Lucknow Boy: A Memoir
By Vinod Mehta
Penguin/Viking | Pages: 325 | Rs .499
Just after Indira Gandhi suffered a humiliating defeat in the March 1977 elections, Jaico (publisher) wondered if I would consider a biography of Sanjay Gandhi. I readily accepted the commission. Editing a monthly magazine allows for a fair amount of spare time. Besides, what excited me about the assignment was Sanjay Gandhi: was he as stupid and sadistic as the several Emergency books made him out to be? The question tantalised me.
Sanjay post-election had become a recluse. Nevertheless, I needed to meet him if the book was to have any balance. I wrote a letter to the ‘extra-constitutional authority’ and sent it by hand. I told him I was writing a serious book which would be sympathetic, that is, it would begin from a position of neutrality and examine all the facts on merit. Would he see me? I was briefed that Sanjay read the letter and uttered two words: “No chance.”
On a subsequent trip to the capital, I rang Maneka. We were both editors—she was editing Surya—and I thought if nothing else, I might get the opportunity to discuss the man with his wife. I may have got the odd word wrong but the conversation went something like this.
“Surya? Can I speak to Maneka Gandhi please...? Hello Maneka.”
“Maneka, this is Vinod Mehta from Bombay.”
“Well, I am here for a few days and I thought we might meet.”
“Is it about your book?”
“Well, er, yes.”
“I am sorry I don’t want to meet you. Anything else, Mr Mehta?”
“Well, er, no.”
I published the book in January 1978 without ever meeting Sanjay.
Blind spot Indira and Sanjay, circa 1980. (Photograph by Magnum, From Outlook, November 21, 2011)
The portrait which finally emerged was unflattering. Sanjay was a scary simpleton whose preferred reading matter was Archie comics. He manipulated his mother, sowing inside her a guilt complex about him coping alone with the after-effects of a broken home. The country should be grateful Sanjay’s capacity for inflicting havoc was abruptly curtailed.
Was Sanjay as stupid or sadistic as the books on Emergency made him out to be? The question tantalised me and I was fascinated about the assignment.
There were no scoops in The Sanjay Story. However, I did collect some telling nuggets: how tormented Kamala felt in the Nehru household, principally at the hands of Vijaylaxmi Pandit and father-in-law Motilal Nehru (she came from a socially lower background, and the Nehrus of Anand Bhavan scorned her deficiency in western etiquette and compelled her to learn how to use a knife and fork, something she bitterly resented); how Feroze Gandhi, a budding lawyer in Allahabad, got close to the ailing Kamala by being the only person around ready to help her use the spittoon, which others thought was hazardous.
The other piquant tidbit concerned Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in the break-up of the Feroze-Indira marriage. Panditji detested Feroze (the feeling was mutual) and used every trick in the book to prevent the union. Had it not been for the timely intervention of Mahatma Gandhi, the marriage may never have taken place. When Feroze, a man of Parsi appetites in regard to food, drink and women, died of a heart attack at the age of 48, Panditji, seeing the crowd at the cremation, meanly remarked, “I didn’t know he had so many friends.”
Vice and verse, shall we say... Meena Kumari, Firaq Gorakhpuri
My Heroine, Meena Kumari
In those days in the Bombay film industry, in the ’40s and ’50s, a lower-middle-class Muslim’s meal ticket was one of his daughters. Ali Bux, a Sunni born in Pakistan, came to Bombay to try his luck as a musician. He failed miserably. He was further disappointed when he produced three daughters, no son. The second he named Mahjabeen, and began hawking her to producers like Vijay Bhatt. He would say, “Sir, this is a very talented child. You must be often needing child artistes. Kindly do not forget this child, sir. It would be very kind of you.” Similar hawking was done by the fathers of Madhubala, Nimmi, Suraiya.... This gender reality was for me both poignant and revealing. It explains, at least in the case of Madhubala and Meena Kumari, their permanent paranoia and manic suspicion.
Sanjay was a scary simpleton, who manipulated his mother. The country should be grateful that his capacity to wreak havoc was curtailed abruptly.
Was Meena Kumari, as rumoured, a nymphomaniac? The word denotes “uncontrolled sexual desire in a woman”. I could come to no definite conclusion on the issue which the publishers were very keen for me to investigate. All I found was that she was widely believed to have slept around. Ashok Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Raj Kumar, Dharmendra, Sawan Kumar and several others received her favours after she had a quarter bottle of her favourite brandy.
I was told about one admirer she fornicated with casually who thought he had a good thing going. After a night of satisfactory lovemaking, he knocked the next afternoon on her make-up room. “Kaun?” asked the lady. The admirer gave his name. She again asked, “Kaun?” The admirer again gave his name, this time providing more details, reminding the actress of their union the previous night. “Raat gayi, baat gayi (the night has gone, so has the matter),” she answered nonchalantly.
