Narasimha Rao: An Astute Politician With Calm Nerves
With two anecdotes, Sanjay Pugalia reminisces about what it was like to be a journalist when Narasimha Rao was PM.
(This article was first published on 27 June 2016. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark PV Narasimha Rao’s birth anniversary.)
Narasimha Rao was India’s ninth Prime Minister, and on the occasion of his birth anniversary, here are two anecdotes that exemplify his tolerance towards critics.
Two decades ago, it was difficult to imagine that the media would report on the Prime Minister’s health and his illness would be a matter of public debate.
This unnamed protocol was broken by Business Standard in 1994-95. One day, they published on their front page that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was afflicted with minor paralysis due to Transient Intermittent Ailment and that he was admitted to AIIMS.
Rao’s ailment was kept hidden. Consequently, the government stated that the news was inaccurate. The Chief Medical Advisor showed the media the logbook maintained by the SPG and we at Business Standard debated day and night how we would publish our denial. We told them that if we published a denial, then we would also mention that we were standing by our story. Additionally, we told them that we would publish more information that might prove to be harmful to the Central government as well as Rao.
Finally, the PIO agreed and dropped the demand to print a rebuttal. I think that was when our position was made known to the PMO.
Rao believed that our position was correct and that it was better not to pursue the matter further.
This incident can be better understood in another context.
During his tenure as a Prime Minister from 1991-1996, Narasimha Rao was regularly criticised by the media. How to run a government and manage politics, he knew well, but as far as his image in the country was concerned, he wasn’t worried.
After our report on his health, the PMO did not contact TN Ninan or proprietor Aveek Sarkar. Instead, they contacted me, a reporter, and my bureau chief, David Devdas. Maybe for Narasimha Rao, the criteria for evaluating an issue was different. For him, it was about whether an issue affected him personally or whether it would have a far-reaching impact. That is why in his tenure, he could withstand intense political storms with calm.
A Veteran Administrator
The second incident epitomises Rao’s skill as an administrator, whether it was a small issue or a big incident. When he reshuffled his Cabinet before the General Elections of 1996, he included a lot of controversial faces. One such was Matang Singh, who was made a Minister of State.
In a story published in the Business Standard, we said that Singh was a power broker and had alleged links to the mafia. News of the story soon reached Matang Singh, who was incensed. One or two days later, I received a threatening phone call at midnight:
“I am calling from Dubai, on the behalf of Dawood’s company. You like becoming a hero and roam around in a Maruti. I will end your life!”Voice on phone
I was so exhausted that I slept after the phone call, without giving it a second thought. But when I woke up in the morning, I was scared senseless. After meeting my editor, friends and various police officers, it was decided that I would write a letter to the Prime Minister about the phone call. We suspected Matang Singh’s involvement.
Prime Minster Narasimha Rao was on an election tour in Madhya Pradesh at the time and David, our bureau chief, had gone to cover the tour. He gave the letter I had written to Rao.
A few hours later, some officials from the Home Ministry reached our office and said that policemen would be deployed to ensure my security. Respectfully, we denied their offer. It is clear that Rao did not believe that we should be taught a lesson on how to report or behave.
Even his response to crises were unique. When we look back now, it is clear that Rao’s decisions during 1991-96 were nothing short of revolutionary.
Coincidentally, our suspicions about Matang Singh proved to be correct, after some investigation. It was him who was behind the threatening phone call.
Anyway, a fellow journalist knew Matang Singh. I went with him to meet Singh and on questioning, Matang admitted that it was him who asked for the phone call to be made. The atmosphere eventually eased a little, and he offered us ladoos.
But then, I made a mistake. I called him a fellow Bihari, in jest. Matang angrily retorted, “I am not a Bihari. I am from Assam, from the royal family in the state.”
Recently, there has been news of Matang Singh being implicated in a lot of controversies: the Saradha scam, custodial battle with his wife and allegations of corruption in a channel. As of now, he is an accused in the Saradha scam and behind bars.
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