Eighties: The era of sharp swinging political pendulum


Faraz Ahmad

While witnessing the events of the nineteen seventies, we thought the seventies were the most exciting times. But the eighties turned out to be far more turbulent and eventful keeping the reporters on their toes throughout. Journalism before emergency was a poorly paid rather drab profession with the newspapers, both English and Hindi, mainstream reporting events in a bland, matter of fact manner.

But Emergency changed it all and suddenly the profession acquired a touch of glamour, attracting a whole lot of young exciting men. It also opened its doors to women as some very beautiful young women started walking down Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. It saw the advent of Arun Shourie and M J Akbar and in Bombay Vinod Mehta whose youthful inspiration changed the whole idiom of journalism.

Young men, but more so young women from economically sound background were spotted in the afternoon at Dolls Museum and even Triveni Kala Sangam, mingling with the glamourous artists and men of letters unlike the people from my father’s generation who if they were sub editors, would land up at the office at the appointed time, make their pages open their tiffin box, order their coffee, finalise their pages, get into the dog vans and go home. Reporters of his times would religiously go to PIB or Old Secretariat, or the Town Hall, depending on their beat, collect their press-notes, chit chat with a few officers once in a while, take the DTC bus back to the office to file their copies. Pre-Emergency, getting a bye line was a big event calling for celebrating it with an evening samosa and a chai. But this post Emergency generation needed constant excitement. The one who really broke the past barriers and established the new order was none other than my former chief reporter Ashwani Sarin, who broke the famous Kamla story, by actually going and buying a woman from Madhya Pradesh market where women used to be put up for sale, just like cattle. Curiously while on the story, Ashwani and Shourie were the best buddies, for not many had the spunk to go to those scary areas and return alive with a woman. But in the process somewhere they fell apart, with Shourie citing Ashwani’s reportage as the worst example of reporting, never mind till Goenka was alive, he loved Ashwani.

On the political front almost the entire eighties, except towards the last few months, were monopolized by the Gandhi regency, even as the decade witnessed the corroding charisma of Indira and son Rajiv, while the original pretender to the throne, Indira’s younger son Sanjay died within months of her return to power in an air crash caused by his rash navigation. Someone once remarked that Indira’s sons got it all wrong. The one who was adept at politics took to flying and crashed and the sober and dependable pilot was handed over the country and naturally crashed too.

Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980  with Sanjay Gandhi marshalling the troops consisting of Jagdish Tytler, Kamal Nath and a host of other young faces as first time MPs. We mocked them derisively and shuddered at the prospect of Sanjay ruling the country just as we fear today Narendra Modi becoming the prime minister. I was going to my POTNews (Public Opinion, Trends, Analysis and News Service) office on 23 June, 1980, when D N Singh from the Indian Express broke the news and I must admit shamefacedly that I jumped with joy. I came running back home and told excitedly my father and then without waiting to catch my breath, ran to my office in nearby Green Park where I broke the news with a grin on my face to our editor Rajendra Sareen who upbraided me for rejoicing in the death of a person whoever he maybe.

But post Sanjay things became worse. By the time I joined Indian Express in Bombay just six months later, rumblings in Punjab had started. Sanjay, we later realized, for all his faults, was very political. In 1980 he had virtually dismantled the decades old Congress apparatus to create his own, appointing new chieftains in the states. In UP he chose V P Singh, a Rajput to head the largest state, spiting the Brahmins who considered UP their forte and who, led by Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, had conspired against Indira Gandhi, post Emergency. In Maharshtra he deliberately sidelined the Marathas, who had earlier questioned his regency, to anoint a Muslim Abdul Rehman Antulay, a very dynamic young man, whose fluency in Marathi left even Bal Thackeray duly impressed. And so on and so forth.