The great Urdu poet, Raghupati Sahai, better known as Firaq Gorakhpuri, had come for a mushaira to Lucknow and (Saeed) Naqvi’s family, having literary pretensions, offered to host him and put him up in the Dar-ul-Shafa room allotted to Saeed’s MLA uncle. Besides being a renowned Urdu poet, Firaq was a professor of English at Allahabad University. He was also a self-confessed, compulsive homosexual. Even if he knew he was going to fail in his seduction attempt, he would still make a pass. Much like the notorious queer, the Labour MP Tom Driberg who, while travelling in a car with his prime minister, Harold Wilson, tried to unzip Wilson’s trousers and play with his penis. When Wilson said something like, “Steady on, old chap,” Driberg replied, “Sorry Prime Minister, force of habit.”
In ’40s-50s Bombay, a lower middle class Muslim’s meal ticket was his
daughter. Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nimmi, Suraiya, their dads hawked them.
Firaq would drink half a bottle of rum in the evening and lecture us on Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Byron. He was an authority on the Romantics. While explaining Wordsworth’s concept of nature, his eyes would be firmly positioned below our waist—a sight which, no doubt, enchanted him because mostly we were in shorts. As his intake of rum increased, his eyes began rolling violently and from Wordsworth he moved seamlessly to love between man and man. “It is perfectly natural,” he declared, as he asked one of us to come and sit next to him.
That was the signal for us to flee to the safety of the Dar-ul-Shafa roof. On one occasion, a bottle of beer we had been saving up was left behind in the room. Who was going to fetch it with a sozzled poet on a homosexual rampage? Unfortunately, I pulled the short straw. I tightened my belt and went into the room trembling. Firaq, mercifully, was in his cups and pyjama down, I caught him masturbating. He saw me, winked and continued, while I hastily retrieved the beer bottle.
| Wild streak Protima Bedi on Juhu
Kabir Bedi, then a rising Bollywood star, had emerged as the sole spokesman intelligently defending our magazine (Debonair). In interview after interview, he would ask if we were a nation of prudes and hypocrites. He welcomed Debonair’s brave attempt to make India proud of its heritage and Khajuraho past. The naked female body was a thing to celebrate, he argued. Of course, only till such time as the naked female body did not belong to his wife.
I had got to know Protima Bedi well. She shared her husband’s views on the naked body; only she was more genuine. So, when I got a call from her asking if I would like to have a look at some ‘lovely’ pictures of her in the raw, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. The pictures were more than ‘lovely’, they were a knockout—beautifully shot and composed, evoking Protima’s scrumptious dark anatomy magnificently. I quickly sent her a model contract form, which she duly signed. I barged into (proprietor) Susheel Somani’s cabin: “You won’t believe it, but we have Protima Bedi’s nudes!” It was a coup.
In the ’70s, four-colour printing was a laborious process; you printed one colour at a time—red, yellow, black and blue. We had printed two of the four colours, when Kabir rang. He did not sound friendly. Would I immediately return the Protima pictures, they were not to be used. Too late, chum, I told him, they are already on the machine, being printed.
Kabir Bedi admired Debonair. The nude female form was a thing to celebrate, he’d say. As long as the naked female body did not belong to his wife.
The next day two Bollywood heavies—oily moustache, technicolor handkerchief around the neck, menacing rings on each finger—arrived unannounced. “Sahib ne bola photo nahin chhapne ka hai (Sahib has said the pictures are not to be printed),” they thundered. One of them rudely stubbed his cigarette on my ashtray.
A couple of hours later, Protima rang. She was distraught. “Kabir is behaving like a bastard. He says his career will be ruined if the pictures are published. Can you help?” She disclosed that her marriage was on the line. The last plea, about the break-up of marriage, got me. With great difficulty and at enormous cost, we pulled the centrespread off the machine. “I’ll make it up to you,” Protima promised. She never did.
Hell Hath No Fury
Malvika (better known as Mala) Singh, probably Delhi’s best-networked journalist, has a well-deserved reputation for rocking parties. I have watched her in action. She is awesome. However, I would not advise anyone to get on her wrong side. Mala in 1993 was presiding over a mini media empire comprising a number of business and niche publications owned by Ashok Advani of the Business India group. A news channel, BiTV, had been announced. As with everything Mala does, she went about the task with flamboyance and flair. Interestingly, as the launch date neared, BiTV had no transponder in the sky. The Pioneer carried a small story pointing out this critical lacuna. Mala was furious. She was, as you would expect, one of L.M. Thapar’s buddies and complained bitterly against me. She did not deny the veracity of the report but felt it undermined her channel.
