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Fondly Remembering the Prime Ministers I worked with

Life throws many surprises at you. Unexpected happens when you are least expecting it. At times, truth appears to be stranger than fiction.

How would you react if I say that a former Prime Minister once sat on the handle of my seat while travelling in a plane. Your first reaction will be ‘You must be joking!’ Well, I’m not joking. It is cent percent true.

Let me explain: The Prime Minister in question was Rajiv Gandhi. The year was November 1985. We were on our way back home to India after attending the first SAARC summit in Dhaka. The Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was in the same aeroplane and I was travelling as a part of his press party.

During the flight I was dozing in my seat when I sensed commotion in the plane. PM Rajiv Gandhi had just walked into our part of plane. He was dressed casually in jeans and jacket.

It was a big surprise because Prime ministers are usually formally dressed for such occasions. I got another shock when Rajiv Gandhi came and casually sat on the handle of my seat. I immediately got up and offered him my seat. He declined the offer, gave me a smile, pressed my shoulders and made me sit down.

Then someone suggested that he should be in Khadi kurta pyjama. Rajiv Gandhi brushed aside suggestion and said he did not believe in formalities. Everyone was touched by his humility. Rajiv Gandhi had taken over as prime minister about a year ago after assassination of his mother. He was full of new ideas at that time. There was always a twinkle in his eyes and he was in a hurry to get things done up. He did not believe much in formalities.

Another interesting incidence relates to Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Russia. In May 1985, Rajiv Gandhi was on a whirlwind twenty-four hour visit to Moscow. At that time, open economy reforms introduced by the then Russian President Mikhail Gorbachov was the talk of the day. It was a major shift in Russian economy from the communist economy.

During the visit, a meeting between Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi had just ended. The soviet leader was asked a very interesting question by the press accompanying Rajiv Gandhi. Question was Mr Gorbachov, have you spent so much time with a single leader ever before during such a short visit. His answer was NIAT, meaning never before.

The time was around 1330 hours and I had an important story to feed to All India Radio. Both the landline and teleprinter were not responding. I rushed to the control room set up for Prime minster's visit and requested to use the hot line to file my story.

Narsimha Rao was the external affairs minster at that time. He entered the control room at the same time to talk to New Delhi. I introduced myself to him and told him that I have important story about the meeting which could be lead in major AIR bulletins. And that the Teleprinter and the land line were out of order.

I requested him If permitted, I could file my story first as time was running out. He looked at me and said go ahead. He pulled a chair and sat next to me. I filed my story and apologised that I kept the minister waiting. His reply was your call was important and deserved priority.

That time I was in Moscow as part of press party accompanying Rajiv Gandhi. Later, Narasimha Rao became our prime minister. I accompanied him on his visit to China and South Korea.

Let me now tell you another incident that is quite interesting. I was in Beijing covering the China visit of Rajiv Gandhi in December 1988. At the end of his Beijing leg of visit, the Prime Minister was to leave for X'ion the next morning.

At night, I tried to contact the telephone operator for a wake up call early next morning, but she only spoke and understood chinese.

Those who know me also know that I am a very sound sleeper. I woke up the next morning at 7 AM, the time for the press party to leave for airport. I got ready hurriedly, dragged my attachecase and reached the parking area. To my horror, the Press party had already left. I was in a dilemma. Shocked and shaken. What to do.

Then luckily, I spotted Suman Dubey who was part of PMO. I had met him earlier in Delhi for some story. He was getting the luggage of the prime minister loaded in some cars. He gave me a smile, asked me get into a car and I reached the airport. I had a narrow escape. After this visit, I always carried alarm clock in my luggage.

In 1988; Relations between two Asian giants China and India were at lowest ebb. The visit of last Indian prime minister to China was 34 years ago. Rajiv Gandhi took the bold initiative to thaw deep frozen relations between two countries. He decided to visit Beijing in the winter chill of december. Winters in Beijing are severe with temperature dipping to minus six degrees. DC Bhowmik was selected to accompany the prime minister but he declined the visit on health grounds and instead suggested my name.

The PMO approved my name and I was part of press party accompanying prime minister. Much has been written about the visit and you are aware about it. However, I would like to share some side lights with my friends.

Rajiv Gandhi and veteran Chinese leader, Deng Ziao ping met in the Great Hall Of People. The welcoming hand shake between the two went on for about three minutes. Initial proceedings were broadcast through loud speaker for the benefit of Chinese people.

Rajiv Gandhi visited the great wall of China, one of seven wonders of the world, braving chilly weather, frosty winds and sub zero temperature.

At the official banquets in Beijing, exquisitely carved vegetable decorations were in the form of Dragon, symbolising China, Peacock symbolising India and two doves symbolising peace. Rajiv Gandhi visited a famous chinese restaurant where roasted Peking duck was served with much fanfare. We also savoured this Chinese delicacy which was really delicious.

News pandits and analysts can sometime totally read the mass psychology wrong. Simple and innocent looking masses can some time bowl a googlly and completely fox any Political party. I was eye witness to one such event in Meerut during campaigning by former prime minister, Indira Gandhi during general elections after emergency was lifted and general elections had been declared.

Opposition parties had united under the banner of Janata dal at the call of socialist leader, Jai Prakash Narayan. They were putting up a united front against Indira Congress. People in general were fed up with congress for excesses during the emergency.

It happened some what like this. Mrs. Indira Gandhi was to address a huge public rally at Gandhi Maidan in Meerut. Congress brought people from villages around the city in trucks in huge numbers. They arrived carrying congress flags and shouting Indira Gandhi zindabad. Rally was a success and demonstrated congress strength and Mrs Gandhi’s popularity and mass support. Once rally was over, same people were going back to their villages in trucks. It happened just as if by magic. Crowds were same but were now waving Janata dal flags and shouting anti Indira and pro Jai Prakash slogans. I could not believe my eyes and ears. But it was true. What do you say, simple rural masses. Lesson learnt was never under estimate rural masses.

Yet another interesting incident relates to former Prime Minister and Kissan leader, Chowdhary Charan Singh. He was prime minister from 28 July 1979 to 14 January 1980. It happened once when he came to address a press conference in Delhi. He was highly annoyed when press men kept sitting on his arrival. His comment was you people did not show to your any respect to your elder, who was also your prime minister. You all should have stood up. As a protest, he said he was not addressing press conference and leaving.

A senior colleague explained that pressmen never stand up whoever high and mighty may come to meet press. I still could not understand why did he leave. Perhaps conflict of values. May be ego. But the incident left a bad taste in every one’s mouth.

Atal Bihari Bajpayee, our former prime minister was unassuming, soft and gentle soul. A poet politician and a true nationalist, he was mostly above party politics. After the 1971 Indo pak war and creation of Bangladesh, he hailed former prime minister Indira Gandhi as Durga. How would you react if I say I met Atal ji in jeans and t-shirt.

Let me narrate this incident to you. In 1990, I was posted in Kathmandu as AIR correspondent. Vajpayee was on a private visit to Kathmandu at the invitation of a Nepali cultural organisation. We went to meet Atal ji at the hotel where he was staying. To our amazement, I still remember, he was wearing yellow tea shirt and denim blue jeans.

He was an MP at that time. In a lighter vein, we requested him for photo coverage. He gave a usual mischievous smile, waved his hand and said softly, Marwao ge kaya , how can you. No one took a snap. It was pleasure listening to his informed views on political situation in India and Nepal at that time over a cup of coffee. I dare say there are very few people of his caliber in politics.

politicians and journalists of those times were deferent. Both had mutual respect for each other.

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