Out of the Box Part 11: The Officer on Special Duty to the CM

During Mulayam Singh Yadav’s first TV interview ever, that he gave to me, MSY wrestled Munna Yadav on his carpet!

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Preface: At a time when there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan- in a quest to bring real pictures to people, the Living Media created Newstrack which eventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today. Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of tv journalists who experimented with ways to do independent television reporting at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates that journey.

Read the first ten blogs in her series here:

Out of the Box Part 1: Of Reporting and Romance
Out of the Box Journalism Part 2: Be Alsatians, Not Pomeranians!
Out of the Box Part 3: Entering the ‘Neverland’ of Journalism!
Out of the Box 4: How Crime Coverage Becomes Lottery for the Press
Out of the Box Part 5: Looking for a ‘Barsati, Boyfriend & Beetle’
Out of the Box Part 6: In Journalism, the Devil is in the Details!
Out of the Box Journalism Part 7: The Man Who Would Be King
Out of the Box Part 8: Journalism Without a Prism or Blinkers
Out of the Box Part 9: How Fake News is Harming Journalism
OTB 10: Of ‘Zooni’ and Other Untold Stories of Dimple Kapadia

My Seeta Aur Geeta Avatar!

A couple of pigeons had been making out since morning on the window sill of my office and I was watching them intently. I was just back from my post-wedding holiday, floating in a twilight zone – half in the office and half still on the beach – when I was called for the Monday morning editorial meeting.

This was my first edit meeting after marriage and I was engulfed in the warmth of  my colleagues. At 24, I was as old as most others in the editorial and tech crew of Newstrack at that time, but perhaps the first to get married – and soon to go reporting wearing the red chooda (the customary wedding bangles). If someone had sneaked in a goat in a frock, it would have gotten less attention than I did in my post wedding attire!

Some remarked that with my short, carelessly worn hair, I didn’t look ‘just married’  –others felt that there had been a tectonic shift since my pre-wedding days, having never seen my nail-polished and wrapped-in-a-silk-suit version.

Our boss hadn’t joined the meeting yet, so the friendly ragging continued unabated.

The dialogue that got the most laughs was “Our Geeta has become Seeta! How will she go  out to report, now?”

This comment alluded to the popular Bollywood film in which Hema Malini had played the roles of two diametrically opposite personalities – one adventurous and the other meek. As the reporters continued having their fun and I laughed along merrily, the boss’s secretary ‘Chatur’ suddenly spoke, in a deadpan voice, from the back of the room – “She will be Geeta in office and Seeta at home”. All of us fell off our chairs laughing at this unexpected source of information, as also the seriousness with which it had been delivered – as though he had just solved an issue of national importance.

The Bangalore techie group, led by editor Bharat Kay, pulled off an impromptu comic act that had me walking with an imaginary ‘pallu’ on my head – meekly touching everyone’s feet at home and then suddenly stepping out of the doorway and launching into acrobatics, similar to scenes from Seeta Aur Geeta!

Throughout the day we would all break out laughing and joking about the “aan and aaff between Geeta and Seeta” that I was supposedly to do. Driving home that evening, I was still smiling at the joke – but also marvelling at what a remarkable solution it was for me.

The Need for an Interview With Mulayam Singh Yadav

At the start of 1990, the winds of change were sweeping the country. Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government had been voted out, not only at the Centre but even in politically vital states like UP and Bihar. Equations were reversed with strong state satraps dictating the agenda to a weak coalition-led Centre for the first time in 45 years of independence.

A new name that had popped up from nowhere for the post of UP’s chief minister, was Mulayam Singh Yadav. Being the head of the most populous state of India meant unbridled leverage, so the national media was curious about this still unknown entity.

We decided that he would be perfect for the launch episode of Hindi Newstrack.

I called up the UP secretariat and was directed to the CM’s Officer on Special Duty (OSD), Ashok Priyadarshi, a young IAS officer. I requested him for an interview with MSY – upon which he politely but firmly asked me if I had read about Mulayam’s Lohia connect, attended any of his rallies, or visited his constituency?

Sonal Joshi, the research associate and co-pilot on this story was sitting right next to me with her ear glued to my phone, listening in on this conversation. She whispered furiously  “Acha, beta – journalist ka interview!  Tell him, we will ask the questions – not him!”

Although the kid of the Newstrack family, Sonal was feisty enough to tick off anyone – and that included the CM’s staff if the latter stood in the way of our shoot. Gesturing to her to calm down, I continued my ‘phono’ with the OSD. After sportingly answering his questions for a while, I finally asked Mr Priyadarshi what I was expected to do to bag the MSY interview. “Well, before you meet the mukhya mantri you will have to visit his birthplace Etawah, see his home, his school, his family.”

It was clear that the route to an interview with the CM would be through a long train ride to Etawah.

In those days, one could palpably feel the presence pf the gun virtually anywhere in Etawah, which lay on the edge of the dacoit-infested belt. Even pedestrians and people riding a bicycle would have a rifle casually hanging on their shoulders. Thin, scrawny, rough-looking men with fierce moustaches bandied about, even as silent, ghoonghat-clad women worked in the fields and in open courtyards of mud huts.

Mulayam Singh’s house had a small tin shed for cattle, on one side, and a mud house on the other.

His wife was too shy to come in front of the camera. A few young lads were playing around the fodder-chopping machine. I was told that one of them was his son Akhilesh, while the others were his brother’s children. I was moved by what I saw. At the inception of his career, Mulayam Singh Yadav was truly a son of the soil. It was incredible that such a man had risen against all odds to head the largest state of India.

Returning to Delhi, I told Sonal to urgently renew our request for an interview with the CM.