LMT wrote me a nasty letter criticising the paper for printing “speculative stories” (where had I heard that before?). Fortunately for me, a few days after the Pioneer report, several other papers confirmed what we had written. I could not make up my mind whether I should reply to the letter underlining the accuracy of our coverage. It would have meant an argument with Thapar, which I thought best to avoid. I rang up Thapar’s secretary to inform him I had received his letter. I never replied to it, adhering to my policy of sidestepping confrontations with the proprietor on minor matters. Malvika Singh, I felt, was a minor matter.
Me and my Maalik
When the editor’s relations with the owner are under strain, the first thing the latter does is delay clearing payments for freelancers. In the two papers I have been sacked from, this has always been the routine. The monthly freelancers’ payments amounted to around Rs 7,000. Peanuts for the management but dal-roti for the freelancers. On one occasion (at the Indian Post), I personally went down to the ground floor where the directors sat and made such a ruckus that eventually I was able to extract a backlog of five months’ payments.
L.M. Thapar told me, “You’re a good manager, but just a manager.” I wanted to tell him newspapers were not bags of cement. They needed special managers.
The second ominous sign concerned contact. I found it increasingly difficult to meet Mr (Vijaypat) Singhania. A U-turn from my earlier experience when he would walk into my cabin unannounced for a cup of tea and chit-chat. I wondered if he was upset because I had disobeyed a specific request: he wanted Delhi bureau chief Coomi Kapoor dismissed.
Coomi under her byline had written against Satish Sharma, who, besides being Rajiv Gandhi’s chum, was a member of the Rajya Sabha. A couple of Post reports, one relating to how Mr Sharma illegally imported Italian tiles for his house, and the other about Mr Sharma’s crony, Lalit Suri, firing a pistol in the air when he was approached by income-tax inspectors, had caused consternation in the PMO.
Sometime in April 1989, Ramakrishna Hegde invited me to dinner. He was all praise for the paper but confessed his astonishment at Singhania’s lack of enthusiasm for his own publication. “How do you know?” I asked. Hegde said he was on a flight with Vijaypat during the course of which the Raymond boss disclosed the Indian Post was causing him great “difficulty”, such difficulty that he now wanted to sell the paper. I was not totally surprised. All the pieces began to fall in place. I knew I was on parole.
Vijaypat chose an auspicious day to send me his bombshell. Thirty-first May is my birthday. An unsigned letter in a sealed envelope was delivered. It read, “Dear Vinodji: Some recent reports appearing in our paper against some prominent persons have caused us serious problems and embarrassment. Whether there is any evidence to support these reports or not is for you to judge, though they appear speculative and exaggerated. As a serious and credible paper, we must be very careful in what we say. I have no intention of curbing editorial freedom, as my past actions would confirm, but unless you have absolutely unrefutable (sic) hard evidence, I would request you not permit any stories, at least for the time being, on these persons as they can seriously jeopardise our business interests.”
Mr Singhania then listed the persons:
- The PM
- Amitabh Bachchan
- Satish Sharma
- Lalit Suri
- D.H. Ambani
- V.P. Singh
- Murli Deora
- Sharad Pawar
“Please try to understand my position. Thank you. VPS.”
When I look back, I can’t help feeling a measure of admiration for Vijaypat. Instead of the usual bullshit, he shared with me the appalling reality of India in the 1980s. His dilemma was every businessman’s dilemma.
The way of media moghuls Vijaypat Singhania and L.M. Thapar
An evening durbar on most days was the routine at the Thapar (Lalit Mohan) house. A couple of groupies would attend. LMT never had to light his cigarette, never ask for another drink, never hear his views contradicted or questioned, never felt the need to look after the company (they did it themselves). It was like a Mughal emperor’s mehfil with LMT presiding as the emperor. I went once. Despite the finest alcoholic beverages on offer, the feudal gathering was boring, strained and pointless. Even the jokes were stale.
I have no grudges against Dileep Padgaonkar. He is who he is. But he single-handedly opened the door for the decline of the Editor as an institution.
Thapar relied on a CEO who knew very little about newspapers or publishing, and he and I soon fell out. I decided to ignore him and get on with my work, which made the gentleman even more miffed. He complained regularly to Thapar about me, but I paid no attention, for I felt the shrewd proprietor would see through his game. I overestimated Thapar’s ability in this regard.
Sometime in May 1994, Thapar called for a Sunday afternoon luncheon meeting at his residence. I and the entire senior management team were present. The lunch was hot but the atmosphere was cold. After lunch we got down to reviewing what progress the paper was making. The CEO launched a vitriolic attack on the editorial, suggesting the Pioneer’s growth was hampered by inferior content. I was astounded. I let him go on with the tirade, to which I found Thapar listening intently. He appeared to be in agreement with the CEO, but never said so.
