By Mayank Chhaya –
Today happens to be the 15th death anniversary of former Indian Prime Minister Vishwanatah Pratap Singh.
As it frequently happens with journalists, my posting in New Delhi in 1989 as the South Asia chief correspondent of India Abroad (now defunct) and the India Abroad News Service (now IANS) coincided with the very low and the very high of Singh’s controversial political career. I interacted with him practically on a daily basis toward the end of 1989 during his lowest period.
In August, 1989, the Arab Times newspaper carried a story that alleged that Singh’s son Ajeya Singh, had opened a bank account in First Trust Corporation Bank in St. Kitts and deposited $21 million in it. Singh was alleged to be the beneficiary of that account. The timing of the story was curious because Singh had in January, 1987 left as the country’s finance minister under then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and had built himself up as a formidable political rival to the latter by the time the general elections were becoming due in 1989.
The sobriquet “Mr. Clean”, once reserved for Gandhi, had been shifted to Singh following the allegations of Gandhi’s involvement in a bribery scandal over the purchase of Bofors guns for the Indian army. I vividly remember how Singh was being projected with an aura of injured innocence and as someone of impeccable personal integrity. I mention this because that may have significantly triggered the St. Kitts allegations in order to stop him in his tracks. In the Delhi of those days there were whispers about how the St. Kitts story was created and planted courtesy of several shady players in cahoots with some Congress Party functionaries. Aiding the fabricated charge was a section of the pliable media that went along with this story.
It fell to the IANS and India Abroad and their gutsy New York-based owner, the late Gopal Raju to report the story from all angles, including sending a reporter, Lynn Hudson, to the Caribbean Island to investigate. Lynn, who was a man (I mention it for a reason that will become clear soon), produced an excellent series of investigative stories from St. Kitts that eventually nailed the lie. But in the run-up to that there were several anxious weeks for V P Singh.
Soon after the IANS began the series, Singh realized that there was at least one independent media outlet that had bothered to not only send a reporter to St. Kitts but offer a credible perspective about it. That is when he began to call the IANS office in New Delhi. Since part of my job was to edit IANS wire every morning, including Lynn’s stories, I was the one who began answering Singh’s practically daily calls. It was clear that Singh apprehended that the St. Kitts story, even if fabricated, had the potential to end his political career. That too at a time when he had begun to see himself as India’s next prime minister to succeed his onetime boss, Rajiv Gandhi, laid low by the Bofors allegations.
Singh’s call would generally start with, “Hanji Chhaya sahab, aaj subah kya khabar hai? (Mr. Chhaya, what is the news this morning?)” He was, of course, referring to Lynn’s reports. More often than not those stories did not require Singh’s inputs because they were from St. Kitts and I would tell him as much. “The rest you can read in tomorrow’s newspapers because I am not going to tell you the content of the story,” I would tell Singh, a position he always respected.
There were occasions when we needed his quote or two which I would take when he called in the morning. Towards the end of the alleged scandal’s reporting, as it exposed the lie that it was, Singh was quite overcome with emotions. In one of his last calls to me he said, “Mr. Chhaya, I am so grateful to the IANS and Mr. Hudson and you for taking the trouble to find out the real story.”
I said, “Mr. Singh, we would have nailed you without any compunctions if there was even the slightest truth to it. I want you to know that. We were just being a professional news outfit. We have no agenda whatsoever other than seeking the truth.”
“And that is what I respect the most,” he said.
During those days, some members the pliable media that aided the circulation of that bogus story used to say a nasty thing or two about the IANS. One particularly juicy comment came at the Press Information Bureau where a staffer from one of those pliable newspapers said to me, “So is Lynn a sexy American blonde tanning on the white sands of the Caribbean?” Amused, I replied, “I am sure some tanning is involved but you should know that Lynn is a middle-aged bearded New Yorker. He is a man.”
Singh’s calls would have been sometime in September or October if memory serves. Barely two months later, Singh went on to become India’s prime minister and, quite remarkably albeit in keeping with his crafty nature, never seriously interacted with me or my colleague Tarun Basu, the founder-editor of the IANS.
He had that personality trait where it was all transactional and utilitarian. Sometime in 1990, I traveled with him on his first official visit to the Maldives as part of the media team. Not once did he choose to show even the slightest familiarity towards me.
To think that the man called me almost every day for nearly two months. It is just as well because as a journalist I never seek friendship with politicians.