Unlike many of us, for whom media was a novel first-gen experiment, Sonal had a blue chip journalism gene. Her father, Prabhash Joshi, was the editor of Jansatta, and the original rebel of Hindi reporting – as also the pioneer of sharp political writing. With a thick dark mane tumbling down to her lower back, sparkling eyes and a ready, open laugh that could be heard across the office, Sonal seemed to celebrate each moment on the news floor.

A natural hack, she started by lobbing a bouncer towards the OSD: “Vaise, national media mein aaye hain neta ji pehle kabhi?”

Although I enjoyed watching this bold next generation of reporters who shot directly from the hip, at that moment I could only see my story dangling precariously in a cross fire between a tenacious civil servant and an assertive cub reporter. Sonal went on to tell the OSD, “Yanee, Newstrack means headline news. We will wait only a day more for confirmation”. Hanging up, Sonal beamed “Phut gayi OSD ki”. Yes, and mine too! There goes my lead story, I thought, shaking my head.

But Sonal’s mock charge did the trick. Flying into Lucknow and driving straight to the secretariat, I had my first face-to-face meeting with the man who was Officer On Special Duty to the CM. Dressed in a blue blazer, sharply ironed grey trousers and a formal tie, Ashok Priyadarshi was a prime specimen of the civil service. Articulate, savvy and astute – he was a driven political aide and an asset to his boss.

Of Subtle Signals and Hushed Whispers

Ushered into the CM’s chamber for the first courtesy call, I was surprised by what I saw. A diminutive simpleton, lacking any charisma or presence, MSY had a nasal voice that made it difficult to understand what he was saying most of the time. Frightfully shy, he would not look up while talking to a woman journalist.

I stepped out of the room and began to wonder how I would make this lead political story impactful. On OSD’s insistence I had already spent too long filming in Etawah, so dumping the story was not an option.

I checked into the Carlton Hotel. With its tall wooden windows, large rooms and larger bathrooms that were fitted with plump brass taps from the colonial era, it was an utter throwback delight. But more than anything, Carlton enjoyed a dedicated following for its high tea. Served in its lush lawns, the place would be full of reporters, politicians and bureaucrats indulging in hushed gossip, over chai and samosa, every evening.

On my very first evening I bumped into Rajiv Shukla, who was also waiting for an interview slot with MSY.

Few people now know that Rajiv Shukla, an eminent cabinet minister of Manmohan Singh’s government and prominent member of the BCCI was earlier a journo who reported for Jansatta and Ravivaar newspapers. Rajiv was considered one of the most intuitive reporters on the political beat and was always forthcoming with tips for others in the fraternity.

Telling him about my Etawah visit, I gushed about how wonderful it was that a person from such a humble background had become the CM, without any mentors or a godfather. Rajiv looked at me and smiled, asking if I knew who MSY’s closest allies and supporters were? Albeit subtly, Rajiv was hinting at something.

Returning to my room, I drew up my plans from scratch again, and packed my schedule with quick appointments with a cross-section of Opposition leaders, journalists and activists. Digging deeper, I got official bytes as well as hushed whispers about MSY ‘dancing with devils’. Almost half of the Samajwadi Party’s cabinet members had criminal cases filed against them!

How Mulayam Singh Yadav ‘Wrestled’ on TV

Two days later, the CM gave us a pre-dinner slot for an interview at his official residence. As I set up to roll, I could see that MSY was ill at ease. I was now told that this was his first ever TV interview! He was very uneasy, so in order to reassure him, we did a practice roll and coached him on audio levels, etc., as a sort of tech immersion course. The interview was going well and MSY came across as a simple, earnest person.

As we came to the end of the interview, I raised my head to look behind me – only to see the faces of three well-known ‘history sheeters’ – sprawled comfortably in the CM’s residence. It was obvious that they were regulars here. Munna Yadav, in particular, was a familiar face in many crime clips I had read in UP.

Steering the conversation away from politics and to MSY’s soft spot for ‘wrestling’, I asked him what he did in his free time in the village. MSY’s face broke into a smile and he talked with passion about his village akhada. Nudging him further, I asked what his pet move was. “Charkha,” he said, with a gleam in eyes. “And how does one execute the charkha move?” I asked him, requesting him to demonstrate it on camera.

To my utter surprise, MSY chuckled and asked Munna Yadav to join him in a wrestling duet!

Before the astute OSD Ashok Priyadarshi could stop him, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and notorious history sheeter Munna Yadav were jostling on the carpet of the CM’s residence.

The sequence of the CM and Munna locked in a charkha daav revealed to the entire audience the close cheek-by-jowl camaraderie that the duo shared. The camera kept rolling and so did CM and Munna Yadav – giving one a sneak preview into the rest of MSY’s tenure.

Ashok Priyadarshi had done his best to nudge the crew into visiting MSY’s village to record his humble beginnings and socialist credentials. He had also made sure we invested a huge number of shoot days so that we could not abandon the story. He had even made us do a tech immersion to train MSY to look good on camera. But even he could not save MSY from his own suspect friends!

The story became a runaway hit in UP and helped us launch Hindi Newstrack with great fanfare.

Learning: It helps if a reporter watches out for ambient signals around a politician. The wheels of the Samajwadi bicycle were wobbly and rusted; a long shadow of crime has hovered over Uttar Pradesh ever since. As they say in Hindi, ‘poot ke paav palne mein nazar aa jate hain’ (the signals at the beginning tell a lot about the rest of the journey).

(Nutan Manmohan has been Vice President Star Tv & Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA . Her film ‘ The Last Flight ‘ on vulture conservation got the ‘ Wild Wing OBE ‘ award UK . Her 26 part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 is scheduled for release on Facebook this year.)

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