All this while, I sat back and took the unfair punches. And then it occurred to me the CEO’s script for the afternoon meeting had probably been discussed and cleared. It was a set-up. At some point, I attempted to intervene and make my case. Thapar raised his voice by quite a few decibels and instructed me to let the CEO continue speaking. The raising of the voice by the proprietor was a clear snub to me in front of the Pioneer team.
Arun Shourie and I do not see eye to eye on many things. The story Express broke on Antulay was actually the work of his bureau, but he did not mention it.
Being sacked by a proprietor is familiar to me. However, there has never been any public or private altercation or unpleasantness between me and my employer. Making a scene is not my scene. We have parted on generally friendly terms. I have never shouted at my proprietor; my proprietor has never shouted at me. Courtesy and good manners have been the hallmarks of the falling out. Moreover, I don’t like anybody, absolutely anybody, shouting at me.
I had two options. Shout back or quit the meeting. I opted for the latter. I had neither the inclination nor the stomach to get into a slanging match with Thapar. So, I picked up my papers and left without saying a word.
A couple of days after...I had a short, curt, to-the-point meeting with Thapar. What he told me was revealing, for it sums up the attitude of most proprietors. He said, “You are a manager for me, a good manager, but just a manager. If you leave, I’ll find another manager. You are not indispensable.” I thought for a moment to inform him that newspapers are not bags of cement or ceiling fans. Sure, you need a manager, but he has to be a very special manager. Sensing Thapar’s mood and determination to get rid of me, I asked when he would like me to leave. “Tomorrow,” he replied.
On October 6, 1989, a Chicago district court dismissed Morarji Desai’s $50-million libel suit against the formidable American investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, which the former prime minister had filed in 1983, the year in which Hersh published his book, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. And thereby hangs a tale which caused me much grief and my job.
The New York Times in 1971 reported that a minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet ‘betrayed’ India’s military secrets to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Later, the Washington Post also reported that President Richard Nixon’s India policy was being guided by reports “from a source close to Mrs Gandhi”. In other words, the CIA had managed to plant a mole in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, who, among other things, leaked the country’s ‘war objectives’ to the agency. These included, besides liberating Bangladesh, take-over of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and degrading the Pakistan army so that it “never attempts to challenge India in the future”. Henry Kissinger complimented the CIA for having bagged such an “impressive asset”. The asset’s fee, allegedly, was $20,000 a year.
The CIA mole became headline news in India. While his/her presence was never in doubt—that cabinet decisions taken in 1971 were being leaked to the Americans was conceded in official quarters—the identity of the spy remained a mystery. Mr Hersh in his book claimed to solve it. He identified the spy, courtesy his unnamed sources in the White House and CIA, as Morarji Desai.
Disbelief and outrage swept the country. Morarji described Hersh’s accusation as “sheer madness” and a “malicious lie”. Strangely, the outrage and disbelief did not last long. Mr Desai had retired from public life. He was 87 years old, and notably friendless. The Indira Gandhi government of the early ’80s did not think it fit to contest the charges and finally a group of Gujarati nris got together on Morarji’s behalf to file a $50-million libel suit in Chicago, which Morarji lost.
The CIA’s $20,000-a-year man? Kanti Desai
The irrepressible maverick Subramanian Swamy arrived to complicate matters. He held a press conference in Bombay during which he stated that Morarji had been unfairly indicted. The ‘real’ spy was another deputy prime minister of India and former chief minister of Maharashtra. When asked if Swamy was referring to the late Y.B. Chavan, he smiled knowingly. Except for one paper in Hyderabad, no one took notice of Swamy’s disclosure. Significantly, this was the first time an alternate name to Morarji Desai had reached the public domain.
I and other editors of The Independent followed these developments closely. I asked our Delhi bureau to check out the new revelations. They came back with a copy of the RAW letter to Rajiv and suggested the story had merit. And then I, and I alone, made a terrible, unforgivable error of judgement. I mistook the RAW letter as the gospel truth.
On October 19, we published an eight-column banner headline, ‘Y.B. Chavan, Not Morarji, Spied for the US’.
There are not many politicians I like on a personal basis. Vajpayee was one of the few I did. But things went sour after our story on his foster son-in-law.
For two days, the story went largely unnoticed. Except for Mid-Day, which carried our Chavan report almost verbatim, the rest of the media kept away. That did not suit the perennially insecure editor of the Times of India, Dileep Padgaonkar. While the other editors in the group were troubled by my presence, Dileep had a special and urgent reason to feel troubled. I and my team were producing an English paper every day which looked infinitely better than the paper Dileep was editing, and on many mornings it even read better. Mr Padgaonkar’s insecurities increased when word got around that at a meeting with his senior managers, Samir mentioned me as a possible editor of the Times of India.
