. He literally nursed Amethi and Rae Bareilly parliamentary constituencies on behalf of the Gandhis. Among the Gandhis, the Captain kept in touch with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra on a fairly regular basis till the end. Even though he had moved to his Mehrauli farmhouse, quite some distance away, he would find time to visit Priyanka Gandhi while on way to Parliament House to sit with small group of politician friends late afternoon every day. One day he shocked the group by suddenly announcing that he has been diagnosed with cancer without a whiff of concern in his face. He took life lightly, it would seem. That was around mid 1919.
The denial of a re-nomination to the Rajya Sabha in 2016 had somewhat pained him though he would not show it. “The party needed lawyers to fight several cases “, he told friends without any enquiry from anyone. According to one of his close confidants, though, he was ill at ease with the situation though never complained about it.
Recounting how Narasimha Rao became PM, he disclosed once that Rao had packed his bags to return to Hyderabad when he intervened to convince Sonia Gandhi that he be made PM. Among people who played a role then included Dhirendra Brahmachari, he would concede. After becoming PM, Rao asked the Captain to choose a ministry for himself. “I naturally chose Civil Aviation. But Rao shot back saying ‘Capt you would be all the time surrounded by lovely women crew members and not be able to work. Please choose any other ministry. A while later, Rao himself chose Petroleum for me to which I agreed.” The Captain became controversial , though, for his largesse in distributing petrol pumps and gas agencies to his chosen ones. It was to his credit that he obliged even to Opposition leaders. He recounted how even Atal Behari Vajpayee once requested allotment of a petrol pump for his election agent in Lucknow. “Of course I did not take a moment to say yes”, he said.
Capt Satish Sharma faced a Supreme Court case on these allotments and was fined Rs 50 lakhs. But the fine was subsequently withdrawn. This was a testimony to the fact that the Captain did show largesse apparently throwing rules to the wind but for no pecuniary gain for himself. Sitting in Parliament House premises among friends, he would effortlessly reel out names of people he gave petrol pumps.
Capt Satish Sharma was subjected to worse attacks from the media, including this writer, during late Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as PM for his lavish lifestyle. “ I once seriously thought of suing them and went to Rajiv Gandhi for permission. He merely said: ‘ let them write what they want. Do not worry. I withdrew.” Sharma knew it was an attack on Rajiv Gandhi indirectly by his adversaries and that he was just becoming a pawn.
Politics following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and the 1991 parliamentary election throwing unclear verdict making Congress the number one party, however, catapulted Capt Satish Sharma into a prominent member of the political dramatis personae who played a key role in the background to steer the situation. The time witnessed intense manoeuvres by politicians like Sharad Pawar, in the Congress then, and top industrialists of the country in the run up to the formation of a new Government under P.V.Narasimha Rao. The Captain admitted to playing a stellar intermediary role.
Disclosing that a few writers approached him for materials on book on Rajiv Gandhi, some offering him co-authorship, he said he spurned them all. The Captain had made Goa his winter home for many years. He loved the place. It was not unbefitting that his end came in Goa.