Even though no one in his right mind could have supported Devi Lal as Prime Minister, I used to quite like him as a person. He had gone to jail during the struggle for freedom. He always spoke up for the farmers. He was forthright, always saying what was in his mind. His manner of speaking, and especially his similes were graphic and earthy.
But there was another side to him. He would spot conspiracies where none existed. He would often let attachment to his sons sway his position on issues of great moment. And he had this habit of using his Brahmaastra, his ultimate weapon – resignation or the threat of resignation – every other week: once in 1978, when he was Chief Minister of Haryana, he led his entire Cabinet to resign, only to get himself and his Cabinet sworn back in later the same day! Such jolts used to rock governments and parties.
It wasn’t long before I fell afoul of him.
There was a by-election in Meham, a constituency in Haryana. Devi Lal’s son, Chauthala was contesting it. His supporters indulged in a lot of violence and intimidation. Our reporters filed accounts of the fraudulent way in which Chauthala had won. I wrote an editorial or two arguing that the result should be annulled. “Throw him out,” our editorial of 1 March counselled.
That night, after 10 pm, the phone rang. I picked it up immediately for fear of letting the ring wake Adit up.
“Arey, tujhey pataa naheen hai tujhey aisey naheen likhnaa chaahiye?” – it was Devi Lal on the phone. “Tu jaantaa naheen, apney faaydey ke liye yeh poonjipati kuch bhi kar saktey hain? Tooney pichhlee baar se sabak naheen seekhaa?” [Don’t you know you shouldn’t be writing like this? Don’t you know, for their own benefit, these rich people can do anything? Haven’t you learnt a lesson from the last time?] – a reminder and a threat: that I had been dismissed last time, and could be again.
Nothing had happened in Meham, he said. A few reporters had cooked up stories to sell their papers.
But there are photographs, I said. Had the photographers also cooked up their photographs?
“Sab ek he to hain.” [They are all the same.]
“Tujhey pataa naheen, yeh Deputy Prime Ministry main jootey par rakhtaa hoon? Mujhey Deputy Prime Ministry chaahiye?” [‘Don’t you know, I keep this Deputy Prime Ministership on the tip of my shoe? Do I need this Deputy Prime Ministership?’]
It is all a conspiracy of you pressmen, he said. What more could I have done? he asked. I said count all the votes again in those booths . . . I ordered a judicial inquiry.
“Main to aur bhi badaa khel khelney jaa rahaan hoon,” [”I am about to launch an even bigger game.”] he said, and put the phone down.
The next morning I narrated the call and what Devi Lal had said, and the threat he had held out to my colleagues. Some felt that we should publish the text of the exchanges forthwith. Others said that doing so would be premature, that we should ignore the call and continue our work on Meham.
We continued our work on Meham.
Devi Lal phoned Ramnathji in Bombay. Ramnathji was unwell, and so he was curt. His nurse and secretary handed him the phone, whispering, “Devi Lal.” Before Devi Lal could say anything, Ramnathji told him, “Agar paper mein kuch chhapaa hai aur us ke baarey mein aap chaahtey ho ki main kuch karoon, to uttar hai, ‘Naheen.’ Agar kisee aur cheez ke baarey mein hukum hai to uttar hai, ‘Haan,’” [“If you want me to do something about something that has appeared in the paper, the answer is ‘No’. If you want me to do something about something else, the answer is ‘Yes’.”] and with that, he handed the phone back to his nurse and secretary.
The secretary told me that Devi Lal proceeded to bombard her with fulsome abuse of me and, she said, a colleague.
On 16 March, Devi Lal, as was his wont, resigned from the VP Singh government, throwing the coalition – just three months old, and fragile as it was – into turmoil. One Ram Pujan Patel had been abusing him, he declared, and now he has been made the head of the Janata Dal in UP. Ajit Singh – the son of Charan Singh, another leader who spoke in the name of farmers, and had been propped up as Prime Minister by Mrs Gandhi and her party for a few ignominious months – has gone to Meham and declared that disciplinary action should be taken against Chauthala...Who are these fellows, “Inkee aukaat kyaa hai?” [”What is their standing?”] They are afraid of me because they know that I do not need them, they need me. I represent the rural areas, and 107 seats of the 141 we have won have been won in the rural areas.
As the head of Janata Dal’s Parliamentary Board, Devi Lal removed Ajit Singh as its Secretary General. Everyone becomes a constitutionalist at such moments: “As per the Party’s constitution, Devi Lal has no power to remove a Secretary General,” many said. Devi Lal couldn’t care a buffalo’s pathee. Where is the party? he hectored everyone, including our Bureau correspondents. Where is the constitution? he demanded. Committees of the party in Delhi cannot decide whether Chauthala should remain Chief Minister or not. It is for the MLAs to decide. And they have unanimously elected him as the Chief Minister.
Devi Lal resigned on these high principles. And then agreed to take back the resignation – because of the international situation, he said!
Punjab was again on the boil. International conspiracies in Kashmir. Should I let the country go to ruin? In any case, he had resigned to give the party a shock, to strengthen it. He had resigned from the government, not from the party, he reminded everyone.