Losing Sanjay so early, Indira Gandhi inducted her elder son Rajiv Gandhi, a pleasant faced Indian Airlines pilot flying commercial flights, never throwing his weight around as the Prime Minister’s son and diligently sticking to his flying duties. But unfortunately his understanding of politics was elementary. For him Robert Browning could say, He (she) had a heart, how shall I say, too soon made glad, too easily impressed” and therefore the old guards behaving like sycophants, soon surrounded him. He also appeared a bit defensive and apologetic about his wife Sonia’s Italian origin and somehow feared that people may raise fingers at him on that score, which the Sanghis did. I remember soon as he decided to contest from his brother’s Amethi constituency, posters appeared opposite Churchgate station in Bombay recounting Sanjay’s widow young Maneka’s “sacrifice” (Her sole claim to fame during Emergency was that she had brought out Surya magazine which carried the photographs of Jagjiwan Ram’s son Suresh Ram’s sexcapades) and struggle for the Congress party while questioning Rajiv’s commitment to the nation for having married an Italian woman. Soon after Sanjay’s death, wife Maneka who had given birth to son Varun barely a month earlier, fought hard to claim his legacy and when Indira Gandhi refused to heed, she left the Prime Minister’s home in a huff, formed her own Sanjay Vichar Manch, fought her first election in Amethi against Rajiv, lost but this did not discourage her from joining politics and today she and her son as BJP MPs carry a parallel legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Back to Rajiv, the old guards soon prevailed upon a credulous and gullible Rajiv to rid of Sanjay’s appointees. The Brahmins of UP forced V P Singh out and replace him by a Brahmin Narain Dutt Tiwari, the Marathas of Maharashtra got rid of Antulay and installed first Babasaheb Bhosale and then widely recognized Maratha leader Vasantdada Patil. Succumbing to Reddys’ pressure, Rajiv dismissed Andhra Pradesh chief minister T R Anjaiah, motivating Telugu matinee idol, film actor N T Rama Rao to float his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and defeat the Congress in the 1983 state assembly elections.

The Indian Express, now under the stewardship of Arun Shourie launched a campaign against Antulay. We were still young and rather new as reporters but the way Shourie together with Ram Jethmalani, Shalintai Patil and Sharad Pawar led the crusade against Antulay, it smacked of an agenda and communal bias. Many of us smelt it. But since our vision was so coloured by anti-Indira, anti-Congress prejudice, we were not willing to see the whole truth. Also perhaps we were too overawed to say this openly then. In any case we considered Indira Gandhi and Congress as enemy number one and so we brushed aside these minor aberrations.

Shourie was not through with Indira Gandhi even after Antulay’s departure disapproved by her. Then came a series of other exposes: Kuo Oil Deal, Gundu Rao, C M Ibrahim and most significant the Nellie massacre story which made Shekhar Gupta, the Shekhar Gupta, where by his own admission he succeeded in painting such an accurately descriptive picture of the massacre beating all other Guwahati reporters to it, because the then Assam police chief KPS Gill took Shekhar along in his car immediately after the massacre. Shekhar’s bonding with the mass murderer of Sikhs in Punjab goes so far back. None of us then sensed that Shourie was a political player in Assam and Shekhar his Man Friday, busy creating the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and from among the same boys the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was born.

By this time the Punjab situation too had started turning critical and the man who created the Punjab militancy was none other than Giani Zail Singh, who in his bid not to loosen his grip on Punjab, even after coming to Delhi as Home Minister in 1980, sponsored the first press conference of the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) at the La Mona Coffee House in Sector 22, Chandigarh, paving the ground for Sikh terrorism in Punjab. Giani, to undermine his successor in Punjab Darbara Singh and simultaneously play one upmanship game with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) led by Parkash Singh Badal, also actively and willfully aided the creation of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who later became a Frankenstein. Ironically Zail Singh’s all season man Tarlochan Singh is currently the biggest confidant of the whole Badal family, the chief minister, Deputy CM Sukhbir and is frequently spotted at daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur’s bungalow, whenever he and she are in Delhi.

