Out of the Box Journalism Part 7: The Man Who Would Be King

Preface: At a time when there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan- in a quest to bring real pictures to people, the Living Media created Newstrack which eventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today. Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of tv journalists who experimented with ways to do independent television reporting at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates that journey.

Read the first six blogs in her series here:

Out of the Box Part 1: Of Reporting and Romance
Out of the Box Journalism Part 2: Be Alsatians, Not Pomeranians!
Out of the Box Part 3: Entering the ‘Neverland’ of Journalism!
Out of the Box 4: How Crime Coverage Becomes Lottery for the Press
Out of the Box Part 5: Looking for a ‘Barsati, Boyfriend & Beetle’
Out of the Box Part 6: In Journalism, the Devil is in the Details!




“Are you sure?” I asked with surprise. The plan was an absolute beauty. In the run up to the 1989 general elections, Newstrack would start profiling potential power centres to look for ‘The Man Who Would Be King’. I was being told to shift from investigative reporting to political reporting… to be a part of the team who would swing the torchlight to identify the man who would be the next Prime Minister of India.

It was a startling move of the knight on the chess board. Two steps up and one step sideways – the famed ‘dhai kee chaal’ from Shatranj Ke Khiladi! After minutes of hearing the political coverage masterplan, I had forgotten my emotional reaction of abandoning journalism.

Without even mentioning my father’s visit to the office asking me to quit, my boss had changed the game by drawing me into deeper waters. Instead of tossing aimlessly on the crashing waves –- between the rocky beach and the rising surge – here in the midst of the cross currents, I could hear the hum of the ocean and make an informed choice about whether I wanted to duck out or dive in.

Kicked upstairs, with the exit bolted, my mind was already buzzing with possibilities. If there was any iota of hesitation left, my boss’s parting shot more than killed it. To my question of why such seasoned leaders would meet a cub reporter like me, Madhu Trehan said, “Don’t be awed by politicians. After all, everyone goes to the loo!”

This was the spring of 1989. The air was thick with the aftermath of the Bofors scandal, intrigue and dissidence within the Congress, and tumultuous jugglery amongst the opposition parties to cobble together a front to batter down the Congress behemoth.

My first port of call was Vishwanath Pratap Singh, the rebel cabinet minister who had blown the whistle on the Bofors scandal mid-way through Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. He was the challenger and now the cynosure of all opposition efforts.

VP Singh and His Love For Photography

During the golden hour – as the 4 pm slot is called in television lingo for its slanting sunlight when everyone looks good on camera – I made an unannounced sortie to VP Singh’s house.

In those pre-mobile days, it was customary for reporters to either leave a handwritten message with the politician’s staff or visit personally to request for time. I walked in to bump into Mrs VP Singh, or ‘Rani Sahiba’ as she was called, taking a stroll in her garden. Slender, with greying hair worn short, she had deep-set thinking eyes and a reserved demeanour. She graciously heard me babble about the urgency to meet VP saheb.

VPS had managed to project an amazingly complex and layered image that swayed the press and people alike. He was the raja, yet he was the fakir. He was the former Finance and the Defence Minister; yet, in the middle of Bofors – a detonating defence scam – the only incriminating evidence that he revealed was that the accused was codenamed ‘Rajiv Lochan’.

On the basis of this single clue, VPS was perceived as the clean, credible voice of conscience in the political landscape of 1989.

Accordingly, he dressed the part. On that warm spring day, carelessly dressed in a short white kurta, unfashionably broad pajamas and leather Baluja chappals, in walked the man who was most likely to be the king in the 1989 elections. An amazingly soft-spoken man, it was difficult to hear him if you did not pay close attention.

On this day, VPS was in a chatty mood – he shared stories about his favorite music and films. Rajesh Khanna, it seemed, was a hot favourite! Talking about newly emerging television journalism, I told him about some latest photography tools. Suddenly, he was all there! He opened his rack and out came a professional camera kit with accessories and lens. Even as we talked, he kept clicking a few shots – sometimes of Rani Sahiba, sometimes of the garden behind us – and sometimes of me.

Happy that he had been well apprised of Newstrack’s credentials (something that our team could tap into during the upcoming elections) I took my leave.

Promptly the next morning, I received a hand delivered white envelope at the office. It had a portrait of me clicked by VP Singh – the man who did become the king in 1989. If he could make even me look half glam, I thought, he was obviously a good shot. On the other side of the picture were his signatures, from which I tried to decipher how good a prime minister he would make.

On the other side of the picture were his signatures, from which I tried to decipher how good a prime minister he would make.

This goodwill gesture not withstanding, once Newstrack’s coverage of VP Singh’s ‘Mandal Commission’ started – all our reporters and crew became persona non grata. Every one of our team members would be routinely denied access, refused entry and sometimes even pointedly asked by name to leave the presser even as all other press members would still be sitting.

Blow hot-blow cold. That is the way a reporter’s life is. Politicians and civil servants expect adulatory coverage even if they themselves propose divisive policies like the ‘Mandal Commission’ – launched with a ‘stinky fish’ motive of vote management.

Sadly, the attack on journalistic space is even more today than it was then. Equally, journalists did not relent then as much as they do today.

