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Room with a queue

Deepak Sandhu’s appointment as spinmeister at the PM’s office has come at the end of a winding walk along the corridors of power. In her earlier role, she used to help info-hungry presswallas; now it’s the latter who woo her, reports Kumkum Chadha.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2009 00:21 IST
Kumkum Chadha

The journey from room 115 to room 156 has been an eventful one for Deepak Sandhu. It was in room 115 of New Delhi’s Press Information Bureau (PIB) that Sandhu started her career, then barely 23. Her job as a junior officer was to facilitate the workings of the press corps. But her recent shift to room 156 in South Block has turned the tables. Now, it’s the press corps that woos her.

That’s because her recent appointment to room 156 means that she’s the media adviser to the Prime Minister. In this crucial election year, it is she who will decide who gets to meet Manmohan Singh, what he will say to the media, and, at times, whether he will speak to the press or simply smile and walk away. And yes, she also decides how much the press should be told about the goings on in the PM’s Office.

She has ample experience in the field. Before getting to room 156, she was principal director-general handling media for the Union government. Clearly, Sandhu’s is among the important names in the corridors of power.

But she sees her job rather differently. Not without a dose of self-deprecating humour. She calls herself “a doormat who’s expected to do anything and everything — the smallest to the most important”. The smallest could be ensuring that her driver gets a weekend off to visit his family in Rajasthan or that her cook is issued a ration card without a bribe. And the most important part of the job is being at the beck and call of the PM round the clock.

Yet, she makes time for a lazy Christmas lunch. Or for driving off to Chandigarh in her sporty car. Or spending a weekend with her mother, a thought that makes her as excited as a

10-year-old planning her birthday party. “It’s a girlie thing,” explains Sandhu.

Talk to her ‘gang of friends’ and they will fill you in with numerous ‘girlie things’ about Sandhu. There was one about a skin-tight dress that no one could fit into. Sandhu, being the slimmest among the lot, not only tried it on but also went partying in it. Marriage, she feared, would mean sobering down. So when she put away her provocative dresses lest her husband frowned, he pulled them out and said: “Who but you can carry
off these?”

And the best gift for her is, of all things, a comb. Meenakshi Datta Ghosh, a senior Indian Administrative Service officer who has known Sandhu for more than 40 years now, says: “She is constantly combing her hair. There is never a strand out of place. A bit tough, given that she leaves her hair open.”

If Sandhu has held important assignments in her four-decade career, she has had a share of controversies as well. As director of film festivals she got flak when the microphone suddenly went off during the President’s address at the National Awards function. Or, when as chief of Doordarshan News when some seniors wanted some file noting to be changed.

It seemed easier to boot out Sandhu from the hot seat than risk roping her in. It was one of her understudies who confessed: “Ma’am, they want me to malign you.” Sandhu was packed off from the high-profile job back to the PIB: the office where she had started out.

“Poetic justice” is all she could say when, years later in 2002, she was posted back to being director of film fests and was given the additional charge of running Doordarshan News two years later. “It was a déjà vu — except it was for real… a homecoming,” quips Sandhu.

Despite the rough patch, Sandhu never alleged gender discrimination “except once in 37 years”. There was a vacancy in the office of the chief controller of imports and exports. Sandhu made a bid for it. The officer sized her up and sniggered: “This is a man’s job.” An enraged Sandhu walked out: “I wanted to say that any job is an officer’s job, but decided against working with a male chauvinist.”

For those who have worked with her, Sandhu is an agony aunt. Ask anyone and they confirm that she is a sounding board. Call it a ‘multidimensional relationship’, like Arvind Manjit Singh, 13 batches her junior, would. “She guided me at every step, be it my career or outside it. My family jokes about my dependence on her,” says Singh, who is heading the set-up started by Sandhu, the controversial DD News.

Sandhu’s strength is that she is unfazed yet hands-on. She brings to the PMO a desperately needed open-arms approach, sans arrogance.