Rajiv demonstrated his initial political prowess by targeting non Congress state governments and one of his first victims was Farooq Abdullah whose government in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was dismissed by the Centre in 1984 and replaced by the puppet regime of his brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah. The mother, son duo  also did everything possible to destablise Jyoti Basu led Left Front government in West Bengal, starving the state of all Central funds. Indira and Rajiv could never stand Dravidian leader M Karunanidhi and his predecessor C N Annadurai. Naturally then resentment started building up all around against Indira Gandhi once more. This time it was spearheaded by Chandra Shekhar who went on his countrywide padyatra and it turned out to be a huge success, unnerving Indira Gandhi for a while. That is when Rajiv too was goaded to walk a mile or two. I remember covering Rajiv’s padyatra in Bombay’s Dharavi one day. My former Express colleague by then a Telegraph reporter Rajni Bakshi was also covering this event for her paper. It was very hot and Rajiv’s and even Rajni’s fair faces were red as ember. Finally someone persuaded Rajiv to hop on to a jeep driving ahead of him, which he did and Rajni asked for a ride and an ever smiling Rajiv welcomed her gladly, with someone  from the crowd asking me curiously if this was Sonia Gandhi and I couldn’t contain my laughter. But for fear of my indiscretion being noticed by Rajni, I made myself scarce from there. I don’t know how far Rajni traveled in that jeep.

The minorities, mainly Muslims but also others, including the linguistic minorities like the Tamils, the Bengalees and other sub nationalities in India started feeling adrift and discriminated against, soon after Jawaharlal Nehru died. The riots against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar occurred with greater frequency in the later half of 1960s, during the brief rule of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who actually never got the time to stabilize and then even under the newly anointed Indira Gandhi, but the alienation of Muslims from the Congress progressed geometrically in the ’70s. AMU’s minority character Bill, provoked by the action during brief Shastri era to undermine its minority status, became a rallying point for all Muslims, particularly of UP and Bihar. During my five year stay at AMU campus, once Jagjiwan Ram came to address the AMU students and the meeting was boycotted. Imranur Rehman Kidwai, the sole NSUI member in AMU sat alone holding a Congress flag in hand throughout Jagjiwan Ram’s address in that vast Kennedy Hall.

Yet the Congress won the 1974 UP assembly elections. But post Emergency thanks to the Turkman Gate firing and the much-hyped vasectomy campaign, Muslims rose with a vengeance against the Congress. In the 1977 elections, in UP, Bihar and generally the entire cow belt there was overwhelming support for the newly formed Janata Party. But the Muslims were vocal, aggressive and abusive against Indira and Sanjay Gandhi. By the way, so were the Sikhs of Punjab later on. And Indira never believed in a forget and forgive policy.

Soon after her return and Sanjay Gandhi’s accidental death in a plane crash, the Moradabad riots took place. It was a misnomer to call these riots because people returning after offering their Eid namaz at Eidgah were fired at by the notorious UP PAC, killing not just young but old men and even children. Moradabad town remained besieged for close to a month by para military forces and many a reporter then made a name for himself, reporting Moradabad. Naturally then there was widespread outrage even as the Government justified the action blaming the Muslims. Giri Lal Jain rushed to the Government aid and wrote a front page piece in the Times of India blaming the riots on the fact that Muslims had become aggressive after their economic state improved through large scale employment in the Gulf. That event set the tone of yet another round of alienation of Muslims from the Congress party, which largely carried on till Sonia Gandhi took charge of the Congress party.

By early 1984 the Opposition had once again regrouped this time under the leadership of Chandra Shekhar. With the use of Article 356 of the Constitution and thereby dismissing state governments not palatable to the Delhi durbar becoming a habit with the Indira regime, the Federal nature of the Indian Constitution became a subject of heated debate all over the country with regional leaders N T Rama Rao, Farooq Abdullah, Parkash Singh Badal and though Jyoti Basu was not really a regional leader in that sense, he was a leading light in the various conclaves held in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Calcutta and Srinagar, seeking a review of the Centre-state relations. Those were the first rumblings of federal, non-Brahmin forces which could later be described variously as the first signs of the emergence of regional satraps or the rise of subaltern castes threatening the Brahmin supremacy in India.

I landed in Chandigarh in December, 1983, barely six months before Operation Bluestar. At the peak of winters, it was a ghost city after dusk, with the roads and culverts all over dotted by heavily armed police pickets checking you all through the route. I was doing crime beat and every now and then Bhindranwale’s boys were killing this one here, that one there. The Golden temple had virtually been taken over by Bhindranwale. Jallandhar range DIG, Avtar Singh Atwal was shot dead on the doorstep of Golden temple after praying there. After that, not many dared enter the premises for fear of Bhindranwale and his boys. Some of them were really boys, as young as 13 year old, with hardly a beard to talk about, but carrying a gun and almost innocently threatening you with that gun. Some brave ones among us like late Shokeen Singh, the Patriot correspondent, a Jat Sikh refusing to wear a turban, would actually get out of the car pat them and politely ask them to go to school instead of this.

