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Man of his word

columns Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:29 IST
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At first, Arjun Singh seemed a bit of an enigma. He was taciturn and not given to small talk. When he did speak, it was almost epigrammatic. His sentences were short but always substantive. They felt like oracular pronouncements. They were delivered with a passionless, almost stern, face.

However, as I discovered, this was only an initial impression. Once the ice was broken, I found a generous person, a curious and learned mind and, most surprisingly, a delightfully dry wit.

I first met him in 1992. He was minister for human resource development and I had sought a meeting to get my driver's son admitted to one of the Kendriya Vidyalayas in RK Puram. I was ushered into his study at Race Course Road. The first thing I noticed was his books. The room was lined with shelves rising from the floor to the ceiling. They were crammed full of an eclectic but inviting collection.

"Is this for your son?" Singh asked, his eyes scanning the papers I had given him.

"No, I don't have any children."

"For your relatives or a friend?" he pressed on, still not looking at me.

Sensing the conversation was heading in an embarrassing direction, I belatedly explained. At this point, Singh lifted his eyes and looked at me over the rim of his half-moon spectacles. "Hmm … But then your driver is more likely to vote for me than you are." And with that the young boy was admitted to school.

Exactly a year later, I was back. By then our relationship had also deepened. I had done a few interviews and we'd got to know each other better.

"And whose admission do you want this time?" On this occasion Singh was looking straight at me and smiling. There was a knowing glint in his eyes. I said it was the driver's daughter.

"There's no question of my refusing," he immediately responded. "She deserves the same opportunities as her brother." Once again, school admission was easily secured.

Over the next 20 years, I did several interviews with Singh. Each time, it took considerable persuasion. He was always cautious - if not also reluctant. But once he made up his mind, he would stick to it. And I could press as hard as I wanted without offending him.

Interestingly, he kept a personal recording of each interview. He'd place a small dictaphone, no larger than a bulky lighter, on a nearby table and I was told the miniature tapes were kept securely for years thereafter.

My last interview was in 2006 at the height of the crisis following his decision to create an OBC quota in university admissions. This was the most difficult to arrange. Eventually, Singh chose a date by when he thought passions would have cooled. Instead, they were at their height but he didn't back out.

The interview became an immediate talking point. It was repeatedly played by the protesting students at their demonstrations. They used it to keep the momentum going. Even now, five years later, it's a favourite on YouTube.

Last year, after UPA 2 had been formed and Singh was no longer a minister, I asked why he had not cancelled or even postponed. His reply summed up the principles he lived by and why I admired him: "I gave you my word. Now, if the timing is better for you than me, that's your good luck and my bad luck."

The views expressed by the author are personal