Sanjay Gandhi: a tale of the Maruti chariot he could never ride

Though Maruti was Sanjay Gandhi’s brainchild- a crowned prince’s dream, he could never ride the chariot.

We all have heard the childhood fairy-tales about the princes, their chariots and their bravery. The tale of Sanjay Gandhi is nowhere close to such fairy tales, except the man’s notoriety had earned him the tag of an infamous “Crowned Prince”. However, this story is about the Crowned Prince and his Maruti – a chariot he dreamt of but could never ride in his lifetime.

There’s only one word that describes the life of Sanjay Gandhi and the man himself perfectly- “controversial”. Those who have seen him closely remember him as the rebellious, destructive Crown Prince and ruthless, malevolent politician. Some even term him a sycophant for his catastrophic implementation of forced sterilisation and slum destruction. However, this “wild wayward youth” as termed by Pupul Jayakar had another side to him which reflected in his love for cars. As the Congress party remembers him today as a person who championed the need for affordable cars in India, we recall how the Maruti- India’s most popular car was born.

After completing his initial education at Welham Boys’ School and then at the Doon School in Dehra Dun, Sanjay Gandhi’s passion for cars drove him to automotive engineering. The adventure junkie was even interested in aircraft aerobatics besides the sports cars. He even worked with Rolls-Royce in Crewe, England for three years. He returned India in 1968 with his brainchild- the idea to produce an efficient and completely indigenous car which will suit India’s middle class and yet not create a big hole in their pocket. As visionary as this idea seemed, what followed after was not less than a nightmare.

How ‘Maruti Motors’ came into existence:

A lot of critics believe it was the result of rampant nepotism which is why the then Indian government, led by Indira Gandhi too supported the idea of producing small car proposed by Sanjay Gandhi. In 1971, Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet proposed the production of a “People’s Car” for the Indian Middle Class. In June same year, ‘Maruti Motors Limited’ was incorporated under the Companies Act. Sanjay Gandhi took charge as the Managing Director of this company.

Sanjay Gandhi
Image Source: Web

The humongous controversy around Maruti:

It was after the government awarded a contract to build the cars and the exclusive production licence, that Sanjay Gandhi came under the radar of opposition. Reportedly, the government even issued a letter of intent allowing him to produce up to 50,000 cars in a year despite having no prior experience of building a car, no working prototype, or even a tie-up with a car maker.

Sanjay Gandhi who had by then begun the process of developing a prototype at a shack in Delhi’s Gulabi Bagh felt the need of bigger space. According to a report in motoroids, a few parts were sourced from the Jama Masjid area and a Triumph motorcycle engine was used to propel the car. After making a few improvements the car was even taken to Ahmednagar for testing. The report claims Sanjay Gandhi and his men even made three initial cars since there was only so much space at the garage, Sanjay shifted base to the Laxman Sylvania factory, where they spent 18 months in a separate shed. However, he needed a bigger space.

Sanjay Gandhi
Sanjay Gandhi working on Maruti Prototype. Image Source: Web

The then Chief Minister of Haryana, Bansi Lal (who later came to be known as the member of “Sanjay’s Coterie”) offered him land in Haryana. Initially, the Haryana government offered him a land at Sonepat but Sanjay Gandhi wanted a land near Delhi. Thus, instead of Sonepat, he chose a land near Gurgaon. The land was sold to him at throwaway prices. In her book The Emergency-A Personal History, journalist Coomi Kapoor revealed how the land deal was entangled in corruption and many illegal activities that followed. The Gandhi scion and the Indira Gandhi government came under fire over the corruption issue.

Thus, the government and Maruti Motors decided to show the test model as a display of progress. A feasibility test was done on Maruti by the Vehicle Research & Development Establishment, Ahmednagar. However, the car did not pass it as it wasn’t roadworthy. While the opposition got an opportunity to intensify its attack, the public perception too was turned against the Gandhis.

Sanjay Gandhi
Maruti Unit in Delhi. Image Source: Web

The death of Maruti:

Soon after this, the emergency was imposed in the country and Sanjay Gandhi put the Maruti project on the backburner. He actively participated in the politics and saw a meteoric rise in his political career. So much so, that even without being an elected MP, he commanded authority over the Congress workers and office bearers. His fallout with IK Gujaral, the then I&B Minister is known to everyone. After two years of emergency, Indira Gandhi announced elections in the country and to not anyone’s surprise was defeated. The incumbent Janata government ordered a report on Maruti Motors dealings. Justice AP Gupta, the head of the inquiry commission released a damning report on the whole episode. In 1977, Maruti Motors was liquidated.


The many tales of horror of corruption:

In a chapter on the episode, Coomi Kapoor accused that the Maruti motors resorted to extortion, string-pulling to bend rules, and even blackmail. It only worsened during Emergency. Reportedly, the traders of Janpath were threatened to buy the Maruti shares or face the demolition of their stores.

She further writes that an executive working for the Singhania companies was arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act in November 1975. He was released only after affiliates of the family bought the Maruti Shares. A dealer was arrested under MISA who demanded his deposit back because there was no sign of the car.

The revival of Maruti:

On 23 June 1980, Sanjay Gandhi died in an air crash flying a new aircraft of the Delhi Flying club near Safdarjung Airport. He was performing an aerobatic manoeuvre over his office when he lost control and crashed. The Indira Gandhi government swung back to power in the subsequent election and a year after Sanjay Gandhi’s death the Union government salvaged Maruti Limited. It started looking for an active collaborator for a new company-Maruti Udyog Ltd. This is when the Japanese company Suzuki was contacted to present the design and feasibility of their car. The government had also contacted Volkswagen. When Suzuki learned about it, it left no stone unturned to keep the German company out of the race to produce India’s first People’s Car (Maruti 800). Rest is history. Suzuki presented the government a feasible Design of their ‘Model 796’, which went on to become a success in Japan and East Asian countries.

Image Source: Web

Though Maruti was Sanjay Gandhi’s brainchild- a Crown Prince’s dream, He could never see it being built. The Maruti that captured Indian Middle Class’ automobile imagination remained a chariot Sanjay Gandhi could never ride.

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