Dileep and the Maharashtra Times editor, Govind Talwalkar, got together to ensure the Chavan story did not go unnoticed. In an editorial on October 21, the Times viciously attacked me and The Independent. It went so far as to incite physical violence against me, suggesting that if it did occur, it would be my own fault. Departing from its pompous, lofty, measured tone, the Times launched a series of vituperative onslaughts targeting me, which observers found astonishing since the two papers were ‘sister publications’. One Opposition leader told the media that while the story was indeed objectionable, it was the Times group which created the ‘hysteria’ around the report.
I hold no grudges against Dileep Padgaonkar. He is who he is. However, the man who once claimed he held “the second most important job in the country” can be legitimately charged with single-handedly opening the door for the denigration and decline of the Editor as an institution. When Dileep’s bosses asked him to bend, he crawled. Since then, it has been downhill all the way for other editors.
There are two important footnotes to this story. As late as 2009, Anju Dhar, author of the book CIA’s Eye on South Asia, wrote to the Central Information Commission via RTI demanding that the government disclose the name of the CIA mole in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Anju Dhar is still waiting for a reply.
The second footnote is historically more significant. Last year (2010), I had lunch at the Imperial Hotel with Seymour Hersh, who was investigating Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and had stopped over in Delhi. I told him I was a great admirer of his work but he had cost me one job and some loss of professional reputation. Hersh recounted the entire spying saga in some detail and gave me the name of the Indian spy. “You can use the information when you write your memoirs, but not before.” I am keeping my word.
Seymour Hersh reiterated that it was indeed Morarji Desai. I inquired if Morarji took the money from the CIA himself. “No. We paid his son Kanti Desai.” Did the old man know the CIA was paying his son? “Of course, he knew,” replied Hersh. Despite Hersh’s categorical claim, I find it hard to believe that Desai would betray his country, and that too for the paltry sum of $20,000 a year.
‘Crusader Shourie’ At the Express office. (Photograph by Express Archive)
Over the years, Mr Shourie and I have not seen eye to eye on many issues—something I don’t regret.
Arun Shourie, as editor of the Indian Express, had broken the big Antulay story, ‘Indira Gandhi as Commerce’. The expose revealed that the Maharashtra chief minister, A.R. Antulay, had started an organisation called the ‘Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan’ through which he collected illicit funds from builders. The corruption scandal forced Antulay to resign. Arun Shourie and the Express, now implacably opposed to Indira Gandhi and the Congress, had bagged a big Congress scalp. Among journalists and sections of civil society, Mr Shourie was flavour of the month—or shall I say, many months.
A young reporter in the Free Press Journal with friends in the Express came to see me. He said he had a story, but was not sure if a recently launched paper like the (Sunday) Observer had the nerve to publish it. According to him, the chief reporter and several other senior reporters in the Express were sulking because Arun Shourie had hogged all the limelight. While they acknowledged Shourie’s contribution, much of the legwork for the scoop had been done by the Express bureau, a fact which was never acknowledged in the story. Staff morale apparently was at an all-time low.
‘Shourie and the Penthouse Conspiracy’ duly appeared. ‘Penthouse’ was mentioned because Mr Shourie allegedly sat in the Express penthouse with Ramnath Goenka and wrote the expose.
It did not take long for Arun Shourie to come back. He demanded a full rebuttal in the form of an extended interview with him. “Your story is a complete fabrication,” he charged. Kumar Ketkar, then a young and pugnacious Bombay journalist, jumped into the fray. In a letter to the editor, he noted: “The self-righteous breastbeating of Shourie is a fast spreading gangrene in the profession of journalism. If not checked in time, it could acquire the dimensions of witch-hunting and McCarthyism.” And concluded: “Free from any constraint of veracity, Shourie is always able to provide exclusive stories.” The debate on our (Sunday Observer) letters page continued for many weeks.
A likeable old man Vajpayee with Vinod Mehta. (Photograph by Prashant Panjiar)
In the last week of March (2001), our (Outlook’s) second expose—‘Vajpayee’s Achilles Heel’—appeared. It began, “Ever since Atal Behari Vajpayee became prime minister and consolidated his hold over the NDA, the whispers in the corridors of power have been about the formidable clout Brajesh Mishra, N.K. Singh and Ranjan Bhattacharya enjoy.” Later in the report we were more specific: “Over the last couple of years Bhattacharya’s influence has grown...a cross-section of people Outlook spoke to, including bureaucrats, industrialists and politicians, say Bhattacharya is a ‘powerful yet invisible’ force which drives the PMO. His primary conduits, say all, are Mishra and Singh.”
