My association with Sushma Swaraj goes back to 1977, when after the end of the Emergency, she became an MLA of the Janata Party and was made minister for cultural affairs by Chaudhary Devi Lal, becoming the youngest ever minister in the country at 25. I was the director in the ministry. She exuded warmth and trust and started addressing me affectionately by my first name Yaqoob, my being six years older than her notwithstanding.
I was newly married then and she became very affectionate towards my wife, a budding journalist, as well. She granted her an interview for the last page of Sunday magazine — a first for both of them!
Her positivity and my enthusiasm ensured that an otherwise lacklustre and nondescript department performed exceptionally well. A film star night by Sunil Dutt’s troupe at Ambala for social causes was organised. Sushmaji decided that no one would be given free passes. The only two persons who complied were Sushmaji and I. I had to leave my wife of three months at home, which she probably begrudged me but never complained! A national award — Sangeet Martand — to Pandit Jasraj of Sirsa with a prize money of Rs 1 lakh, a princely sum at that time, was another landmark. A Haryana swang (a folk theatre form) workshop with Habib Tanvir and another with Balwant Gargi resulted in legendary productions which were sent to border areas to entertain our jawans for years thereafter.
Even after we moved on to different ministries, our association continued though there was increasing acrimony between my wife and her. But she never allowed my wife’s hostile writings against her and her party to affect her relations with me. She always said we are different individuals and even defended my wife’s freedom of expression.
In 2001, out of the blue, I got a call from Sushmaji saying that she wanted me to come to her ministry, Information and Broadcasting, as Director-General Doordarshan. I was then posted as principal secretary to the chief minister of Haryana,
O P Chautala. The post was considered the most powerful in the state. I thought it would be awkward to request him to relieve me of this job as he would consider me an ungrateful rascal. I therefore requested Sushma ji to speak to Chautala herself, which she promptly refused to do, saying, “ Yaqoob, you know very well that your CM is hostile to me as I had opposed my party’s alliance with his.” On my persuasion, she kindly agreed to call him and the conversation I heard is best forgotten. I learnt quite a few original Haryanvi invectives. The politest refrain being “you want to ruin me by taking away my principal secretary”.
A few days later she again called me asking if I could use some other influence to get my name forwarded to Delhi. Surely there were many in the CM’s secretariat who would be happy to push me out. I decided to use their “good” offices. And it worked.
When the news about my appointment as DG DD spread, she faced a barrage of attacks from BJP leaders, including very senior ones, for appointing a Muslim to such a sensitive post, one with an anti-BJP wife to boot. Only a leader of her stature and backbone could have withstood the pressure. The complimentary words of faith and trust she used for me have always moved me. It transpired that the attack on me and her defence of me was a regular feature. She was so cultured that she didn’t even mention these conversations to me and I got to hear of them from her staff.
At DD, she gave me a free hand especially as I was the first direct recruit for Prasar Bharati and she extended her full support to all my initiatives. The introduction of DD Bharati, a unique channel for women, children and culture, within a month of my joining set the tone. DD India, narrowcasting (local broadcasting from our TV towers) and later setting up of DD Archives on the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas were some of the other milestones possible with her support.
One not so fine day, she was abruptly moved out of I&B to the Ministry of Health because of party infighting. I was the next target. Many people suggested that I am being moved out for being a Muslim, which I did not countenance. My belief was that my being considered a protege of Sushma Swaraj was the real reason. Being labelled a “protege” of a great leader like her is a matter of pride for me.
Sushma ji was an original thinker and doer par excellence. One of her achievements I can never forget was to declare film production as an industry, a demand that had been rejected for decades. In one stroke, she killed the phenomenon of the underworld financing in the film industry as it became bankable. Has any one heard the name Haji Mastan ever since?
My last meeting with her was on June 13 when I went to her home to inquire about her health. Rumours were rife that she had been “dropped”. I inquired why she had chosen to withdraw from active electoral life. She said that ever since her kidney transplant, she was advised by her doctors to keep away from two things — dust and human physical contact. She said with a constituency which spread over 100 kilometres, and millions of constituents and friends, this was impossible. I had not seen her so happy in a long time. She was glowing. Who knew that this was the proverbial last flicker of a dying flame.
Ma’am, I love you.
The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India