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Friday, Aug 16, 2019

Jaipal Reddy, a logician with a deep sense of history

Jaipal Reddy was a logician with a sense of history. The libertarian in him straddled the utopian.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2019 10:12 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times
Jaipal Reddy was a man of exceptional political timbre: genteel, cerebral, accessible.
Jaipal Reddy was a man of exceptional political timbre: genteel, cerebral, accessible.(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

Jaipal Reddy was a man of exceptional political timbre: genteel, cerebral, accessible. His understanding of human nature, of philosophy and politics, was inspired by the works of Bertrand Russell, George Berkeley and John Stuart Mill.

He’d often be heard citing Plato and Laski in Parliament, quoting them from memory to burnish his interventions and speeches. Hearing him from the press gallery was a pleasurable education. Reddy was a logician with a sense of history. The libertarian in him straddled the utopian. Or so it seemed in contemporary cut-throat politics.

Even those who knew him well were surprised when, on becoming the Information & Broadcasting minister in the Inder Kumar Gujral regime, he argued that the portfolio assigned to him had no place in a democracy. Left to him, he’d rather have it wound up.

That actually was his way of underscoring the indispensability of a free media, of unbridled, unadulterated flow of information towards an empowered public opinion. An informed public, he’d often aver, was the best safeguard for democracy; for free speech.

His concept of a useful journalist was that of a “barefoot education worker”; a fearless interface between the rulers and the ruled. He felt policy making cannot be robust without critical inputs from the ground.

Probity was at once his strength and handicap in Delhi’s power corridors. A truncated tenure as the United Progressive Alliance government’s petroleum minister saw him being shifted to the relatively innocuous department of urban development. There too, he advised the realtors to build affordable houses rather than “land banks” for profiteering.

He was erudite and honest as a spokesperson of the Janata Dal, and later the Congress. At times, party discipline made him withhold information but not forever. For the sake of posterity, he’d invariably share the truth, as he saw it, in private conversations after enough time had passed. For instance, the manner in which the Congress handled the bifurcation of his home state Andhra Pradesh, had upset him
no end.

At a packed press conference, he once denied point-blank my report of mass resignations in the Janata Dal. The late VP Singh was then the prime minister and Ajit Singh the party president. A couple of years later, at the launch in 1991 of the news video, Eyewitness, he admitted that the Hindustan Times did not misreport the development; that the resignations had indeed happened due to internal power struggle in the chronically amoebic Janata Dal. The reigning wordsmith, Shashi Tharoor came to politics later. Reddy’s was the original powerhouse of words. A self-taught lexicographer-etymologist, he once told me that he read dictionaries and thesauruses to expand his vocabulary. His repertoire of words was “humongous” - an adjective he popularised in the Indian political lexicon to convey the enormity of issues under debate.

If his vocabulary was a listener’s delight, so was his phraseology embellished with repartee and good-natured humour. I remember still his tongue-in-cheek description of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as an assembly of moderates. In a Lok Sabha debate on Ayodhya under AB Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance, he said: “The sangh parivar is full of moderates. Vajpayee is a moderate compared to L.K. Advani, Advani is a moderate compared to Murli Manohar Joshi, Joshi is a moderate compared to Uma Bharti who is a moderate compared to Rajju Bhaiya [then RSS chief] and Rajju Bhaiya is a moderate compared to Vinay Katiyar...”

Little wonder that he held his own amid such towering parliamentarians and leaders as Pranab Mukherjee, Vajpayee, Chandrashekhar, Advani, George Fernandes, Somnath Chatterjee, RK Hegde, Sushma Swaraj, and Indrajit Gupta.

A secularist to the core, Reddy embodied the social justice spirit he picked up during his years in the Janata Dal. He didn’t merely make statements on behalf of the parties for which he spoke. His briefings were backgrounders of great value and insight for journalists who cared to listen.

One could argue and disagree with him, defy him in cold print and yet not fear retribution. He was the template of the education worker he expected the media to be. The healthy regard he had for the other view earned him respect across the political divide.Afflicted by polio in childhood, Reddy was the brave face of our country. His legacy will walk without crutches.

First Published: Jul 29, 2019 01:12 IST

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