We flagged the deals Ranjan was meddling in. Topping the list was the Rs 58,000-crore national highways project which had been moving at a frenetic pace because of the extra push being given by the PMO. The first lot of contracts had been awarded to a clutch of seven dubious Malaysian firms. The Rs 20,000-crore Reliance Hirma power project, referred to earlier, was also on Ranjan’s radar. He and the PMO were pushing the Reliance case for a counter guarantee which amounted to a gift for Reliance. Dr (E.A.S.) Sarma (we did not identify him in the second report) put it beautifully: “There is a base law in logic. If it rains, then some grass will sprout. If the grass has sprouted, it has rained.”
When Jagmohan’s tenure as telecom minister was abruptly terminated through the powerful lobby of private operators who owed the huge sum of Rs 3,179 crore to the ministry, they knocked on the door of the PMO via Ranjan. The defaulters included Birla, Reliance, Tata and Essar. These influential corporates pressed the PMO for extension of the payment deadlines. They succeeded. Further, they pushed through the draft of a new telecom policy heavily tilted in their favour. The Samata Party, a vital ally of the NDA, in a stinging letter to Vajpayee on March 16, demanded a probe into the various corruption charges against Mishra, Singh and Bhattacharya.
A long-time RSS pracharak who had faithfully served the organisation for little material reward and who saw the BJP as the natural party of governance in place of an atrophying Congress was quoted in the magazine as saying, “In one stroke, the reputation built over 40 years has been destroyed.”
Was Morarji really the mole in the Indira cabinet? Seymour Hersh confirmed CIA was paying his son Kanti $20,000 a year. Did Morarji know? Of course.
A couple of days after our second expose hit the stands, Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh held a press conference. Without mentioning Outlook even once, they outright denied all the charges as “mischievous” and “baseless”. It was a commanding performance.
On May 29, 2001, at 8.30 am, “in one of the largest operations launched in recent times”, the proprietor of Outlook, Rajan Raheja, was raided by the income-tax department. As the Hindustan Times put it: “More than 700 officials began search and seizure operations in 12 cities across the country. About 120 premises in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Surat, Madurai among other cities were raided.” The paper also noted that the editorial office of Outlook in Mumbai had been raided.
I was stunned. Dumbfounded. Maybe I was naive, but I thought the crude instrument of income-tax raids on allegedly erring newspapers was a thing of the past. We were in 2001. The discredited device widely used during the licence-quota raj had been rendered obsolescent. I also thought a party which was forever raging over the tyranny of the Emergency on the free press would hesitate to use the very same tyranny when it came to power. I rang up Rajan in Mumbai, who had already been through a lot on account of Outlook. The first thing I said to him was: “Do you want me to resign?” I had absolutely no doubt that the PMO story had caused the raids. Rajan, once again, stood by me. We need somehow to get over this together, he replied.
Once they found little or nothing in Rajan’s house, office and companies, the income-tax authorities resorted to mendacity. They announced the discovery of Rs 51 lakh in unaccountable cash. Again, through a press release I had to set the record straight. Not Rs 51 lakh but Rs 51,000 had been found in the residence of an ailing relative of Rajan Raheja. The cash, Rajan explained, was kept in the house for emergency medical expenses.
The lies did not bother Rajan. The harassment did. He would be summoned to the damp, piss-stinking offices of the Enforcement Directorate and made to wait from 10 am to 6 pm. He would then be told to come again the next day. Besides, the income-tax inspectors would ask for some 20-year-old file, keep it for a while and give it back. Then they would ask for another, and another. It was quite clear that interrogation and examination was not the real purpose; hounding and hassling was. Rajan asked me to see if this could be stopped. His entire group was doing nothing else but looking for files!
I rang up Brajesh Mishra. He agreed to see me. When we met, he feigned surprise, even shock. “You have been raided! I know nothing about this. Very unfortunate. You know both Atalji and I believe in press freedom. We would do nothing to harm the press.” Listening to him, I nearly vomited. He then enlightened me on the importance of a free press in a democracy.
What happened next remains perhaps one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I had to reassure Brajesh I was never in any doubt about his and the prime minister’s commitment to press freedom. The raids on Outlook must have occurred due to some misunderstanding or perhaps some fault on our part! All this to butter him up for my next move. I told Brajesh I was not seeking any favour in the ongoing tax evasion investigations. All I was asking for was an end to the harassment of my proprietor. Could he please do something? “Of course, of course,” he said. “I am very sorry to hear Mr Raheja is being troubled.” He picked up the phone and fixed a meeting between me and finance minister Yashwant Sinha. My interaction with Brajesh lasted no more than 10 minutes. I shook his hand, thanked him and ran out of his room. I urgently needed fresh air to recover from his hypocritical bullshit. Yashwant Sinha made no pretence of surprise. “I read something about it.” He promised Rajan’s harassment would stop. Miraculously, in 24 hours, it did.