Bhindranwale strictly forbade Sikhs from smoking. Yet it was not much of a deterrent. In our Indian Express office there were six Jat Sikh newsmen, K J Singh, Jagtar Singh, Kanwar Sandhu, Amarjit Singh, Randhir Singh Dhindsa, Kamal Dhaliwal and Kulwinder Singh Kular. Smokers and non smokers among them were evenly divided. Because The Tribune and Hind Samachar/Punjab Kesri/Jagbani were identified as Arya Samaji journals, the other side used to derisively call the Indian Express ‘Khalistan Express’, though that was a bit much. But the Express circulation had gone up among the Sikhs in that period. We used to have our first meetings at the city office at Sector 22 every morning at 9 am, come summer or winter. Rahul Singh had only recently been transferred from Bombay to head the Chandigarh Indian Express. One day a sardarji walked in with some issue he wanted to raise with our Bureau team and hastily retreated, later telling a mutual friend that he was shocked to see a Sikh Editor scratching his turban less head, while another gentleman with untrimmed beard and turban happily puffing away to glory, little realizing that this Sikh reporter was the Express bridge to Bhindranwale.

But Bhindranwale was only one side of the picture, It had become simultaneously hellish for the Sikhs to travel in Bhajan Lal’s fiefdom, Haryana and thanks to his patronage to the communal anti-Sikh elements in his state, the Sikhs faced  constant harassment traveling by bus between Chandigarh and Delhi. Delhi was no better, where again Sikhs were looked at with suspicion. My BJP friends have been training their guns at Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar only, pretending to be big saviours of Sikhs, which is far from truth. They have no hesitation however in appropriating Bhajan Lal legacy through son Kuldeep Bishnoi, whose twin achievements were institutionalising corruption and communalising the state polity against the Sikhs. The Sikhs of Haryana all along trusted only Devi Lal and now his son Om Prakash Chautala. Bhajan Lal let loose the marauders against the Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi assassination. My friend an Army officer in uniform was burnt alive at Rohtak railway station inside a railway compartment along with several others. I don’t know the exact numbers because we had gone looking for only one individual and the media was only reporting what was happening in Delhi.

Within four months of Operation Bluestar they got Indira Gandhi. More tragic than her death was the loss of trust in your security guards. In that I commend Indira for sticking to her Sikh security guards, though she was forewarned. I was in Chandigarh on October 31, 1984 where there was an atmosphere of jubilation. The news of Sikh massacre in Delhi and surrounding areas, started trickling into the Punjab capital only the next day.

Capitalising on that communal polarization, Rajiv Gandhi began his political debut from Boat Club public meeting with his oft quoted sentence about some earth shaking when a big tree falls. We were very angry and hoped that a united Opposition may succeed in ending his two month old audacious regime. But there was such tremendous communal polarization that for any perceptive analyst Rajiv Gandhi’s resounding victory should have been a foregone conclusion. All the Hindutva forces had happily switched sides to the Congress party.

Such communal bias did not deter die hard RSS patron Ramnath Goenka from  backing Rajiv Gandhi then and he announced that he could now die in peace leaving the country in the safe hands of a promising young leader. That just showed that soon after Indira’s assassination the Sangh abandoned the BJP, hitched on to Congress bandwagon and put all their bets on Rajiv Gandhi. That was one of the reasons BJP came down to just two seats in 1984. Goenka though lived much longer and never at peace with himself, died long after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Returning to Rajiv, as stated earlier, he was not a good learner of politics . I returned to Delhi after a gap of five years, staying away first in Bombay and then in Chandigarh and arrived on the memorable May 13 when the transistor bombs went off in DTC buses causing considerable casualty and a wave of outrage all around. The Delhi drawing rooms were full of anti Sikh buzz, not at all remorseful about so many poor hapless slaughtered in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi assassination. Gujarat, post 2002 somehow reminds me of Delhi of 1985, when not just the government and the Congress party but the Delhi chatterati had become so communalized that there was virtually no regret or shame for the large scale pogrom of Sikhs in Delhi. On October 31, 1985, the first anniversary of Indira Gandhi assassination, I accompanied my senior colleagues Sanjay Suri and Babu Joseph Maliakan to Tirlokpuri which had witnessed the most horrid Sikh massacre. Full one year later, there were still no inhabitants in those poor quarters. Street after street was lying deserted. There was no succour for the victims of that massacre from the administration. Leave alone the Congress, the RSS/BJP made no move either to rehabilitate the surviving women and children living in squalid conditions in the Peeragarhi camp.

