Maneka Gandhi did what nobody else would even dare to think ─ browbeat Indira Gandhi to tears


Yes, this had happened many years ago, when a widowed Maneka was ousted by her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi from Safdurjung 1, the residence of India’s Prime Minister. Mrs Gandhi had strong leanings towards her younger son Sanjay, and her eldest bahu Sonia. While she would introduce the Italian daughter-in-law to her circle as the bahurani, Indira Gandhi would not give Maneka, the wife of Sanjay any importance.

Maneka Gandhi with Family
The Gandhi family in happier times. Mrs Gandhi had strong leanings towards her younger son Sanjay, and her eldest bahu Sonia.

The reasons were many. Maneka was a spirited, volatile and outgoing young lady, barely out of her teens, who would smoke inside the house and not participate in the household chores. Also, Maneka’s mother Amteshwar was abhorred by Mrs Gandhi for her ‘bossy ways’. While Sonia was the perfect bahu in the Gandhi household, calling Indira “mummy”, and doing her bit in minding the house, Maneka would not stay at home. The youngest bahu was also peeved that her saas was so fond of Sonia that she gave Jawaharlal Nehru’s watch and pen as mementoes to her.

After Sanjay’s death in 1980, Maneka harboured hopes of taking over the political work that her husband had left behind. But Indira was not to lose it to a woman she was not particularly fond of. It didn’t take long before the war between the saas-bahu reached a point of no return.

After Sanjay’s death in 1980, Maneka harboured hopes of taking over the political work that her husband had left behind.

Maneka was aware that Mrs Gandhi’s was not going to take her tantrums for long. A conniving Maneka devised a way to instigate her mother-in-law. While the PM was gone to London for the India Festival, accompanied by Sonia, Maneka and her friend Akbar Ahmed decided to launch the Sanjay Vichar Manch.

Everything needed the approval of Indira. So Rajiv telegraphed the matter of Maneka’s speech to his mother. It had the desired effect on Mrs Gandhi, and as soon as she touched base in Delhi, on 28 March, 1982, she began dropping her hints with cold and curt ways.

Maneka Gandhi
Maneka Gandhi had won a teen contest before she met Sanjay Gandhi at a party in 1973

In the afternoon, the PM, flanked by her aides RK Dhawan and Dhirendra Brahmachari, asked Maneka to leave the house for her lying ways. Maneka feigned ignorance, and said she would need some more time to pack her things. But Mrs Gandhi would not relent. She was mad with anger and started bashing Maneka and her mother verbally.

Maneka, enacting a little act, fled sobbingly into her room, and telephoned a friend to inform the press about the upcoming drama at the PM’s residence. Around 9pm, the domestic and the foreign press aggregated in front of the PM’s house, excited about a big mudslinging race from the reticent Indira Gandhi. When Maneka’s two siblings arrived to pick her up, they started packing things.

Maneka Gandhi
Maneka Gandhi with son Varun Feroze, leaving Safdurjung 1, the residence of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi.

But Mrs Gandhi barged in, and said in so many words that nothing will be moved out of the house. Shortly, altercations started between Ambika, Maneka’s sister and the PM. Indira was stunned when Ambika told her that Maneka, being the wife of Sanjay, had every right to stay in that house.

Cornered so badly, the iron lady started crying hysterically.

Happy that they had succeeded in making “the old bag” as they called Mrs Gandhi, miserable, the two sisters had a sumptuous meal and watched a Bollywood film on VCR. When RK Dhawan’s repeated persuasion failed to stop Maneka from packing, Mrs Gandhi personally came into her room, and ordered a search of all the packed bags.

Maneka Gandhi's son
Varun Feroze being carried by an attendant, a day after his mother Maneka Gandhi was thrown out of his father’s house.

This was the trump card that Maneka was waiting to play. She insisted on being searched in public, on the road, in front of the press to see, so that later Mrs Gandhi would not accuse her of stealing anything.  Maneka played the perfect victim in the public, while the PM seethed inside her bungalow.

Not able to contain her anger, Indira Gandhi barged into the road, hurling insults at her daughter-in-law. She had forgotten that she was the PM. At this time, she was a raging saas, trying to put down her bahu for all the wrong doings.

When Maneka’s sister retorted with the choicest of abuses, it was then that Indira Gandhi broke down, and ran to her room. The PM was never used to such dominance and abuses. A lady, who had been reining India with an iron will, wilted at the verbal abuse of her indomitable bahu.


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