A week later, President Narayanan sent for me. The DUJ resolution had been received by his office. I recounted to the President the whole Mahabharata. He said he had read the Outlook stories. I found out later Narayanan sent the DUJ resolution with a covering letter to Vajpayee, who was most upset at receiving the communication.
It was never the same between me and Vajpayee. I continued to meet him formally and at one briefing he held for editors, something he did rarely, I sat through without saying a word. He came up to me at the end and said, “Aap aaj bahut chup hain (You are very quiet today).” I smiled snidely.
There are not many politicians I like on a personal basis. Vajpayee was one of the few I did. History, I suspect, will remember him with question marks. Was he a liberal conservative, or someone who put his finger up in the air to find out which way the wind was blowing? A politician who aspires to be a statesman needs to have a moral centre. Did Vajpayee have one? That, I am afraid, is a question-mark question. Fali Nariman told me that despite all of Vajpayee’s inconsistencies, he “liked the old boy”. I’ll ditto Fali’s opinion.
The lady irked Flattery, not frankness, pleases her
Sometime in 1994, when I was editing The Pioneer, I got a call from a mutual friend saying, “Shobha is in Delhi, she has been trying to get through to you for the last hour but your phone is always busy. Please call her urgently.” It was a typical Shobha stunt. My lines, both direct and through the board, had been remarkably unbusy. In fact, I had received no call for the past hour. But she wanted me to ring her rather than the other way round. When I did, she made a request. A collection of her articles, Shooting from the Hip, was being published. She wanted me to write the foreword...I agreed.
People like Shobha De, when they become celebs, pretend to hate it. The truth is, Shobha will travel to Mars if a photo opportunity existed there.
Writing a foreword to a collection of her journalism was no easy task. Nevertheless, I produced the required 1,200 words and sent them to her publisher, Ashok Chopra. Ashok loved the foreword, he said my name would appear on the cover of the book. He was sending it to Shobha as a matter of formality. I was relieved. With unemployment staring me, I had more pressing matters on my mind.
Then Shooting From the Hip hit the stands. My contribution was missing. I rang up Ashok Chopra. He was almost in tears. “Shobhaa hated your foreword. She said if it was included in her collection, she would withdraw the book.”
That evening, I pored over the affronting article which I had titled ‘If She Did Not Exist, We Would Have to Invent Her.’ That seemed to me high praise. More: “As a deflater of pomposities, as a slaughterer of pretensions, as a mocker of gobbledygook, she remains unparalleled.” Even more praise: “All the literary activities she glancingly attempted had one thing in common; they brought her vast amounts of success. Shobha De, it must be acknowledged, has seldom failed when she has put pen to paper.”
So, what did I do wrong? After a Sherlock Holmes-type of forensic enquiry, I detected my error, two errors in fact.
People like Shobha De, when they become celebrities, when they reach the top of the Page-3 greasy pole, pretend to hate it. It is bothersome, intrusive, irksome, irrelevant. Indeed, they will spend vast amounts of time explaining how celebrityhood is a burden they must carry. The truth is, Shobha would travel to Mars if a photo opportunity existed there. For me to get into greater detail would be embarrassing because I have first-hand knowledge.
In my foreword, I made a gentle reference to her Page-3 triumph. “In Bombay, you can’t open an ice-cream parlour or launch a beauty contest or have a gossipy party without Ms De’s august presence. This must impose crushing responsibilities, but Shobha seems to carry them off with aplomb. She actually enjoys being a celebrity.”
I suspect this was my minor lapse. The next sentiment was inexcusable. “I hope I am not revealing state secrets when I say Shobha arouses mixed feelings, particularly among those with an alleged taste for ‘high culture’. Both intellectually and socially they regard her as something of a carpetbagger, someone of low literary and moral standing. I have not lived in the ‘City of Gold’ for the past three years, but I suspect Charles Correa still does not have her on his party list.”
Shyam and Nira Benegal, Charles and Monica Correa, Gerson and Uma da Cunha, Mario and Habiba Miranda treated Shobha as something of a pariah. She once attempted to gatecrash into a Miranda party and was disallowed entry. I couched this information in optimism. “Thus, there remains one last citadel of fame for Shobha to conquer. It will fall sooner rather than later.”
Since 1994, 17 years have lapsed. Till date, I have received no explanation, no apology, no clarification from Shobha De. I have come face-to-face with her on more than one occasion. She does not blink an eyelid.
The subject never comes up.
