Being on the inside track with different PMOs comes with intriguing behind-the-headlines information.

 

New Delhi: First, let’s judge this book by its cover. The catchy title alone will ensure that you take another look at A Rude Life, and with the author’s photograph on the jacket, the branding is complete. Vir Sanghvi is easily one of the best-known editors of his time, and a memoir that takes you into his “wildly entertaining world” is impossible to resist.

The book delivers all that and more. There is something for everyone. For the Bollywood fans there are interactions with yesterday’s stars from Dilip Kumar to Raj Kapoor and Zeenat; to today’s stars, Shahrukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra, while Amitabh Bachchan straddles the evergreen land in between. The narration is in a light, anecdotal style that makes the book a delightful read. Such as when Vir hit Shahrukh with The Question and asked him outright whether he was gay. Later when a journalist asked Shahrukh as to why Vir would ask him something like this, Shahrukh quipped, “maybe if I had said yes he would have asked me for dinner!”

The unexpected question underlines his interactions with the politicians too. Being the editor of Sunday magazine and later of the Hindustan Times, Vir got to interact with all Prime Ministers, from Morarji Desai onwards. (Though during the Morarji era Vir was editing Imprint in Bombay). And it is clear that he built a personal equation with all. It is also clear that Narasimha Rao is the one Prime Minister he had the least liking for, perhaps second to his distaste for V.P. Singh. It is also clear that he had an easy PLU sort of rapport with Rajiv Gandhi (which could be one reason why Sonia Gandhi gave him her first television interview), and an informal connect with A.B. Vajpayee through his family and principal secretary Brajesh Mishra. In fact, most of the Vajpayee pages have Brajesh Mishra’s point of view except for the one very revealing conversation that Vir had with former Prime Minister. When he was told that Advani spent an entire meeting (with Vir) complaining about Brajesh Mishra, “Vajpayee was quiet for a while. Finally he said: ‘Is mein Brajesh ki bi galtihain’. (Brajesh is also to be blamed for this).”

While the tone of the narration softens when it comes to Rajiv and Vajpayee it is Rao who gets the unedited Vir Sanghvi take-down. I am guessing this was because Rao went after Madhavrao Scindia, the one politician who is also described as a “close friend”. Any reader of Sunday will remember the scathing articles on Rao, which culminated in a cover story with the (then) PM’s face on the cover expostulating: Will this man please wake up.

Speaking of sleep patterns, Vir seems to have solved the mystery of another Prime Minister who slept on the job. His breakfast meeting with then Prime Minister Deve Gowda is hilarious. A sleepy—and unbathed—Gowda turned up late, informing him: “Every morning after taking Calmpose I have to sleep late, because I have not slept at night.” There you have it, a simple explanation for why he tended to doze off in Parliament.

Being on the inside track with different PMOs comes with intriguing behind-the-headlines information. Such as the time when Advani rashly promised George Bush that India would send troops to Iraq. Since Vajpayee had no intention of doing so, a face saver was found by asking the Congress if the party could write to the Prime Minister protesting against this. Once this was done, Washington was told that there was too much domestic opposition to the move. Face saved! And also a lesson in managing government-opposition relations.

When history is judging Dr Manmohan Singh kindly, it will take into account his attempts at finding a solution to the Kashmir problem. However, one reason why this did not take off could be that Pervez Musharraf was “much shrewder than Manmohan Singh who while brilliant, was not cunning”. But as a political journalist, I was more excited by the assertion that Sonia had always intended for Manmohan to be Prime Minister (in 2004) and never sought the job for herself. There have been various theories about this, but Vir bases his conclusions on two meetings. The first was an on record interview he had with Dr Manmohan Singh during the election campaign. When asked about the possibility of him becoming the Prime Minister, Dr Singh replied that he would accept the post “if the party wants me to”. The second clue was an off the record meeting Vir had with Sonia Gandhi a day before the results were to be declared. When asked if she would take the PM’s job if the party won, “she clammed up and said she didn’t want to talk about it, which I took as a confirmation.” Hence, concludes Vir, Sonia never planned on becoming the Prime Minister but played it that way to keep her allies from demanding the post for themselves. This is a different point of view from the one narrated by Natwar Singh in his memoirs (One Life is Not Enough). In his book, Natwar claims that the reason why Sonia did not take the top job was because her son Rahul was fearful of her life and pleaded with her not to become PM.  But the way Vir sees it she had never planned on becoming Prime Minister herself.

There are also interactions with various media owners and editors as Vir has worked (or nearly worked) with almost every media house of note. There is also a chapter on the Niira Radia tapes which cast its shadow on all that he stood for. The fact that Vir’s voice was on the tapes made news—well on the cover of Outlook and on social media. The fact that his voice on the tapes was doctored—he had the tapes uploaded by Outlook checked by forensic labs used by the Scotland Yard and the FBI (both in UK & US) and that both labs confirmed that the audio with his voice had been manipulated—did not get that much play. Until the Delhi High Court thought the same and Outlook “regretted” carrying the doctored tapes. The larger question remains: Who leaked these tapes and who stood to gain by targeting Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata? Vir writes that he won’t take names as he has no proof.

He ends on a philosophical “we are the sum of our experiences” note. This book too is a sum of his experiences, though the publishers should have left space for a last chapter. Knowing Vir, am sure the best is yet to come.