“Sir, Please consider me for the post of Vice-President.” This is what Margaret Alva told the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, in 1992. “Even your hair has not turned grey yet, how can you become Vice-President?” asked Rao. The Vice-President post then went to K R Narayanan, a Dalit, with Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, a Brahmin, decorating the post of the President of the country.
Now, finally at the age of 80, the grey-haired Margaret Alva has been unanimously chosen as the Opposition candidate for Vice-President, though her victory remains elusive. If, by any chance, she wins, Margaret will be the first Christian to become the Vice-President of India, a post which was normally given to Muslims from among the Minorities, right from Dr Zakir Hussain to Hamid Ansari.
This time, Alva is not excited to contest the election, as the results are a foregone conclusion, with numbers loaded on the side of the Ruling BJP. However, she could not refuse, with leaders like Sharad Pawar and Sitaram Yechury insisting on her name. She still has stakes in the Congress, as her youngest son Nivedth Alva is active in Karnataka politics.
Indeed Margaret Alva, with her legal background and her experience as politician and Governor, is a perfect choice for Vice-President, who has been pitted against the NDA candidate Jagdeep Dhankar. She is a heavy-weight politician, who served the country in various capacities, holding important Ministries like Women and Child Development, Parliamentary Affairs, Ministry of Personnel, Pensions and Public Grievances that includes CBI, Science & Technology and Sports Ministry under the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao and later held gubernatorial posts in Goa, Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan. She was the favourite of Sonia Gandhi and used to assist her as Congress President, the responsibility, which later went to Najma and Kumari Selja.
With Sonia Gandhi as Congress President, she served as AICC General Secretary for several States, including Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Meghalaya and Nagaland between 2004-2009. However, in 2008, she stoked a controversy, alleging that Lok Sabha tickets were open to bidders, rather than subject to meritocratic consideration. She was agitated, as she failed to get a ticket for her son in Karnataka, while the kith & kin of several leaders managed to get tickets in States like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In her autobiography, entitled, “Courage & Commitment,” she, herself, admits of accusing the party leadership to Journalists, saying, “Different rules exist for different people. This is how we lost Karnataka. We have complaints that tickets were sold at the local level. As for sons and daughters, Jaffer Sharief’s grandson and my son are not smugglers or terrorists — why were they kept out?” For her outspokenness, she was forced to quit from the party post. However, in 2009, she patched up with Sonia Gandhi, to become the first female Governor of Uttarakhand.
Ever since her critical remarks against the functioning of the party, Alva has been sharing an estranged relationship with Congress President Sonia Gandhi. The latter was annoyed with Margaret Alva for speaking against the party in the open, while Alva was infuriated for not getting the Lok Sabha ticket for her son Nivedith Alva.
Her youngest son Nivedith is politically active in Karnataka, while the elder one Nikhil Alva was in the team of Rahul Gandhi’s advisors, assisting him in his image-makeover, when he was the Congress President before the 2019 elections. Perhaps, it is due to her sons, both of whom are engaged with the party work that Alva could not refuse to contest, even though she is not excited, aware of the outcome of the results. “I have enough publicity, don’t need more,” she remarked, when asked why she chose to contest, not giving a straight answer to the query.
Alva was similarly not enthused when she was offered the gubernatorial post after being in active politics for decades, but she accepted the post unwillingly. “I had already experienced the consequences of defiance, especially when helpless and alone. I could not appear ungrateful and proud.”
Indeed, she has been active for decades, having been nominated to Rajya Sabha four times and having won the Uttara Kannada Lok Sabha seat in 1999. She is a lawyer well-versed with the Constitution, with understanding of politics and belongs to a Minority community. All these plus points work in her favour, except the arithmetic in Parliament, which goes against her. Earlier, her colleague in Karnataka, who belongs to the OBC community, B K Hariprasad, was pitted against the NDA Candidate Harivansh Narayan Singh for the post of Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman and expectedly lost.
The Opposition led by Sharad Pawar was looking for a woman candidate this time to contest against Jagdeep Dhankar. Since the latter belongs to the Jat community, a candidate from Minority was preferred. Though the Christians constitute only 3 per cent of the population, the Opposition preferred Alva as against any Muslim candidate, which would have given the opportunity to the ruling dispensation to charge them of Muslim appeasement. Moreover, there was no Muslim leader to match the stature of Dhankar, except Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has lately fallen out with the Congress, over the leadership issue.
The selection of a Minority candidate for the much-coveted post is in itself a signal of giving a stamp to the secular ideology of the United Opposition. In addition to the 17 political parties, which have endorsed the candidature of Margaret Alva, both Mamata Banerjee and AAP are expected to bat for her. No one, other than a Minority candidate, would have suited to serve the agenda of the Opposition, which is to expose the communal politics of the Modi Government. More than Sonia Gandhi, Alva happens to be the choice of Pawar and Yechury. Sonia has merely given her assent, knowing that she anyways is expected to lose.
For Margaret Alva, who has been lying low ever since she demitted office as Rajasthan Governor, the winning of elections as Vice-President would have been an historic occasion. But she has been deceived most of the time. Earlier Sitaram Kesri had promised to nominate her as Vice President during I K Gujral’s tenure but they went for Krishan Kant, rather than opting for her name, she discloses in her autobiography.
Partly, the fault also lies on her candid attitude that Alva fell from the good books of her bosses. In her autobiography, published in 2016, she has spilled the beans on the relations between Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao on how the Congress President was peeved with him for handling the Bofors case. “Before my efforts could yield results, the decision of the government (the PMO to be precise) to appeal against the Delhi High Court decision to quash complaints in the Bofors case was announced. Soniaji was doubly upset with him. I clarified to her that while I was in charge of the CBI, I had neither been asked nor told about this development and all instructions had gone directly through A N Verma when the Prime Minister was abroad.”
She goes on to say in the book, “I conveyed her response to the Prime Minister. Like Soniaji, he snapped at me, “What does she want from me? I cannot close the Bofors case, which is before the courts. It will go on.” Surely, Sonia wouldn’t have preferred to let this fact come out publicly.
In fact, Margaret Alva also comes out openly against the manner in which Narasimha Rao was treated after his death with the gun carriage, carrying his body parked outside the pavements of the AICC gates. She writes in her book, “I was shocked to see this when I arrived. Ever since, I have regretted not protesting and walking away. Why was he humiliated in this manner? Was it because he was a South Indian?” Surely, Sonia Gandhi wouldn’t have preferred to let these secrets come out in the public domain.
In her subsequent interviews, she talks about Sanjay Gandhi’s links with the father of alleged AgustaWestland middleman Christian Michel and their involvement in an illegal arms deal involving the sale of old tanks to South Africa.
The innings of Margaret Alva are virtually over. Had she been discreet enough, she would have got a chance to occupy the high office. Earlier, her mother-in-law Violet Alva served as Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman, way back in 1952. Both, her Mother-in-Law and Father-in-Law, Violent Alva and Joachim Alva, were elected to the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, respectively, from the then Bombay State, making them the first couple to be elected together in Parliament. After going through her autobiography, one wonders if it was better to name her book as “Candid & Ambitious” rather than “Courage & Commitment.”
(The writer is Delhi-based senior journalist and political commentator. Views are personal.)
Alva: Candid & Ambitious