‘No PM likes criticism, they do their best to avoid it’: Neerja Chowdhury

Neerja Chowdhury on her new book on six key decisions of prime ministers and also the rough and tumble of journalism in the Capital 
Neerja Chowdhury
Neerja Chowdhury

Veteran columnist Neerja Chowdhury began her life as a reporter over four decades ago—it was a time when the connection between idealism and journalism was more direct, and an accepted order of things. Her new book, How Prime Ministers Decide (Aleph), about six of India’s prime ministers, has humanised them without lionising any. First-hand interviews of people with access to them, or those who were in the room when key decisions were mulled over and taken, makes it a unique work of documentation that is both personal and objective, of the flow of power at crucial junctures in India’s political history. Excerpts from a conversation:

Why did you change your stream to become a journalist at Himmat?
I was a student of architecture in the ‘60s. The ’60s and the ’70s were a period  when there was a certain idealism around and we felt that society could be changed. After the Emergency, I was asked by Rajmohan Gandhi, then the Chief Editor of Himmat, to work for the magazine. It was opposing the Emergency and trying to find ways of circumventing the media censorship. Smaller papers, which had opposed the Emergency, were in demand. Pressure was put on the printing press that printed Himmat. Finally, we put out an appeal for money to buy our own printing press. It was so exciting to see the graph of the money coming in go up, with readers even sending Re1 money orders; we managed to collect Rs 70,000 and bought a printing machine. Soon thereafter, Indira Gandhi declared elections in 1977.
Who taught you how to report, what to leave in, what to leave out in a copy?

I learnt a lot from all my Editors. I learnt there are always two sides to a story, that people will give you information only selectively, and how important it was to be fair, no matter 
what your views are on a subject. And that while you are accountable to your organisation, there is also a larger accountability to your readers out there. I also learnt that people are the biggest source of information for a journalist.

Do you feel that in humanising the prime ministers in your book, a critique of those who either swung history in a certain direction or played a role in shaping the forces at play may have got lost in the focus on personalities?
I have tried to show how important decisions by six prime ministers came to be taken, the pulls and pressures they were subjected to, the manipulations, the backroom wheeling and dealing that lay behind the decisions. Above all, it was the PMs’ need to survive politically that lay behind all decisions. There was also the human element, the leaders’ vulnerabilities, emotional turmoil--which I have also tried to capture. 

I realised early on that it was not necessarily the Cabinet colleagues of the PMs who would give me inside information. It was the people who had easy access to the PMs, personal aides, attendants, power brokers, industrialists, hangers-on. They may not have influenced the PMs’ decisions but were often a repository of rich information. Politics is about drama and suspense and I wanted to tell the story in a way that made it an easy read so that the younger people would also want to read about this period. Normally we capture events, not processes. 

Which prime ministers or which period did you find difficult to write about?
Access to information was easier during the coalition era of the ’90s— a  golden period  for journalists. There were so many political players and they would be willing to talk and give information. Often the stories would break at night, particularly during VP Singh’s time. Going home at night, I always dreaded that my car might have a flat tyre somewhere. And despite being taught to change a tyre, I could never really do it!

Once Vajpayee was very angry with me about a report I had written and he wanted to know who had given me the information. I told him I couldn’t reveal my source, which did not please him. But he did not stop meeting me. 
How do you look at the social justice politics of Mandal that VP Singh unleashed ostensibly to counter rightwing political Hindutva under the BJP, though due to Mandal, the BJP came out stronger with the empowered OBCs going their way?
VP Singh adopted Mandal to save his government and unleashed forces, which altered Indian politics forever. He came to power, having created the first national alternative to the Congress, bringing together forces of the Left, Right, and the Centre on one platform. He also brought regional parties into national government, giving them a stake there. He made affirmative action for the OBCs irreversible. The BJP might have been a different party, had it not been for the process started by VP Singh through his Mandal decision. Narendra Modi is an OBC PM today. He has also effectively combined Mandal and Kamandal in the base of the BJP.
The six lessons that you think PM Modi can learn from the six key decisions outlined in your book.
Prime ministership is a continuum. A successor, in many ways, rides, on the shoulders of his or her predecessor. Vajpayee continued with the policies of economic liberalisation that Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh started. Modi, too, has gone for economic reform along with a programme of social welfarism to provide a safety net for the poor. He continues with VP Singh’s policy of reservations for the OBCs as he reaches out also to the most backward among the OBCs, or the Pasmanda Muslims. Modi is building on the strategic partnership with the US, a process started and reinforced by his predecessors. But as a strong leader, ruling through a strong PMO, with a 1,000-year civilisational project for a “Hindu rashtra”, he has also brought about a paradigm shift in Indian politics.  
Is Mr Modi the first prime minister of India who doesn’t meet the Press but only talks to handpicked journalists? Or, has this lack of transparency evolved over the years through the eras of various prime ministers?
No PM likes criticism and they do their best to avoid it. Modi met with groups of Editors in 2015 but these were informal meetings. Now with social media, it’s increasingly becoming a one-way communication on the part of politicians. As  Mr Modi is making a bid for a third term in office, yes, I do hope that he will hold a press conference before his second term comes to an end.  

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