August 29, 2021 6:35:55 am
Vir Sanghvi had a charmed life as a journalist. Somehow, all doors opened for him. Besides his immensely readable style, he has always been a shrewd, and often caustic observer of men and matters. He also had the good fortune to have friends in all the right places. Even with his newspaper proprietors, Vir was on breezy first-name terms, unlike most editors who maintain a respectful distance. His autobiography, which he dubs rather grandly “the memoir’’, offers insightful nuggets about the people who ruled India during his years as the editor of The Hindustan Times and the now-defunct Sunday magazine. Some of these insider stories seem to have been withheld earlier because of his proximity to the sources.
The author provides a telling picture of the all-important role the late Brajesh Mishra played, virtually running the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, and offers a peep into Mishra’s battle with LK Advani. For instance, Advani assured the US government that India would send troops to Iraq. Mishra scuttled the deal, using Natwar Singh as a conduit and instigating the Congress party to protest against the proposal. Vajpayee promptly proffered the excuse of domestic opposition to wriggle out of the commitment. Occasionally, Advani got the better of the PM’s principal secretary-cum-national security-advisor. He brushed aside Mishra’s choice of Krishan Kant as the presidential candidate. Vajpayee, Sanghvi writes, performed a balancing act between the two.
According to Sanghvi, Manmohan Singh was Sonia Gandhi’s first choice as prime minister even at the time when PV Narasimha Rao was appointed party president. He claims that the Congress did not bring up Singh’s name then because it would have been unacceptable to the allies.
Some of the book’s insider tales are hilarious. As prime minister, HD Deve Gowda was annoyed by the Delhi newspapers placing photographs of him dozing off at meetings on the front page. He gave Sanghvi a lengthy explanation that he was weighed down by the worries of the nation and tossed and turned in his bed. He, per force, had to take Calmpose sleeping pills by early morning and, consequently, could not always keep his eyes open during the day.
Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister, spoke frankly of his rift with then-president Zail Singh to Sanghvi, admitting he did not send any government papers on Punjab to the Rashtrapati Bhavan because of Singh’s tendency to meddle in Punjab politics. He acknowledged that he had nixed most of the president’s requests to go abroad because “the man is an embarrassment”. When Mani Shankar Aiyar, then Rajiv’s aide, protested that the PM was being too candid, Rajiv retorted that, “I didn’t reveal any really bad stuff like womanising at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.’’ Singh, on the other hand, was convinced that the Rashtrapati Bhavan was bugged by the government and took Sanghvi to the privacy of his garden when he wanted to chat.
Rajiv Gandhi also had a sense of humour, writes Sanghvi. When someone referred to (politician and former prime minister) Chandra Shekhar’s palatial residence in Haryana’s Bhondsi as an ashram, he corrected him loudly and said it was more of a country club. Sanghvi also discloses the genesis of actor Amitabh Bachchan’s unlikely friendship with Amar Singh. The late political fixer got Chandra Shekhar, when he was prime minister in the early ’90s, to close the case, instituted by VP Singh as finance minister, against Ajitabh Bachchan, Amitabh’s brother.
Some of the more riveting descriptions in the book are about the author’s own life. The suave Mumbai boy felt constricted in sleepy Kolkata and cannot resist an occasional dig at the idiosyncrasies of his former boss Aveek Sarkar and the work culture at the Anandabazaar Patrika group, which seemed trapped in the last century. His caustic comments appear a tad ungrateful, considering the publication funded his five-star lifestyle, which was the envy of most editors.
The flaw in this very enjoyable book is that Sanghvi’s objectivity appears coloured by his proximity to his sources, whether to the Gandhi camp or to Vajpayee’s foster family. He is dismissive of their adversaries. Narasimha Rao, for instance, is described as a “small time manipulator masquerading as a statesman’’. He also glosses over uncomfortable details in his own colourful life. His move from print to full-time television came about after his name figured in the Radia tapes (2010). His defence, allegedly ignored by the Outlook magazine for years, was that his telephone conversations with (Niira) Radia were doctored, and, in any case, happened after the 2G allotments. A pioneer in news and feature television, Sanghvi got his fingers burnt after a disastrous experience with Peter Mukerjea and his wife Indrani, who were running the NewsX channel in those days. Today, Sanghvi has opted to move away from news and current affairs and focuses his multitalented persona on food and lifestyle, a sphere which he covers equally engagingly.
(Coomi Kapoor is contributing editor, The Indian Express)
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