Arjun Singh and I left Bhopal for Chandigarh around the same time – 1985. He was appointed Punjab governor, and I was posted to Chandigarh as The Times of India Punjab correspondent. The coincidence triggered shop-talk in Madhya Pradesh media circles. Small-time media dignified gossip with a news report, saying Arjun Singh arranged for my transfer to punjab by making a phone call to the Times Group chairman Ashok Jain.
More on this, later. In a tribute to Arjun Singh a former aide and senior IAS official N R Krishnan says Arjun Singh (as Madhya Pradesh CM) was extremely cardial with the media and moved with mediapersons at every level with easy familiarity. As someone who was on such terms I can claim some familiarity with Arjun singh’s way with the media and mediamen (we had no women in the Bhopal media corps those days).
I remember, on the day I arrived in Bhopal from NeW Delhi on transfer, the state govt. information director Sudeep Banerjee, IAS, arranged my meeting with CM. “Mr Arjun Singh would like to say, ‘hello’”, he said. How many CMs do this to a rookie in the press corps ? This was Arjun Singh’s style. Another newly arrived reporter Suresh Mehrothra was with me at our first meeting with him. This was in 1982, and since then we - Singh and I – had stayed in touch, throughout my media career. A couple of months into my reporting assignment in Bhopal Arjun singh invited himself to our residence for breakfast, saying his wife and he relished southie dishes, notably, upma. Presumably, he told my Hindustan Times colleague Qureshi that he loved biriani, and had himself invited to Qureshi’s place.
Arjun Singh addressed as ‘Boss’ The Statesman correspondent Tarun Bhadhuri, because they had known each other since Arjun Singh’s days as a humble back bencher in the state assembly. He was not even with the Congress then. Bossman Bhaduri taught this MLA the ropes, of drafting press statements and getting them into print.
Media during Arjun Singh’s regime had things going for them, much to the dislike of much of the bureaucracy and opposition politicians. They had reason to feel done out of govt. houses in prime localities, which were allotted to media people. No wonder there was a proliferation in the ranks of media persons, many of them bringing out four-page rags in print with exotic names - Chandi ka jhootha, Sone ki Chidiya . Press accreditation was bit of a racket, and it probably still is in the states where reporters get the most favoured treatment. Many journalists exploited their high connection to get housing plots from the Bhopal Development Authority. Newspaper managements were given sites to set up their printing units.
That many such beneficiaries were his bitter critics did not concern Arjun singh. He was truly a political animal that thrived on media visibility. Negative stories didn’t bother Arjun Singh. He worried when he was ignored by media. A reason why, I believe, he courted the media was his belief in the power of information. Arjun Singh knew how to use informaton to his political advantage. As Mr Krishnan noted in The Hindu write-up Arjun Singh was on friendly terms with all media persons. I would add, he was particularly friendly with his critics in the media. They may write against him, but Arjun Singh believed he stood to gain , by way of feedback from them on the state of the opposition. This was possible only if you maintain a rapport with your critics. Not many politicians were given to such thinking.
From Chandigarh, Arjun Singh went to New Delhi as political high-flyer under the Rajiv regime; and I was shifted to Chennai to serve out my time with The Times of India till retirement, in 1998. While in Chennai I received, in 1992, a surprise communication from the registrar of Pondicherry Central University, informing me of my nomination as a member of the University Court. I was nominated by the President of India, as Visitor of the university, under a statute, for a three-year term. It didn’t take me more than a moment to see how the President and Pondicherry University came to think of me. Arjun Singh was then Human Resources Development minister. And Banerjee (whom I had first met as information director in Bhopal) was Education Secretary. Anyway, being a sydicate member, I had occasion to attend annual meetings of the university’s policy-making body, and have coffee with the VC in his chamber.
As for that media gossip I referred to at the start of this post, the rumor that Arjun Singh got me posted to Punjab, it was little more than that – a rumor. But then perception was all that mattered, whatever the facts of the case. Countering perception with facts was a futile exercise. So wide-spread was the perception that even many in The Times of India believed that I had become an Arjun Singh man. I had problem getting some of my news reports passed by the newsdesk , which ‘ read’ in them pro-Singh political colour.
Arjun Singh had the propensity to sort out fact from perception in a given situation. Perhaps, this explains his equanimity to which Mr Krishnan refers in his tribute . As he put it, “Throughout his long public life, as he (Arjun Singh) was praised and pilloried in turn by friends and foes, he maintained his equanimity”.
To cite an instance of smear perception , Wikipedia entry on Arjun singh says it was widely alleged that on the night when the Union Carbide gas-leak caused havoc (Dec.2-3,1984) Arjun Singh fled to his Kerwa Dam palace (outside Bhopal) to save himself from deadly effects of leaked gas, and was not available to manage the crisis. Those familiar with Bhopal and its lay of the land would would not buy this. For CM’s residence in Bhopal is so located, on a hill top, that Arjun Singh didn’t have to flee to escape the MIC gas. I fled from our flat in low-lying Professor’s Colony towards higher ground. The gas that leaked was heavy, and stayed low and close to the ground, and it was neutralised on contact with water. Arjun Singh’s official residence was on a hill, that too close to the Bhopal lake, and there was no way the gas could have drifted his way.