Despite all the pressure that the VP Singh government bore on Newstrack – the entire team, including Minnie Vaid, Alpana Kishore, Rahul Srivastava, Amar Sharma, Jitender Ram Prakash and many many others filed stirring ‘Mandal Commission’ vignettes which were examples of courageous journalism at its best.

Politicians make a beeline for astrologers and clairvoyants to decipher their wildly unpredictable fates – yet it would be rare to find someone who can truly say he knew when a leader would suddenly leap and become the Prime Minister. It may seem very natural today that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with his illustrious five-decade long parliamentary career became the prime minister, but in 1989 it was not a given conclusion.

On the contrary, it was Lal Krishna Advani’s testosterone-fuelled Ayodhya speeches that dominated the headlines and ABV seemed like the nice guy who may not make it.

Meeting Atal Bihari Vajpayee at His Residence

Our ‘torchlight’ mission to highlight and predict the next Prime Minister was in full swing and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was clearly too tall a leader to miss. I entered his residence to meet one of the most jovial and welcoming family members I have met in all my time of profiling political families.

Namita – or Gunu – as Atalji’s foster daughter is known, met me in the driveway just as she was leaving for an errand. I asked for her help to get ABV on camera for a short vox pop. Stepping out of her car and abandoning her errand, she went back into the house. After a few minutes she returned with not very good news. She said that Atalji did not wish to come on record right now but would surely call later. Not keen to give up, I said – “Fine, no interview, but can I get a cup of tea with him?”

Sure enough, I was led into the backyard where a cosy garden-chair- arrangement was waiting for us. A few minutes later, ABV walked into the sunshine. This was the first time I was meeting him. There is perhaps no easy way to translate the Urdu word ‘noor’ but that is the kind of charisma ABV had.

With twinkling eyes and a playful smile he asked us, “Bhai, kya khichdi pak rahi hai ?” I made a lame joke, telling him that it was more than ‘khichdi’…. instead, we had a pulao, simmering with us, as we waited to interview the next Prime Minister of India. He laughed off my comment with the repartee – “khayali pulao na pakao!”

Vajpayee’s Enigmatic Poetry

After the laughter died down, he sat down for a cup of tea and an off-camera chat on how BJP was prepping for the upcoming elections. I again requested that he give us at least something on record. Rooting strongly for me, Namita said to him, “Bapji, itna keh rahi hai – kuch toh de do”. ABV relented and said, “achcha kuchh de deta hun” – with a strong emphasis on ‘kuch’!

Smiling at the crew he told them “Kholo apna pitaara”. We quickly set up the camera and reflector lights. Over the next one hour, Atal ji regaled us with a fired up session of his own poems. I was riveted.

Kheton mein baroodi gandh, Toot gaye naanak ke chunnd,

Vasant se bahaar jhaad gayi, Doodh mein daraar pad gayi….

There could not have been a better reflection on communal tension in Pakistan. The words would resonate equally for Kashmir. In another poem, he seemed to be reflecting on the determination within BJP ranks to rise from the meagre two seats they had in the 1984 general elections.

Pavon ke neeche angare, sir par barsen yadi jwalayen,
Nij hathon mein haste haste, aag laga kar jalna hoga, kadam mila kar chalna hoga

ABV had refused an interview to us but had given us so much more in poetry. This is how the man was.

In the years following this first interaction, there were many times when we got him on tape and also many times when he turned down our request. But always with grace and good humour. For instance, for ‘Prime Ministers Speak’ – a series on Star TV many years later, he summoned me to his office. Turning down the interview request he said “main ‘bhoot’ nahi hun!” It was easy to realise that he’d punned on the word ‘bhoot’ to emphasise that he was the current prime minister and not former – so would not like to be clubbed together with past prime ministers !

Back in the office and relishing the thought of editing this priceless poetic memorabilia, I stacked the tapes on my desk and picked up my car keys for an early timeout.

I reached home to find my father sitting with Pandit Dhanee Ram. A relic of the inner lanes of Chandni Chowk, Pandit Dhanee Ram was always dressed in a sparkling white dhoti, khadi silk kurta, matching bundi and a Gandhi cap. His salt-and-pepper hair epitomised his years of experience of studying divine constellations, even as the bright red tika in the middle of his brow seemed to announce his deep sixth sense. All of my family’s patris or almanac rolls were tied neatly with red strings. Only one scroll had been opened to its full three-feet length – Mine.

Pandit Dhanee Ram was being consulted about my ‘reporting ka keeda’ – a seemingly incurable affliction. Ignoring my presence and tracing his fingers along the planetary positions on the yellowing patri paper, pandit ji said “ladki sanskaari hai – aapka nuksaan nahi karegi” ( the girl has good values – she will not harm your reputation) Then, taking a loud sip of Roohafza milk, he said to my father – “ Bus, ab shaadi karao” (“Just get her married”)

Learning: To all the sanskari female reporters I would say, the turbulence of national politics will not be a patch on domestic turbulence.

(Nutan Manmohan has held assignments as Vice President Star TV, India Bureau Chief Focus Asia, Honk Kong & Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA. Her film ‘The Last Flightgot the ‘Wild Wing OBEaward in UK. Her film ‘A Second Hand Lifegot special mention at ‘Green Wave’ Bulgaria. She is now a freelance filmmaker. Her 26-part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 will release on Facebook this year.)

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