National Herald’s decline began long before the time of Sonia Gandhihttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-national-herald-story/

National Herald’s decline began long before the time of Sonia Gandhi

The newspaper’s troubled run and end had little in common with its glorious start

National Herald case, National herald story, what is national herald, sonia gandhi, rahul gandhi
Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi (File photo)

But for BJP leader Subramanian Swamy’s court case against Congress president Sonia Gandhi, her son and party vice president Rahul, and some of their hangers-on, could the National Herald have hogged the headlines after the Gandhis were ordered to appear personally at Delhi’s Patiala House court? The answer is an emphatic no. The first hearing of the case on December 19 had turned into a tumultuous drama; the grant of bail to all the “accused” was claimed as “victory” by both sides. What will happen on the next hearing on February 20, 2016 remains to be seen. For the moment, it seems necessary and fair to sum up the Herald’s story from its glorious birth to its pathetic death.

Since Jawaharlal Nehru founded it in Lucknow, almost a year before the start of World War II, the Herald enjoyed a wide readership. The main reason for its popularity was that Nehru, when not in jail, used to write signed editorials often enough.

He also appreciated the work of M. Chalapathi Rao (usually called M.C.), who was the paper’s much-respected editor. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Indira Gandhi, who was in Europe at the time, use to receive clippings from the Herald. She would send back either her comments or some “unpaid contributions”. After her marriage in 1942, her husband Feroze became the newspaper’s managing director. Indira and Feroze set up a small house in Lucknow while Nehru, along with other Congress leaders, was imprisoned in the Ahmednagar Fort in Maharashtra because of the Quit India Movement.

But even after his release in May 1945, Nehru remained preoccupied, first with the failed Simla (now Shimla) Conference and later with the intense negotiations about Independence and Partition. Widowed in 1936 and strenuously busy, especially since September 1946, when he took over as the head of the interim government and later became India’s first prime minister, Nehru needed to be looked after. Indira alone could have done that. Feroze had to remain in Lucknow to manage the Herald and could move to Delhi only in 1950, when he became a member of the provisional Parliament and the Delhi edition of the newspaper was being set up.

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Although welcomed by those associated with the freedom movement and the Herald’s original Lucknow edition, its arrival in Delhi did not make much impact. For one thing, The Times of India of Bombay (now Mumbai) started its Delhi edition at about the same time with far greater resources. Unfortunately, advertisers simply ignored the Herald’s Delhi edition.

While newspaper sales do matter, what keeps them going is the income from advertisements. Indeed, in one of my conversations with him, Feroze said that he had once asked J.R.D. Tata why the latter never gave any advertisement to the Herald. The eminent industrialist’s reply was: “None of your readers bathes with eau de cologne soap, which is the only brand I have to sell.” It was on October 1, 2008 that the Herald and its Urdu edition, Qaumi Awaz, went into limbo. In fact, on several occasions, the company directors made formal proposals to stop publishing both newspapers. But each time, Sonia Gandhi rejected them firmly. “This lamp,” she would say, “was lighted by Jawaharlal Nehru; it must not be allowed to be extinguished.”

However, there arrived a stage when emotions had to yield to ground reality. News agencies like PTI and UNI had withdrawn their services from the Herald because they had not been paid for months. Moreover, failure to pay the staff salaries on time caused acute labour unrest.

Abid Hussain, one of the last people to head the Herald’s board of directors, was once gheraoed for 20 hours. Above all, the paper’s archaic technology ruined its production quality.

To say that the Herald’s problems began only during its last decade will be wrong. In a very long and very angrily worded letter, dated December 16, 1949, Indira Gandhi told Nehru that a rot of a different kind had set in the Herald soon after Independence.

Her main complaint was that the chief minister of UP, Govind Ballabh Pant, was collecting “proxy votes to elect petty businessmen with unsavoury reputations” to the paper’s board. She further wrote: “Are you prepared to have the Herald, which everyone associates with your name, to be run by black marketeers?”

It is unclear how this matter was resolved eventually. But there was another episode related to the Herald where Indira had her way. In her view, M.C. “was living in the past and should be asked to go”. Eventually, she got rid of M.C. in a manner that was vintage Indira.

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On the day that M.C. completed 30 years as editor of the Herald, she held a big reception in his honour. She eloquently praised him, but at the end of her speech announced his retirement, which he had never sought. His numerous successors, most of them eminently forgettable, collectively share the blame for the Herald’s fate.