Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Memories of another day: Of media & power brokers

The Asian Age.  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

Politics and journalism have always been two sides of the same coin.

The safest course for a journalist was to keep a safe distance from those who exercised power. (Image by Harrarts on Freepik)

The death last month of veteran journalist Subhash Chakravarty marked the passing of an age that brought out both the best and worst in the media. The new stage managers of public life are too busy projecting themselves and securing their own positions to allow newspapermen much of a role. The apparent exceptions are a handful of courtiers whose subservience is rewarded with a throwaway crumb or two.

Subhash was not one of them. He didn’t want Rajya Sabha membership, a diplomatic assignment or a corporate sinecure. But I discovered when researching Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium at the East-West Centre in Honolulu, he had been present at the creation of the process that led to Narendra Modi’s honeymoon with Joe Biden. He was the only journalist to report that some weeks after the 1980 US presidential election Indira Gandhi sent her cousin, B.K. Nehru, who had represented India to the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, on a surprise visit to Washington to deliver “a personal message extending her cooperation to the incoming President”, Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter was still in the White House. K.R. Narayanan had not yet presented his credentials as ambassador.

The President-elect was being very selective about whom he met. Only Subhash reported that the “chance encounter” with Reagan that Nehru’s influential friends arranged marked the start of an unusually warm exchange of letters between him and Mrs Gandhi. The legacy of that rapprochement is that Narendra Modi can be far more supportive of Washington’s strategic positions than previous Indian leaders.

Subhash probably didn’t anticipate that. He wasn’t an analyst. He may even have agreed with New York Times columnist Tom Wicker who declared after a presidential race that “neither candidates nor press believe that the public is really concerned about issues”. He was essentially a “who-did-what-to-whom” reporter. Like many reporters, he was also a snob.

The idea of Mrs Gandhi assigning Nehru to lobby Reagan’s elitist friends fascinated him. Some may have derided this penchant for what he called “high society”. When I telephoned him on reaching Delhi one Sunday evening, Subhash apologised that he couldn’t see me the next morning. “I have an appointment with Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur!” So did the capital’s entire press corps, I retorted, because the Maharani was hosting a well-advertised Swatantra Party press conference. Subhash was not abashed. He was a good man, honest and simple, who would not dream of promoting (or hurting) someone through his reports. Instead, he always helped people in those years of privation when many necessities were luxuries. Subhash would expedite phone connections, obtain gas cylinders, get trivial road offence fines waived, and arrange foreign exchange for those going abroad. It was said that at a nod from Atal Behari Vajpayee, he made the AIIMS booking for the CPI’s revered Indrajit Gupta who was suffering from cancer.

Politics and journalism have always been two sides of the same coin. Whether they admit it or not, politicians need the media to broadcast their views and gain support. The media languishes without access to news sources. Not all newspapermen welcome this. Ian Stephens, a distinguished editor of The Statesman, then India’s only British-owned and edited daily and a power in the land, where Subhash started his career, had deep qualms over accepting a social invitation from Lord Mountbatten, the governor-general.

Stephens’ personally supervised coverage of the Bengal famine had forced the authorities in Calcutta, New Delhi and London to drop their posture of pious ignorance and take belated ameliorative action. He feared that hobnobbing with the mighty might affect this independence. There was peril in receiving confidences from the country’s rulers.

Mountbatten might over lunch or tea disclose some government plan and ask him to keep it under his hat. How could he do so if the information had news value? The safest course for a journalist was to keep a safe distance from those who exercised power. Reagan called it the “friction of freedom”.

No Indian newspaperman would dream of similarly rebuffing the country’s top man. A colleague of mine made a point of always arriving late at parties with the explanation that he had to stop at Raj Bhavan (West Bengal was under President’s Rule) because the “old man” wanted “a bit of advice”. I also recall a briefing for Indian correspondents by our deputy high commissioner to Britain at London’s India House when a New Delhi editor turned up unexpectedly. He was provided with a chair beside us but was clearly unhappy with the arrangement. He rectified it by slowly, yet ever so adamantly, sliding his chair centimetre by surreptitious centimetre, inch by furtive inch, along the marble floor, the space between him and us widening as the space between him and the deputy high commissioner narrowed.

Eventually, he and the deputy high commissioner were sitting almost side by side. He had turned round in his chair and faced us beaming.

An episode in Saeed Naqvi’s July 17 column in this newspaper (“Farewell Dada! Memories of an extraordinary 1979 China visit”) recalled that editor’s acrobatics. Saeed, N. Ram of The Hindu and Subhash were covering Vajpayee’s visit to China as external affairs minister. With Vajpayee was Jagat Mehta, the polished foreign secretary who was an experienced China hand from the mid-1960s. It was typical that no matter where they were in China, Subhash telephoned his editor, Girilal Jain, twice a day for all the Delhi gup-shup. But let Saeed tell his tale.

“It was all very satisfactory until one reached Hangzhou, the great cultural centre. After a memorable banquet by the local party chief, we retired to our rooms in an exquisite hotel. This was usually the time for Dada [as many called Subhash] to walk to the press room for his confabulation with his editor. Such was Dada’s demeanour that it appeared to those who were listening to the conversation that Dada was actually scolding his editor. That was his style. This particular conversation with Girilal Jain ended dramatically. Dada left the handset dangling by the spiral cord, rather like the climax of Dial M for Murder. He ran toward Jagat Mehta’s room and began banging on the door. ‘Jagat, open the door’ he thundered ominously, ‘China has invaded Vietnam’.”

At once recognising the significance of the event, Subhash had to be the first to inform the senior most Indian official he could get hold of. It did not matter that playing the errand boy was no part of the Times of India bureau chief’s job. But, then, there’s no exact equivalent in any Indian language for “officious”. Many supposedly English-speaking Indians think it means “official”. Meddlesome or busybody in a derogatory sense are not frowned on here. Narendra Modi wouldn’t have savoured the self-bestowed “Vishwa Guru” title so proudly if Indians were not an officious people.

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