On the other side, Rajiv Gandhi hit a wall attempting to come to a peaceful settlement with the more moderate Sikh leaders in Punjab when Sant Harchand Longowal was shot dead soon after signing an accord with Rajiv Gandhi. Meanwhile the Punjab militants too were in a vengeful mood. They chose their targets involved in the Sikh killings. They gunned down Seth Arjun Dass early morning in his office in Lakshmibai Nagar market. Next was Lalit Maken whose wife too was killed along with him right outside his West Delhi house in broad daylight by scooter borne Sikh militants.

But the most sensational was the killing of almost the entire Behl family in Greater Kailash, while they were all celebrating a child’s birthday party in their lawns. Two young boys got down from a DTC bus near Behl house on the main Lala Hansraj Gupta Marg, entered the premises and fired indiscriminately killing approximately 13 people on the spot. One young reveler was sitting outside in his sedan, waiting for his parents. They jumped in with him and made him drive all around South Delhi till the early hours of that night, killing a few on the way and keeping the cops awake all night; shot him as well, hopped on to another DTC bus somewhere near Delhi Lawn Tennis courts and from ISBT took an inter state bus back to Punjab before the Delhi Police could gather its wits.

Those were the days when the Delhi chatteratti would never tire of praising Rajiv Gandhi. They were quite overawed by this English speaking young leader out to computerize India who had already brought in colour TV made imported TVs, refrigerators, cars and all other modern gadgetry available in India by relaxing restrictions on imports. His silk and terry khadi wearing companions like Romi Chopra and Amitabh Bachchan were looked at with fond amazement by the new rising classes, driving around in the new status symbol, the Maruti 800. In the meantime Dhirubhai Ambani was becoming all important in the corridors of power, with Babus like the present day JD-U MP N K Singh and politicians in the Congress and the Janata Dal at his beck and call. As for the journalists, they were desperate to join the Ambani bandwagon and improve their market value.

Then came the Shah Bano case and Rajiv, rather slow on the uptake, couldn’t decide which way to go. He first encouraged Arif Mohammad Khan to support the Supreme Court judgment granting alimony to Shah Bano and then when the Muslim clerics protested he backed another Muslim minister Ziaur Rehman Ansari to attack the members of the bench itself. The Government decision to strike down the Supreme Court order by amending the Act was a major bloomer on the part of an indecisive, apolitical leader. Overnight his admirers in the RSS/BJP and their supporters like Ramnath Goenka swore to get rid of Rajiv. Simultaneously he abandoned Arif, giving rise to the Jan Morcha which later became the fulcrum for Janata Dal.

To balance Shah Bano and to appease the Sanghis, his advisers suggested opening of locks on Babri Masjid which triggered the Ram Janmabhoomi movement eventually ending with the demolition of the historical mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, more than a year after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Naturally then the Muslims were again up in arms. At the end of the day he could neither please the Mullahs who misguided him on Shah Bano nor the Hindutva brigade who as LK Advani later admitted, felt too indignant at what the BJP/VHP/Sangh described as Muslim appeasement.

Even though the RSS had backed Rajiv in the 1984 general elections, it blamed the then BJP president Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his policy of merging with the rest of Opposition to the point of losing its distinct identity and replaced Vajpayee with Advani in 1986. By this time the Shah Bano issue had been raked up by the Sangh and its sister organisations and it had started directing its energy to further polarise the communal situation, raising the Babri Masjid issue. Advani definitely brought new faces, new energy and new determination to the BJP. BJP was no more the tired, sad old pale shade of the Jana Sangh. It was a party in action with fresh faces K N Govindacharya, Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti working day and night for the BJP agenda. For instance Govind could sense that with Rajiv losing popularity an alternate formation had a good chance of coming to power. Vajpayee in the process had been completely marginalised. I used to see Govind sitting for long hours in the next door Jansatta newsroom waiting for their chief reporter Ram Bahadur Rai to finish his work, after which both would leave the Express building together. Soon after the formation of National Front government  when I saw one day the  black ambassador belonging to the Indian Express, parked outside 11, Ashoka Road, I discovered that the car with the chauffeur had been gifted away by Ramnath Goenka to Govind, who by his own admission worked hard in bringing together various factions of Lok Dal and Janata Party under V P Singh to constitute a credible Janata Dal. Thus on the one hand,  Advani was patronising  the VHP/Sangh agitation for the demolition of Babri Masjid and thus consolidating his Hindutva vote bank, on the other he was actively collaborating with V P Singh to form a secular alternative to the Congress rule which could be voted to power.  Advani emerged as a novel right wing phenomenon, everyone sat up to notice. With a tacit understanding with the Janata Dal/National Front BJP went to polls under Advani and won 85 seats. Advani himself entered the Lok Sabha for the first time from New Delhi parliamentary constituency defeating Mohini Giri. In the 1991 mid-term general elections, as a result of Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra for demolishing Babri Masjid, the BJP grew further getting 125 seats. But Advani just scraped through in New Delhi against Congress candidate  filmstar Rajesh Khanna, in a highly disputable result. Since then he has never returned to Delhi.

Meanwhile Rajiv Gandhi’s regional satraps caught on his naivete and capitalising on  of that UP chief minister Veer Bahadur Singh engineered a series of massacres of the Muslims in Meerut, Maliana and Muzaffarnagar, one after another essentially to establish himself as a Hindu leader, under the able guidance of Amar Singh and Subrat Roy of Sahara fame, till Singh was called to Centre and replaced by Narain Dutt Tiwari. Similarly Bihar witnessed the worst ever Bhagalpur riots.

Around the  same time the Bofors issue had hit the ceiling and Rajiv was also facing corruption charges now. Amidst allegations of Amitabh Bachchan having received kickback money in the purchase of Bofors Howitzer guns from Sweden, the supestar and childhood friend of Rajiv, quit his Lok Sabha seat from Allahabad which V P Singh contested and won laying the foundation of Opposition unity. The Janata Dal came into being later, but V P Singh won the Allahabad bye elections in 1987 to become the pivot around whom the disparate opposition parties, united to form the Janata Dal.

Meanwhile Ramnath Goenka who earlier fawned upon Rajiv suddenly was all fire and brimstones, largely due to his showdown with Dhirubhai and his annoyance with the Government decision on Shah Bano. Looking back at it one can safely say Rajiv mishandled the Bofors issue as well. First he banned middlemen with all the fanfare. Then he panicked too soon. Instead of resisting he should have immediately ordered an inquiry. However what is worth remembering is that the moment the Sangh decided to oppose Rajiv, Ramnath Goenka and Arun Shourie got together to “expose the corrupt Rajiv” through a series of exposes thanks to the constant supply of “incriminating documents pouring in from RSS sympathisers in the Government, including the then C&AG T N Chaturvedi, who later became the BJP Rajya Sabha MP and continued as Karnataka governor even after the UPA came to power in 2004 and Enforcement Director Bhure Lal. The Indian Express, together with The Hindu and The Statesman fed us a daily dose of scams–Bofors, HDW submarines and a host of others, with the opposition describing Rajiv’s government as the most corrupt in the history of independent India. Doesn’t it sound so familiar by now! Thus one after another corruption scandals started tumbling out the moment the Sangh turned against Rajiv Gandhi not because there was any unusual activity on that score, but because post Shah Bano, Sangh had decided to teach Rajiv a lesson. Chitra Subramaniam sitting in Geneva suddenly became this star reporter of The Hindu and was simultaneously lapped up by Shourie in the Express and C R Irani in The Statesman, breaking story after story of the kickbacks in India’s purchase of Bofors guns. She won several awards though she was just a one story and one source wonder, quoting one Swedish policeman Sten Lindstorm, breaking neither before nor after Bofors any other story. Some say she was closely related to former Indian Foreign Secretary A P Venkateswaran, whose sack Rajiv Gandhi announced in his Press conference while the officer was sitting next to him and was therefore agenda driven, again with some RSS connection, but there was no confirmation of this, unlike say T N Chaturvedi and Bhure Lal, whose Sangh connections became widely known to the world later.

Progressively Rajiv kept losing his nerve with every passing day and kept piling up mistake upon mistake. To appease the Sanghis he first opened the locks of Babri Masjid, then allowed Shilanyas, then sought blessings of some tree borne, Deoraha Baba who adopted a strange mode of blessing, sitting on a tree top he would kick his subjects in the head and it was  Home Minister Buta Singh’s bright idea to hunt  Deoraha Baba in the jungles of Brindavan and seek his kickin’ blessing. Eventually Rajiv kicked off his 1989 election campaign with the famous Ram Rajya speech. It is widely believed that the idea was planted into his head, by the then IB chief M K Narayanan, which got him nowhere.

Those were the days of dark conspiracies and briefcase diplomacies, which helped many a pretender passing off as a journalist or politician amass suddenly immense amount of wealth. But the cash flowed largely from one source, Dhirubhai. Rajiv started trusting and seeking advice from all kinds of characters, Subramaniam Swamy, Rajiv Shukla, T N Seshan, Romesh Bhandari even Chandraswamy and encouraged these conspirators to do a St Kitts on V P Singh or pronounce him a CIA agent, which later on Swamy acknowledged and regretted in his book. St Kitts planned so assiduously by Chandraswamy, further brought down Rajiv in public esteem, oncethe real truth was revealed but Rajiv seemed impervious to the image his desperate acts was creating in the public mind.

The other side too was playing a dirtier game too, with Ramnath Goenka conspiring with Giani Zail Singh to dismiss Rajiv Gandhi and install first V P Singh unconstitutionally. Singh’s refusal to play the ball immensely disappointed Goenka. Obviously the Indian Express tycoon like a typical Sanghi had scant respect for the Indian Constitution. Swamy said that Goenka approached the Shankracharya of Kanchi to persuade the then Vice President R Venkataraman to quit office in a blaze of publicity so that Giani could then swear him in as the Prime Minister of India.

The wind was blowing fiercely against Rajiv Gandhi. Incidentally for all the Bofors brouhaha the Congress in 1989 still won 195 seats and was the single largest party in the ninth Lok Sabha.  But V P Singh was a very sharp political brain. He calculated much earlier he could not defeat Rajiv Gandhi on his own and come to power in a jiffy. He slowly created a Janata Dal by bringing together Janata Party, then ruling in Karnataka and Devi Lal and Ajit Singh factions of Lok Dal. But that was not enough to win a nationwide mandate so he expanded the Opposition to create the National Front inviting N T Rama Rao’s TDP, M Karunanidhi’s DMK and AGP to join him and then went for a tacit electoral understanding with the BJP on the right and open alliance with the CPM, rather the Left Front on the Left to create a credible national alternative and succeed in becoming the fifth Prime Minister of India, much to the chagrin of not just Rajiv but a whole lot of intriguers like Dhirubhai, Subramaniam Swamy, Yashwant Sinha and most of all Chandra Shekhar. They kept Singh  on tenterhooks throughout the eleven months and finally it seems in sheer exasperation he decided to teach them all a lesson which they would never ever forget. While Devi Lal, egged on by the likes of Pritish Nandy with close links to Dhirubhai, was threatening to bring down V P Singh’s government every other day, Singh was advised by Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan to counter it politically and announce the acceptance of Mandal Commission report providing for 27.5 per cent reservation for the OBCs in central services. That really unleashed the forces of fury against V P Singh and once Advani, under orders of Balasaheb Deoras, hopped on to Ram Mandir rath at Somnath, it was only a matter of days before BJP withdrew support and brought down V P Singh government.

In between there was a strike in the Indian Express in September-October, 1987, on usual trade union demand of 15 percent bonus, which by the Indian mainstream newspapers standards even in those days was no big deal because others like The Hindu and the Hindustan Times were giving out far bigger amount as annual bonus. But Goenka, with Shourie and S Gurumurthy riding his either shoulder, refused to budge,  sticking to the legally binding minimum 8.33 per cent and the union struck work. Shourie and Gurumurthy convinced us that this was all  Congress handiwork engineered by Rajiv Gandhi so most of us in the Editorial did not join the strike. We set up our temporary office in a room offered by Devi Lal in Haryana Bhawan. Every now and then we were summoned by Shourie-Gurumurthy duo to Goenka’s Sunder Nagar house and given a pep talk on how they were succeeding in breaking the strike. Eventually Shourie announced one day that all the preparations had been made with the help of BJP/ABVP and we were directed to collect at Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg at 9 am next day to march behind the ABVP boys raising a slogan coined by Arun Shourie: “Dam Kitna hai daman mein tere, dekh liya hai, dekhenge” (We shall test your repression). There were only two of us who protested, though almost everyone was shocked at Shourie’s audacity. P Raman then Deputy Bureau Chief went privately to Shourie to say he couldn’t march like this. I raised my hand there in the meeting, refusing to obey Shourie’s command. Till that day I was Shourie’s blue eyed boy. He was very fond of me, had a month earlier sent me on a 12 day junket to Japan, the only time I traveled abroad on a junket in my 35 years of journalism experience. After that at the fag end of my career in 2009, in The Tribune H K Dua bestowed such generosity and sent me with the President to London and Nicosia for four days. That’s all the travel abroad I did in my entire professional life. That apart, before this strike Shourie had informally sounded all the other reporters to promote me as the chief reporter on my return from Japan. But that day, Shourie was visibly shocked when I said I wont participate in that march. He said, “Why, I will be leading it.” I said, “You are my editor, not leader and BJP not my party.” He said, “But you are not on strike and you have to work from the Express building tomorrow.”  I said, “Fine, but I am not supposed to go and fight my fellow workers and as management it is your job to go and create conducive conditions.” That visibly upset Shourie. The next day all others with the exception of P Raman and me marched in raising slogans with ABVP boys. I too joined the office a couple of hours later. But Shourie wouldn’t forget and once I emerged from this meeting, all my other colleagues started raising slogans praising my courage to speak up against Shourie to his face. But I was under no illusion and I remarked, “After this he will make it impossible for me to continue in the Express and lo behold soon thereafter I was superceded by  young Rahul Pathak whom I was training to cover crime beat after my proposed promotion as the chief reporter. Realising though that Shourie would make things difficult for me now, I made the most determined effort to put out my best performance for almost two years I spent in the Indian Express, after this event. Almost everyone in the editorial was noticing that I was being relegated to the sidelines in spite of the fact that there were no complaints on my work. Since I was in the local reporting I was far too busy to notice that P Raman was being meted out the same treatment by Arun Shourie and suddenly my friend Surya Prakash, now an unabashed Sanghi, was being promoted by Shourie, though everyone knew that Raman was the most gifted Special in the national bureau. Shourie got rid of all the people senior to Surya to promote him and make him the chief of bureau. However Surya was as smartly deceptive as they come in the Sangh. For all those two years, Surya was my best friend and I would often share a drink or meals at his Press Enclave home in Saket discussing Shourie and what galls me today is my naivete of not being able to smell a Sanghi, though the marginalization of Raman in the Bureau did strike me a bit odd.

Meanwhile Dhrubhai Ambani had thrown a bait to the media ostensibly pretending that he was now planning to launch his own paper and engaged all the top editors one by one, from Prem Shankar Jha to Saeed Naqvi to Vinod Mehta to prepare the blue print for his paper. The best of journalists from the most prestigious papers were offered lucrative salaries and employed by Dhirubhai, where they only sat in the airconditioned Safadarjung Development Area (SDA) house and played computer games till the 1989 elections were over. Thus in effect Dhirubhai considerably succeeded in reducing the media sting against Rajiv Gandhi, though it did not eventually help and Rajiv still lost the elections.

Eventually before the 80s ended, I quit Express a few months short of the mandatory 10 years service to earn the handsome gratuity, which in my 35 years of professional career, I never got from any organisation.  (To continue)



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