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How The Vajpayee Era Was Different From The Modi Government: A Reporter Recounts

When civility meant criticism, even if unwelcome, was tolerated.

Matbhed hota tha, mannbhed nahin (There could be differences of opinion, but no personal animosity).

Among the several tributes on television to the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, this from fellow poet Kumar Vishwas, was telling. I don’t have a Vajpayee story to tell. I never got to meet the great man. As a youngish reporter of the Vajpayee era, however, I do have several stories of his government, and his ministers. And of the culture of civility that he fostered.

I spent much of the Vajpayee era as a reporter of the ministries of information and broadcasting as well human resource development. Both were, as they are now, laboratories of cultural change the RSS is trying to enable. The I&B ministry had a series of ministers, the most important and high profile of whom were Pramod Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj. The HRD Minister was Murli Manohar Joshi, the man we all knew from the demolition of Babri Masjid as well the tiranga on Lal Chowk.

It was a great time to be a reporter, even if we were given elevated titles of special correspondent. Much of our day would be spent in the Press Information Bureau, or in dusty, musty offices poring over files, reports, and circulars.

Vajpayee’s government had several ministers who were new to governance, and mistakes were de rigeur. Some were motivated by greed, as Mahajan’s invariably were, and it would be my personal delight to uncover some of them – the biggest being his son Rahul Mahajan’s company producing shows for Doordarshan on his father’s watch, a conflict of interest in capital letters. I remember that particular story eliciting a phone call from an irate Mahajan senior who told my editor that it would be better for him to kick him on his butt every morning rather than have my stories given so much prominence on the front page. Those were the days editors laughed off such phone calls, and reporters wore them like badges of honour. Now editors quake in their shoes, and reporters have to start updating their resumes.

Equally with Joshi, who clearly had an agenda to implement in HRD whether it was to appoint appropriate right-wingers to various institutions or to ensure Saraswati Vandana was instituted in schools. Again, that did not come in the way of Joshi inviting me to his home for breakfast on several occasions, to sort out “misunderstandings” even as I continued to do stories on his favourite advisers, among them the odious Dinanath Batra who attained fame as the giant killer of Wendy Doniger’s books and Devendra Swarup, whose sense of history is now fully revealed and realised in members of the BJP as varied as Satyapal Singh at the Centre and Biplab Kumar Deb in Tripura.

Vajpayee’s ministers shared the spirit of tolerance that marked his long public life. They were able to listen to criticism, even if it was damaging, and often they were also able to laugh at it. I still remember presenting myself in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, to cover an election rally with Pramod Mahajan and hitching a ride back to Lucknow with him, though, as he told me, he had half a mind to throw me out of the chopper there and then. Call me naive, but I found the threat as funny as he did – perhaps because I did not know how lethal politics was to become in NDA-2.

It’s not that Vajpayee’s ministers were unvarnished saints. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, as minister of state at information and broadcasting, was so prone to disastrous declarations that one felt almost cruel in writing those stories. Except that they revealed the right-wing mindset: he had a view on everything, from the “Westernised” MTV corrupting Indian youth to filmmakers doing politicians harm by showing those with saffron headbands in a bad light. He also took the scalpel to the MTV Independence Day logo and complained about the AR Rahman – Bharat Bala Vande Mataram music video because the tri-colour was shown lying on the ground. “It is a national insult,” he had said then before asking all filmmakers to clear their scripts with the CBFC before starting their shoots.

I also remember Swaraj’s successor at the information and broadcasting ministry Ravi Shankar Prasad was miffed by what he thought was a deliberate misquote in an interview I did, and said he had been warned that I was particularly troublesome, but neither he nor Naqvi has yet to ever refuse an interview or any request for information.

The ministers would often get angry and would invariably call the editor, but the Vajpayee philosophy of live and let live was so powerful and all pervasive that a cheeky reporter could get away with a lot of, well, cheek.

Vajpayee ran a coalition with some of the best and the brightest, not just within his own party, but also from the Opposition, whether it was Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Omar Abdullah or Nitish Kumar. Can you imagine the current prime minister running a team with all or even some of these stars? Now or in their youth?

We have journeyed a long way from NDA-1. The BJP has certainly gained in numbers, at the Centre and in the states. It has gained in financial muscle and perhaps popular appeal. It has learnt to orchestrate its coverage so well that any story inimical to it immediately calls into question the writer’s patriotism and motivation. It has ensured its army of trolls creates enough noise online to drown out any view antithetical to their own with abuse and anger. But those journalists who cut their teeth on the Vajpayee era will always be grateful for the comforting shadow of the great man. It allowed them to do their jobs quietly, honestly and with great pleasure.

Not everyone will share this view, certainly not Alex Perry who wrote a story in Time magazine in 2002 about Vajpayee being “asleep at the wheel”. His story said, among other things, that Vajpayee drank heavily, took painkillers for his knees (which were replaced due to arthritis), took a three-hour snooze every afternoon on doctor’s orders and was given to interminable silences, indecipherable ramblings and, not infrequently, falling asleep in meetings. For his pains, he was threatened with deportation and though officials interrogated Perry about alleged visa infractions, they took no further action.

What do you think will happen if a similar story were to be written now?

The author is a senior journalist. 

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