RK Dhawan, the trusted right hand of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, passed away in B L Kapur hospital yesterday. While his death marks the end of an era in Congress, the power and hold that this man possessed continue to raise questions even as his stoic silence baffled many. Dhawan, who began as Gandhi’s personal assistant in 1962 and rose to being a close confidante of Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi during the tumultous years mired in controversies such as the Emergency and the Bofors scandal. Being very close to the powers that be, Dhawan was privy to several things confidential but chose not to speak out in public and kept secrets as secrets.
Dhawan’s rise was a meteoric one. He gained access to the Nehru-Gandhi family through his relative and started out as a stenographer in Jawaharlal Nehru’s office. He then started to assist Gandhi at Teen Murti House. Notably, he did not hold any official position at that point of time and slowly rose to being the private secretary as well as the special assistant to Indira Gandhi. It was during the Emergency that Dhawan gained powers and became the eyees and ears of Gandhi and someone indispensable to Sanjay Gandhi as well.
Sanjay Gandhi and Dhawan used to take decisions between 1975 and 1977 and were referred to, derisively by Mrs Gandhi’s senior officials, as “the palace guards”. Bishan Tandon, Joint Secretary to Indira Gandhi, once noted in his diary: “Soon nearly every single appointment which went to the PM for approval was decided on the basis of recommendations of the palace guards. When files now reach her, she does not even bother to read them.’’ Dhawan’s critics claimed that his words carried the authority of the Prime Minister and he acted as her gatekeeper, even deciding who got to meet the Prime Minister.
Regardless of the clout that Dhawan enjoyed, Dhawan had his share of rough patches too. Following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the commission of inquiry under Justice M P Thakkar came to the conclusion that the “needle of suspicion points to Dhawan’s involvement”. Dhawan was removed from his position. However, he returned to the corridors of power when the Bofors scandal broke out and Rajiv Gandhi realised that he needed the service of Dhawan. He was exonerated of all charges and appointed Officer on Special Duty to Rajiv Gandhi as PM in 1989.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, he retained his aura. He was elected twice to Rajya Sabha and was a member of the Congress Working Committee. He was Minister for Urban Development when P V Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister.