“There is only one portfolio I am certain I have the right person for,” I K Gujral had remarked to a friend, hours before he took over as prime minister in mid 1997. “It is the Information and Broadcasting ministry for Jaipal Reddy.” He made this remark minutes after word came — “ho raha hai”— that Congress leader Sitaram Kesri had firmed up the requisite support for him. This was just after the departure of H D Deve Gowda as prime minister.
Jaipal Reddy became India’s I & B minister when Gujral took over as PM. It’s not as if Reddy was endowed with huge administrative experience at the time, though he had been four times MLA and twice Lok Sabha MP. ( Later, he enjoyed four more terms as Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MP, and was Union minister in the 10 years of UPA I and II.) Gujral chose him because he was a true blue liberal.
Sudini Jaipal Reddy, who died in Hyderabad on Sunday morning at the age of 77, was arguably amongst the most liberal political figures in contemporary India.
As I&B minister, he piloted the Prasar Bharati Bill to give autonomy to Doordarshan and All India Radio. And when he became I&B minister again in 2004-05 under Manmohan Singh, there was an instance of his political associates seeking his intervention to rein in Doordarshan for something “uncomfortable” telecast against them. “ I can’t interfere,” Jaipal Reddy told them. “There is a Prasar Bharati Act in place and I believe in it.” In fact, he had once remarked that he wanted the I&B department of the government to “wither away”. His colleagues would tell him it was not “practical politics”. And that may have been one reason why he was shifted from I&B to the urban development ministry in 2005.
His blistering attacks against the Congress on the Bofors issue (1987-89) — which proved to be the undoing of Rajiv Gandhi — were long remembered. Rahul Gandhi, it is said, asked him to be the AICC spokesman again last year, in the hope that “Jaipalji” would be able to mount a similar onslaught against the government on the Rafale deal.
What sticks in my mind was the skill with which he defended the V P Singh government on the terrible violence during the election in Meham in early 1990 — it was dubbed “mayhem” — with allegations of rigging and murder against Devi Lal’s son, OP Chautala, which finally proved to be the beginning of the end of government. For almost a month, day after day, at the 4 pm press conference at the historic 7 Jantar Mantar building, Reddy would not budge from the party line, never loose his cool, answer every query till they were exhausted, throw in Harold Laski, Bertrand Russel, Bernard Shaw to divert attention — and yet leave journalists with a sense of sneaking sympathy for him.
Every journalist who went to meet Reddy came away with the feeling that he or she was his favourite. He once told me, “When you do hard political analysis, don’t leave out the human factor”. This stemmed from his belief that the media’s role in a democracy was as legitimate as that of the executive or Parliament or the judiciary. The government and the media were adversaries at one level, but there had to be dignity in that relationship, he felt.
On my last visit to Hyderabad when I had gone to see him, he told me about his new book, Ten Ideologies. I thought he would write on the politics of the last 50 years, which he had participated in, and on which he could hold forth so expansively. He was, for instance, an avowed supporter of “Mandal”, seeing V P Singh’s decision to give job reservations to the OBCs not only as a tactic to save his teetering government in August 1990 but also as an inevitable culmination of the rise of the backward classes. Singh “tapped into” this, others like Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and Nitish Kumar became its beneficiaries.
But by 1997-98, Reddy had become sceptical about the “Third Front’s ability to provide an alternative”, and termed it a “mirage”. The trouble, he once told me, was that “the non-BJP leaders (fighting the Congress) were never informed by a unity of purpose, nor held by a supreme leader”. And you needed symbols of legitimacy to hold together.
In 1999, when he decided to rejoin the Congress after battling the party for two decades, having quit it after the Emergency, I once asked him how someone like him could bring himself to take such a step. He said it was only the Congress that could fight the battle for secularism, and for him, politics was about ideology and beliefs. That’s why, though shunted from one ministry to another, he remained in the Congress till the end. Conscious about his squeaky clean image, he did not give in to corporate pressures when he was Minister for Petroleum. And he had to pay a price for it.
Later, after the Manmohan Singh government had gone, a friend asked him, whether Prime Minister Singh had talked to him when he was dropped as petroleum minister. “No,” he said. Did Sonia Gandhi talk to him? “No,” he replied. “But,” he added,” Rahul Gandhi called me and said that I had been wronged.”
Journalists write obits about politicians they have tracked, assessing their contribution. There are few you grieve about. Jaipal Reddy is one of them. His going is a poignant reminder that the India we knew and wrote about is not there anymore. Reddy will also be remembered for his artistry as a parliamentarian — on many an occasion, he could be a one-man demolition squad in the house. And for the one liners he would think of everyday, which would become headlines the next morning.
(The writer is a senior journalist)