It was the fourth day after the tragic death of Rajiv Gandhi, and it was a mood of all gloom and listlessness in the national capital. Coming years after his mother passed away, the mayhem that followed, and the speculation about a success coming all too soon, there was a palpable sense of exhaustion and sheer fatigue.
It was under such circumstances that the conjectures about a successor were being aired. At the Indian Newspaper Society’s (INS) offices on Rafi Marg, the hub of the political correspondents and academics, there were many debates and possible scenarios being discussed, and all sorts of stories were being circulated and theories floated. Meanwhile, dignitaries were coming in from abroad to pay their condolences to the bereaved family and also making a round of protocol, and that also included the residence of PV Narasimha Rao, who was a familiar figure in these circles.
At the offices of the INS building, the political correspondents of major newspapers would gather in threes and fours and speculate, suggest some names, eliminate some others, analyse the caste and other combinations and the regional configurations, precedents and numerous other pressures in this vast and complex country. At the end of a hard day’s work, they could not come to any conclusion. This was the time for them to spin all kinds of stories and show off their expertise and proximity to the decision-makers. Television news had not come of age and the roads were bare of OB vans and the young anchors were still green behind the ears. It was at one such meeting that we decided to take a round of some possible contenders then, mainly Kamalathi Tripathi and Narasimha Rao, and absorb the atmosphere. Magazine journalists had also not become prominent at that time and the old-fashioned ‘he said, she said’ sort of stenographic style of reporting was very much in vogue, and not much resort to pontificating.
Rao’s residence was along the leafy and manicured Motilal Nehru Marg roundabout. We drove slowly through the four lane roads and at the gate, quite in contrast, was not much of a crowd, which was quite unlike the scene at other contender's residence. We could easily drive in through the gate and at the reception was the secretary, Kandekar. He said he would just find out if the leader was free and be back in a minute. There was not a fly in the vicinity, and it was all so still. The sprawling bungalow had well-trimmed lawns and the huge trees spread a canopy over the whole place. The British who had built these buildings knew how to maintain them and the lawns and how to live in style.
The four of us were sort of freelancers and not affiliated to any newspaper. Thakur had written a racy book before, All the Prime Ministers’ Men, in the fashion of an American bestseller, and had been freelancing and looking for material for his next book. Devdutt, a Gandhian, in impeccable white khadi kurta-pajama always carried a bundle of papers and invariably travelled by bus. Gopal was the only exception with a respectable job with a media group that had diverse interests, ranging from plantations to ship breaking, and had a car, a Fiat which he himself drove and was the one who kept making all the moves and was in charge of the logistics. I had been, strictly in newspaper jargon, the wrong font, and not of the charmed circle of those who mingle with leaders and call them by their first names, having worked at the desk and been relegated to the category of ‘devils’ or ‘butchers’ for mangling the copies the correspondents had filed. It was a thankless, unglamorous, low-paying job and one had been condemned to it. This was also one’s first foray into the elite circle of the scribes who claimed the leaders always consulted them, the ‘advisors’, and could walk in without appointment into the homes and high-security offices of these leaders and decision-makers. This outing was quite an education as well as an eye-opener. One never knew that such a world existed, and that beyond the galley proofs and deadlines and the vapour of lead fumes, there was the ‘world in the evening’ where parties were held and much gossip floated and intrigues happened and deals were swung.
Kandekar came back almost immediately and said that Rao Sahib would be ready to meet us in just a minute and meanwhile we could move into his sprawling bungalow across the narrow lane. He ushered us into the spacious drawing room. It was a hall and there was a quietness and serenity to the place that had the stamp one belonging to an austere scholar. Soon, Rao came out from a room on the side. He was in a sleeveless vest with a white khadi towel wrapped casually around his shoulder. He greeted us with folded hands and a namaste.
As we settled down, Rao thanked us once again and wondered the reason for the honour of this visit. He said he was truly overwhelmed. Dev Dutt, familiar with the adab of the Gangetic plains and the mizaz of Hyderabad, mentioned almost in a whisper that there had been strong rumours about him being nominated for the Prime Minister’s position. Rao acted surprised and, throwing up his hands, said he had rather resigned and it hardly mattered, and frankly he was in the process of packing up and moving back to Warrangal in Andhra Pradesh, his birthplace. But there was a minor problem about packing the computer system he had recently acquired, and the technician was yet to come and that was holding up the packing. He had been waiting for him for two days.
This was just the kind of news that would make the day for Thakur, some juicy bit that would be lapped up by his readers. Then in a sort of monologue, or it might even be a continuation of some previous discussion elsewhere, he said he had never hidden his health problems. In fact, he had never been secretive about his health, and he just had a stent implant. It was all an open book. But there are others, he continued, who are so coy about their health conditions and would resort to many subterfuges to hide them, evoking a gentle smirk from the correspondents. He was obviously referring to his political rival and arch enemy who had been trying to sabotage whatever he had been doing and used to carry tales to the power centre. He (Arjun Singh) had a bypass recently but he had kept it under wraps, and nobody knows about it, Rao said. He then went on to mention he had been busy over the past three days receiving visiting dignitaries come to pay their respects to Rajiv. They had all come calling, because there was no one else who had such exposure with these primarily African leaders, most of whom he had personally known and interacted with. As Home Minister, he had visited these countries in connection with the Africa Fund he had been in charge of, and which he had set up.
At this moment, a lady correspondent comes out from nowhere and takes a seat. Rao seems familiar with her and introduces us to her as one who invariably finds special stories that are made into box items, (here he makes sign of a box with his hands). That is the humorous side of Rao’s personality. One then understood why in the news photographs that are published with groups of politicians you could see them all smiling while he is poker-faced. Tea and snacks are served and during all this time there has been no phone call or any other interruption, or any other visitor dropping in.
Finally, we thanked Rao and wished him all the best and Khandekar too and drove back, again speculating, on the way, about the next leader who is destined to rule the country. The setting of the bare road and loneliness surrounding this sprawling bungalow lingered for some time. The plight of the leader who had just lost his power is something traumatic, something that cannot be described or explained. One had read accounts of Morarji Desai, leaving Delhi after he quit as Prime minister. At the Delhi airport there was no one to see him off or help him with his baggage.
But within two days of this encounter in that desolate bungalow, Rao was back at the helm as Prime Minister, and he was to initiate some of the audacious economic reforms that would turn the country around, from a basket case. Had the computer packing man been prompt and come the same day, as these service sector warriors on their Harley Davidson motorcycles are programmed to, one wonders what the country’s destiny would have been.