Gorbachev, as the subsequent years proved, was clearly out of touch with the nation he had set out to transform
“The world was a better place during the Cold War”, I said. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev put his head back and guffawed. This was in the 1990s in his Moscow apartment, soon after Germany recognised Croatia ahead of the EU. “They were working according to a plan”, he said. How he must have suffered on the United States breaking its promise on Nato expansion. After the interview, my last with him, I asked him what was his dream when he embarked on his reforms? “Something like Sweden of the 1980s when socialism and a free market were being refined?” Thoughtfully, he nodded agreement. This interview is on YouTube.
The careers of Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) and Rajiv Gandhi (1984-91) were co-terminous. Almost on cue, I had resigned from Indian Express in 1984 to set up “World Report” with a vision I nurtured for a decade: Indian journalists must see the world with their own eyes. Rajiv’s visit to Moscow in May 1985, his first outing, enabled me to make my switch to TV from print. Doordarshan was the only channel until 1994, when private channels burst upon the scene to accommodate the advertising which rode on Manmohan Singh’s reforms.
What promised to be the assignment of a lifetime led to a murmuring campaign among the 50-odd colleagues travelling with the PM. “Why should one journalist get the scoop?” they grumbled. Foreign secretary Romesh Bhandari, his mouth full of paan parag, didn’t know how to cope. A press conference had been firmly ruled out by the Soviet system.
Drop the interview, then. That had bigger obstacles. The two systems working on Rajiv’s visit were involved in the interview too: the PMO, G. Parthasarathy Sr as the super purohit, the foreign office, DD, RAW and ambassador Nurul Hasan in Moscow, and their Soviet counterparts.
Finally, Bhandari came forward with a compromise: I would do the interview but the rest of the media team would pick a representative to sit in. Approval was obtained from the very highest in the Kremlin. N. Ram of the Hindu cut the Gordian Knot: the spectacular Russi Karanjia of Blitz would represent the media.
Adjacent to the hall where the summiteers would meet, a small area was enclosed with ropes, rather like a boxing ring, except this was on flat ground. Four chairs were placed inside the ring -- two for Gorbachev and his interpreter and two for Russi and me. The rest of the press corps would have a ringside view.
All eyes were riveted on the door through which Gorbachev would walk towards us and take his seat. In these suspenseful minutes, Russi was collecting slips of paper from the journalists. These were questions they wanted Russi to ask.
Just then the door opened. Andrei Gromyko, foreign minister since the Khrushchev era, walked in, stood near the door, took a good hard look at the arrangements and went back.
Next entered Romesh Bhandari, waving his hands like he was bringing tidings of joy. “Sorry friends, there will be no interview. A brief press meet would give out wrong signals.”
Later, I found out what happened. After seeing the media bandobast, Gromyko took Gorbachev aside, along with a few officials, including Bhandari. Gromyko had shrewdly sized up the situation. Bhandari’s choreography would lend itself to a melee. Journalists outside the ring would be asking questions out of turn. The new young CPSU leader was not going to be exposed to such assured chaos.
“What though the field be lost, all is not lost”, I said to myself, quoting Satan. This was to pull myself out of my deep disappointment. Soon enough, Gorbachev’s return visit to Delhi was announced in December 1986. I was in Moscow again.
T.N. Kaul took charge of the interview this time and insisted that not one or two, but four representatives of the official media would sit in with me. I had enough! This was my mood when I walked into the library next to Vladirminsky Hall. Every syllable of each question to be asked had been cleared by Kaul. At one, narrow end of a long table, big enough for a catwalk, sat Gorbachev. I sat at the corner of the long side, nearest him. To my left were the official media. On the other side of the table, opposite me, were three severe-looking Soviet officials, glaring at me like suspicious invigilators. Against the wall opposite me sat Veena Sikri, the Indian press secretary, grinning from ear to ear even as I broke all rules as you will see presently.
“Mikhail Sergeyevich, I was told we would meet in the library, but there are no books here”, I said.
“Books are in the adjacent room -- many books.”
“Do you find the time to read?”
“Yes, yes”, emphatically, “I have a habit of reading.”
“Name a writer you would recommend!”
“Chinghiz Aitmatov”, he said, without batting an eyelid.
Then I opened my cards.
“Your bureaucracy and mine have cleared a set of question. If I restrict myself to these sanitised questions, millions in India eager to see you will switch their TVs off. May I therefore ask you questions on what I think are important issues?”
“Da, da, da” (yes, yes, yes), he emphasised several times.
To everybody’s astonishment, the conversation, billed for 30 minutes, lasted 90 minutes, completely outside the parameters set by the two bureaucracies. Gorbachev looked very much the glasnost man, rejoicing in coming out of the old straitjacket. But as the subsequent years proved, he was clearly out of touch with the nation he had set out to transform. In dealing with the Americans, he was naïve.