That night – of 16 March – Gurumurthy and I went to see him on a sort of pacification-cum-reconciliation mission, and also because we were as anxious as anyone that the Janata Dal government survive. Devi Lal was fuming. “Voh b********d...” about the editor of our Hindi paper and about Arun Nehru. “Voh haathi saaraa bagheechaa khaa gaaya hai. Tum sab uskey baarey mein nuktaa tak naheen likhtey, aur merey chhorey ke baarey mein panney par panna bharey jaa rahey ho...Yeh saaraa kuch Arun Nehru likhwaa rahaa hai...” [“That elephant has swallowed the whole garden. You fellows are not writing a word about him, and you are filling page after page about my son...Arun Nehru is the one who is getting all this done...”]
“In logon ki aukaat kyaa hai? Log dekhney mujhey aatey hain...Mainey behanchodon ko kameti mein daalaa, aur maalik ban gaye hain...” [“What do these people matter? It is me whom the people come to see...I have put these sister-f*****s into the committee, and they are strutting around as if they own it...”]
He went on to shout about everyone – from that Ram Pujan Patel to Ramakrishna Hegde to NTR. But the choicest abuse was hurled at our Hindi editor and Arun Nehru.
We were conciliatory, we cajoled him. We let him blow off steam. I assured him that the reporter who had written the Meham accounts for the Indian Express was not the sort who would be meeting Arun Nehru, that in any case, she had already resigned and joined another paper.
He wasn’t one to be assuaged. All five Janata Dal Chief Ministers are my men, he declared, letting us know what he could do to the Janata Dal and to VP Singh and his government.
Nor were we to be assuaged. On 19 March, I wrote an editorial, “The next two steps”, commenting on his withdrawing his resignation. In it, I urged that as its next steps, Janata Dal should once again field Chauthala from Meham, and, this time, make him lose his deposit. That day his office called five times.
A senior officer told us that Devi Lal accosted him immediately after the proceedings in Parliament. He asked the officer to ensure that Ramnathji was talked to, and our mouth shut. “Main baniyaa to hu naheen. Main to aadmi bhijwaa ke pitwaa doongaa.” [“A baniya I am not. I will send men and get them beaten up.”]
The officer did not trouble Ramnathji. He narrated the thunder to me. Others came and reported Devi Lal’s abuse. The b********s, it seemed, were now reserved for me. “Shourie ne mujhey vishwaas dilaayaa thaa ki jo voh azaariye [editorials] likh rahaa thaa, usey nikaal diyaa gayaa hai, par vaisey he azaariye chhap rahein hain...” [“Shourie had promised me that the man who has been writing those editorials will be removed, and yet the same kind of editorials are appearing...”]
He had mixed things up. I couldn’t have dismissed the writer of the editorials, and I could not have told Devil Lal that I had dismissed him, as I had been writing the editorials myself.
In public, he would make a distinction: he had nothing against pressmen, he would say. It is a conspiracy of the capitalists – Goenka, Ambani, Birla, Jain.
That Sunday, our edition carried two articles—one on the Meham episode, and one on his fulminations. Monday’s editorial, “A tantrum a week”, dealt with the dismissal of Ajit Singh. Tuesday’s editorial began with references to Devi Lal.
His man Friday was on the phone early. When I shouted back at him, he suddenly retraced his steps. No, no, this is a campaign that the Hindustan Times people are waging, he said. I was talking about them.
But around 9 pm, the familiar call, “Deputy PM sahib baat karenge.” [“The Deputy Prime Minister will talk to you.”]
“Arey teraa akhbaar to waisey he chal rahaa hai,” [“Look here, your paper is going on as before.”] Devi Lal said.
“Ji haan,” I said, “aur waisey he chalegaa.” [“Yes, sir, and it will go on the same way.”]
These are issues of public importance, and you have taken to abusing us morning and evening, I said.
“Gaali naa doon to aur tujhey kyaa karoon?” [“What else should I do to you if not abuse you?”]
“Aap jo marzee kar leejiye.” [“Please do what you think fit.”]
“To achhaa,” [“All right, then.”] and he put the phone down.
In my article I raised the questions that you would expect.
How does such intimidation square with the Janata Dal’s professions? Is he, and through him the government, not indulging in blackmail? How much time is the Deputy Prime Minister of the country spending on Kashmir and Punjab and how much on the depredations of his son? Should everyone in the Janata Dal be sitting back and just watching what the man is doing? . . .
But as the Deputy Prime Minister was involved, as I would be reporting not just his fusillades aimed at me but also Ramnathji’s conversation with him, as this would be the first time that an English daily would be printing b*******d on its front page, I thought I should talk the matter over with Ramnathji. He had come back to Delhi. Therefore, before handing the article to the press for composing, I had taken it to Ramnathji.
His health had begun deteriorating, and, unfortunately, his mind was sometimes not as acute as it had always been. He had insisted on attending a public function that evening. I had taken the manuscript to the function, and explained its contents to him – the implied threats, the b*******ds.
Ramnathji did not pay much attention to the details of what I had written, and the b*******ds were of no consequence to him – he could himself abuse fluently in thirteen languages. He was on another point.
“Kyaa, merey akhbaar ko dhamki de rahaa hai? Merey editor ko dhamki de rahaa hai?” [“What? Is he threatening my paper? Is he threatening my editor? Straighten him out. Who do these fellows think they are?”] he had asked. “Seedhaa karo, usey seedhaa karo. Yeh log apney aap ko samajhney kyaa lagein hain?”
Excerpted with permission from The Commissioner for Lost Causes, Arun Shourie, Penguin Viking.