The Vajpayee I knew was a hardcore ‘feminist’ too

Columnist  | Padma Rao Sundarji

Opinion, Oped

Within barely a day or two, I became the first journalist in the world to get an interview with Vajpayee on why India had tested.

A file photograph of Atal Behari Vajpayee at the PMO.

On May 1, 1998, I joined the tough-talking German weekly magazine, Der Spiegel, as its South Asia bureau chief in New Delhi. I was to begin a six-week orientation at its headquarters in Germany soon. It was a big break, first impressions on crusty editors are crucial, I fretted. On May 11, India’s nuclear tests provided an opportunity. But I didn’t have the cosy “hotline” to the PMO that big media stars boast of, nor had I ever met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee or anyone in his party.

Desperate times need desperate measures. The international media had gone into anaphylactic shock, stern editorials admonished India for its “audacity”. I put the PMO’s number on redial. Within barely a day or two, I became the first journalist in the world to get an interview with Vajpayee on why India had tested. For the benefit of European readers, the majority of whom fiercely opposes nuclear weapons, the PM, who resembled my father, responded like my father-in-law (a fierce advocate of nuclear deterrence). He told me firmly that to test was India’s prerogative and self-defence its sovereign right.

A day later, I shuffled into my very first edit meet on the eighth floor of the formidable magazine’s headquarters in Hamburg with a printout in my wobbly hands. Hound-dog editors, the crème de la crème of the German press, slumped behind various global dailies. Huge headlines on India’s nukes screamed on their front pages in various languages. I was introduced, they didn’t budge. “She’s brought us a world exclusive with the Indian PM,” my chief added slyly. The papers crumpled to the floor, there were resounding claps. As promised, we sent India-relevant excerpts back to the PMO for simultaneous release, the interview was reproduced around the globe and my 14-year-long innings with the magazine got off to a kickass start.

Two of India’s most famous editors (male of course) reacted churlishly. They carefully “forgot” my name in their reproduction of my scoop. I was, after all, a “mere” woman, more qualified to write on nail-paint than nukes.

In late 1999, I requested another, longer interview with Vajpayee for my chiefs and me. We got it immediately. I entered Race Course Road with two tough German newshounds, cynical as hell, thoroughly researched and icily immune to the guiles of both pirates and politicians. When we stood up to greet the PM as he entered, we were nobody’s fools. When we left, we were intrigued by the rare combination of crafty prose and warm likeability that Vajpayee embodied.

My detractors in Delhi were far from amused. They whinged that the “foreign media” was being favoured unfairly. Vajpayee had yet again ignored every person doing India’s Second Most Important Job and — chosen me instead.

The third and final time I approached Vajpayee was in 2003. There had been several raging controversies. In 1999, he had launched a bold peace initiative with Pakistan, even as the Pakistan Army was laying the ground for what culminated in the Kargil war. In 2001, he had shaken the hand of the very general who had engineered Kargil. Months later, Pakistani terrorists attacked India’s Parliament. The Gujarat riots were being condemned around the world. A Time cover story on the ageing PM was titled “Asleep at the Wheel”. There was regular furore in Parliament that the elderly statesman was “losing it” and should step down.

As a foreign correspondent, I expected to be shooed away by the angry external affairs ministry, which was seething over the Time article. Instead, I was ushered into Race Course Road for the third time in five years. Emboldened, I confronted Vajpayee with a long list of seeming disasters. But, as before, nothing fazed the enigmatic, courteous and sabre-sharp politician.

“If your peace initiative and various other ventures fail,” I finally asked, expecting to be met with a silent, sphinx-like stare, “how will you react?”

Vajpayee smiled, measured his words, took his time to respond, and did so in impeccable English. “Then I will accept it as my defeat and retire.”

I cast a quick glance at my two tape recorders. They were whirring.
“Did you say ‘retire’, Sir?”
“Yes, retire.”

I filed the vetted interview to my desk in Hamburg. As was the norm, I shared some excerpts, including this one, with the PMO, to release to the Indian media.

As I lay in bed with fever for the next two days, I had no idea that my chat with Vajpayee had raised a veritable shitstorm in the Indian media and unleashed pompous debate. Alpha-male analysts launched verbose dissections of my scoop. One pundit insisted that Vajpayee had later told him (“exclusively”, of course), that he will “neither tire nor retire”. The PM had been “misquoted” by the “German journalist”, said another. “The Spiegel reporter wouldn’t have understood Vajpayee’s Hindi,” claimed a third.

My fever vanished. Pointing to the two recordings and the vetting by the PMO, I informed them in — published — letters, that my magazine and I practised a form of journalism that was obviously alien to them — one which treated fact-checking as a sacred ritual.

So, the first post-nuclear tests interview with PM Atal Behari Vajpayee, a long chat with him on the cusp of the new millennium and the “I’ll retire” conversation were all mine. But why?

It would be hugely tempting but silly to say that it was my “brilliance” as a reporter that swung it. I was a journalist with foreign media concerns and had been working overseas for several years. Vajpayee had no idea who I was.

Was it the might of Der Spiegel, then, that prompted him to agree? Perhaps. But the German-language publication could have hardly been the PM’s go-to morning read, since it had no English website at the time. Besides, there were other, equally famous international concerns like the New York Times, represented in India by journalists far more senior and accomplished than I. They had all been knocking on his door.

I have two explanations, one rational, the other personal.

PMs usually do a single large interview. Giving it to a solitary Indian concern would unleash a volley of protests from others, whereas placing it in a non-competitive foreign publication with excerpts to the Indian media could guarantee a modicum of peace. But which one? If the NYT were chosen, the Washington Post would grumble. If AFP, the AP would be up in arms. And if the Times of London, the Guardian and Telegraph would be incensed.

A publication in a third language, like Der Spiegel, held certain advantages. For one, its correspondent at the time was Indian and likely endowed with greater local insight and intuitive understanding. And luckily for the PMO, there were no European competitors of the German weekly, present in India at the time.

Back then, most Indians in the international media worked in junior positions under parachuting foreigners who had little knowledge of South Asia or patience for its many trying ways. The storylines were predictable, and their reports mostly morbid or morose.

I was the first Indian to head the regional bureau of a leading international magazine. The two irascible hounds who had met Vajpayee along with me were my editors and mentors who allowed me to write about India as an Indian — and a woman, at that. My intuition tells me it is that combination the late Prime Minister wanted to support.

Vajpayee’s largesse benefited my career immensely and gave me the professional expertise required to wrangle with a master tactician and orator of his stature.

He died at age 93 last week, after a full life and a tall career. As a long-standing correspondent who has hammered out copy from war zones, disaster sites, terror attacks, I am a hardcore, unsentimental dog of war. And yet, my eyes were mostly watery over the two days of his death and cremation.

Whatever people may say about Vajpayeeji’s other “failings”, the truth is that when it came to encouraging India’s women, our former PM was a hardcore feminist.

They don’t make them like that anymore.