Death of a friend, particularly the one with whom you have not been in touch for a while, sets you on a flash-back mode. Sudeep Banerjee, IAS, who died of cancer in New Delhi , retired as the top gun in HRD ministry under Arjun Singh. However the Sudeep I knew most was a relatively smaller fry in the government hierarchy. This was in the early eighties when he was in Madhya Pradesh as director of information and publicity. Arjun Singh was chief minister; and I was then posted as The Times of India correspondent in Bhopal.
That Sudeep, for much of his bureaucratic career, had served the same political master was no coincidence. Arjun Singh took Mr Banerjee with him wherever he went – from Bhopal to Chandigarh as Punjab governor, and then on to New Delhi. The flipside of it was that whenever Arjun Singh was ‘Kamarajed’ out of office or when the Congress weren’t in power at the centre Sudeep found himself bounced about in relatively un-noticed posts in Bhopal and Bastar. Mr Banerjee, a Jabalpore Bengali, belonged to the 1971 IAS batch in the MP cadre.
The thing about Sudeep was that he seemed to make the best of his situation, wherever he got posted - as head of the national literacy mission, regional commissioner in Bastar, or as Madhya Pradesh forest dept. secretary. He once wrote, in response to a letter of mine, that the more decent in every walk of life were ’feeling out of sorts & tune’ with the changes all round.
About some of my media colleagues in Bhopal Sudeep noted that the decent ones such as Rajan (who has since died of cancer as well), V T Joshi, Suresh Mehrothra and N K Singh were aging with dignity and grace, and many others, including our common friends in the MP bureaucracy were aging without purpose and absentmindedly. Speaking of himself, Sudeep said he was aging, but still ‘holding on to some marginal spaces of hope and recovery’.
Wherever placed, Mr Baneerjee managed to evoke in his staff a sense of loyalty, by delegating authority to juniors. He protected their interests, and fought their battle for promotion and perks, with an uncaring higher bureacracy. With the media he dealt with as PR director Mr Banerjee’s relationship transcended that of a bureaucrat with the newsmen.
In many ways He was a hands-on PR director, who often escorted us on state-sponsored press tours. Such closeness with the media, while it helped him keep a tab on what we were upto during these tours, created friction when things didn’t go our way. Any competent PR person would know that the media people are not a homogenous entity; and it is impossible to please them all.
Sudeep had taken us, Bhopal-based media, to Bhind in Chambal area for a function at which a bunch of dacoits, led by Malkhan Singh, surrendered themselves in the presence of chief minister Arjun Singh. After the surrender ceremony the dacoits were taken in police van to the Gwaliar jail. Mr Banerjee said he would arrange for a select media group to meet Malkhan Singh over lunch at a PWD rest-house on our drive back to Gwalior. But the police had other plans.
As we were hanging out at this mid-way rest house, waiting for Malkhan Singh to show up, they had taken the dacoits straight to the Gwalior jail. Whether it was a communication goof-up or a deliberate design by the police to ditch Mr Banerjee was not clear. What was worse, unknown to the PR director, a group of New Delhi-based journalists gained access into the jail for meeting Malkhan Singh. Like the media, bureaucracy in MP had its share of infighting. The IAS Vs IPS act here was played out at the expense of Mr Banerjee.
Sudeep was a media’s man among bureaucrats. And he often found himself taking fire from not just a section of the media, but also from some of his own kind in the bureaucracy. That he was seen as Arjun Singh’s man didn’t help him get along with some of his own senior colleagues in MP. Working for Arjun Singh was a challenge; and those who knew Sudeep were well aware that he carried out his duty with fairness and dignity.
Related item: A man for all seasons - a tribute by Raju Santhanam in The Statesman
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