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A Prime Minister of men

Chandrashekhar had a quality I admire above all else. He knew how to forgive. His successors should learn from him, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jul 15, 2007 00:26 IST
Karan Thapar

This week I’m going to start with the conclusion: Chandrashekhar was one of the finest politicians I’ve known. No doubt he had his faults but they were more than compensated for by his generosity of spirit. I got to know him by accident but I came to admire and, more importantly, like him. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that it happened because of Amar Singh.

The story goes back to March 1991. Chandrashekhar was Prime Minister and Rajiv Gandhi had still not pulled the plug. Eyewitness, the video magazine I was editor of, was about to launch. For our inaugural episode we obtained an interview with the Prime Minister and to ensure it stood out I devised a set of questions that would attract attention. They weren’t about the shifting politics of the time, the collapsing economy or the aftermath of the first Iraq war — the big stories of the day — but Chandrashekhar himself.

Why did he wear crumpled kurtas? Why was his hair uncombed? When every caring mother sent her children out in neat, clean clothes, their faces scrubbed and surma in their eyes, did he not realise that his casual, uncared-for appearance was un-Indian? In fact, it was a paradoxical imitation of western hippies. More than that, it was unbecoming of the Prime Minister. To be honest, Savyasaachi Jain, the correspondent who was going to do the interview, had his doubts about this line of questioning. But I was adamant. So Saachi agreed.

I can’t deny that Chandrashekhar was furious. But he didn’t stop the interview and he let Saachi ask all the questions. Afterwards he rang Shobhana Bhartia, my boss, to complain. My gimmick may have succeeded in capturing attention but the PM was livid. Worse, everyone thought his reaction was justified.

At the end of June, Chandrashekhar stepped down and Narasimha Rao took over. The day after, Amar Singh rang. “Now that he’s no longer PM and you won’t feel small, I think you should meet Chandrashekhar and make up.”

Actually, that is precisely how I felt. I had come to realise that I had erred but was too proud or too young to know what to do. Amar Singh, in his wisdom, suggested the way forward. “But how?” I asked. “Leave that to me.”

Three days later he took me to Chandrashekhar’s South Avenue Lane residence. I was nervous. My heart was pounding. I had no idea what to say or do. Chandrashekhar was sitting on a large sofa looking unkempt, uncombed and his clothes were horribly creased. It seemed he had just woken from an afternoon nap.

"Stop”, he said, as I entered. “Let me look at your clothes.” His eyes scanned my body. I froze. “Good,” he continued, “you have a good dhobi and a good barber. You must give me their names.” The laughter that followed dissolved the past. Patting the empty seat beside him he asked me to sit on his sofa. Amar Singh pushed me forward.

"So, young man” — and, believe me, I was still young then — “you like annoying prime ministers?” Before I could reply, Chandrashekhar added: “And you’re very good at it!” Slowly but surely I realised I had not just been forgiven but, incredibly, almost unbelievably, I had won Chandrashekhar’s respect. Something of my insouciance had struck a chord. My insolence had found favour.

In the years that followed he gave me several interviews. He would speak without guard, candidly if at times indiscreetly, revealing his own true thoughts but also the dark depths of realpolitik. Even at my most aggressive I couldn’t annoy, even irritate, him. He would smile indulgently, side-step my barbs but answer the point beyond the polemic. We did several interviews in the sylvan surroundings of his farm at Bhondsi. On each occasion he insisted we stay for lunch. “It’s dal-roti,” he would say but it was always a sumptuous spread. On the very first occasion the crew mistook his modesty for truth and were determined to depart. Fortunately, the aroma of biryani got to them before it was too late. In the mid 1990s, for the launch of Home TV, Shobhana Bhartia hosted a huge reception at the Taj. I was at the farthest corner of the Darbar Hall when Chandrashekhar arrived. After greeting his hostess he demanded, “Where’s my friend?” It took them 20 minutes to find me but Chandrashekhar waited patiently.

“Am I suitably dressed?” he asked. Before I could answer he added: “Aajkal bahut garajte ho. Acha lagta hai.” Chandrashekhar had a quality I admire above all else. He knew how to forgive. His successors should learn from him.