Supermum Her children come before ‘save the party’. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
My many gaffes include one where I foolishly invited a snub from the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. President Clinton had come visiting during the Vajpayee regime and at a Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet, the famously no-nonsense Ms Albright was looking for her place on the seating chart. “I am sitting next to Sonia Gandhi,” she exclaimed. Standing behind her, I offered a piece of gratuitous advice. “She does not talk much.” The US Secretary of State looked at me suspiciously and replied, “Oh, doesn’t she?” in a tone which suggested I should know who I am talking to.
Sonia’s first reaction on any issue is invariably, tactically sound. But by the time she finishes talking to her advisors, she can take a 180-degree U-turn.
For what it is worth, here is what I make of her. I have found Sonia singularly well-informed about what is going on in her own party and other parties—even the tidbits and the private life of persons she has appointed to high office.
Sonia is no goongi gudiya. Since 1997, when she hesitantly entered public life, her grasp of the ins and outs of Congress and national politics has become formidable. Sure, her perspective is largely based on what is good for her party, but she is also a realist and can be brutally objective.
Because she is constantly accused of backseat driving vis-a-vis her prime minister, Sonia told me she takes extra care to ensure Manmohan Singh is never seen to be undermined by her. “I always arrive five minutes before he does at public functions, and I always leave after him,” she said, emphasising how conscious she is of correct protocol. Before Mr Narendra Modi throttles me, yes, this does not mean the prime minister is a free agent but it also does not mean he is a chained captive.
To Sanjaya Baru, Manmohan Singh’s first press advisor and dedicated spreader of mischief between party and government (read PM and Sonia), she gave a long rope. “Manmohan has three daughters, no son; so he treats Sanjaya as a son,” she explained. However, Mr Baru’s record and his attempts to cause a rift, especially during the nuclear deal negotiations, had not escaped her.
She knew every detail of the games he was playing, but preferred, out of regard for Manmohan, to look the other way. She even knew that on the day the BJP lost power in 2004, Sanjaya had written a panegyric on Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Sonia travels the extra mile to make sure she “carries everyone in the party”. Frequently, she postpones or abandons harsh action in order to persuade the errant individual to fall in line. In this act of friendly persuasion, a few sops are usually thrown in. Jaganmohan Reddy, son of YSR, was offered a variety of options both at the state and the Centre, but he insisted on immediate transfer of the CM’s chair.
A decision to expel a Congressman or Congresswoman is an option of the last resort.... As long as her personal and family’s position is not threatened, Sonia Gandhi massively overconsults to establish consensus. Here is one instance. A prominent chief minister in one of India’s most important states was not just incompetent and lazy but amassing vast wealth. Every day he continued in office hurt the party. “He will be removed in a few days, let the Diwali holidays get over,” she told me. Actually, he stayed for 18 months because that is how long the consultative process took. On any contentious issue, Sonia’s first reaction is invariably, tactically and ethically, sound. Sadly, by the time she has finished talking to her advisors and senior leaders, she has been known to make a 180-degree U-turn.
Thus, Priyanka, despite the clamour, despite her undoubted charisma, has not so far been a contender. For Sonia, as she told me, her daughter’s marriage and responsibilities as a mother of young children come much before any call to ‘national duty’ or to ‘save the party’.
If you wish to make a permanent enemy of Sonia, you must have a history, or even a single instance, of betraying or badmouthing her husband. Then you are beyond the pale. To that extent, she is clearly biased. From this follows her protective instincts for all the Nehrus and Gandhis. Even so, in the pecking order, Rajiv is the first among equals. She is the keeper of his flame.
Privately and publicly, she is inordinately reserved and cautious. Her reluctance to give media interviews or speak more often on burning issues stems largely from her self-effacing personality. One reason why Sonia gets on so well with Manmohan Singh is because they are temperamentally similar.
Politics still remains slightly foreign to her. Some years ago, I met her at a chic eatery in Khan Market where the birthday of one of Rajiv’s school chums (Romi Chopra) was being celebrated. I have never seen her more at ease or relaxed. Wearing a salwar-kameez, seated with her daughter and son-in-law, and listening to Mala Singh tearing apart the great and the good of Delhi, she seemed to have not a care in the world—much less in the Congress party. She was not laughing uproariously or trying to match Mala’s gags, she just seemed untypically comfortable. (She had brought along a delicious crab salad to be served at dinner.) Watching her, I thought to myself, at last she is among people with whom she can let her guard down and be herself.
Privately, she is both funny and irreverent. Privately. When you meet her for 20 or 30 minutes, she is all attention. Invariably, she is waiting for you and during the interactions I had, there were absolutely no interruptions with phone calls, or PAs walking in, as is usual with lesser netas. The coffee she serves at 10, Janpath is decent but unlikely to win a Michelin award. However, the chocolates that go with it would, in my gastronomic appraisal, get three Michelin stars.