Brimming over with enthusiasm and accompanied by two of the country’s best-known anchors, I set off to meet a few former prime ministers. It was 1997, NDTV was launching Question Time India for the BBC and we wanted to begin with a bang. Little did I know it would literally be just that!
Deve Gowda’s gardener had just watered his potted plants arranged on the steps of the waiting room, and as we saw Deve Gowda walking down the drive, Prannoy, always the perfect gentleman, gestured for me to go first. The next thing I knew I was flat on my back with concerned faces peering down at me. Unhurt but greatly embarrassed, I began to laugh, got to my feet and began babbling my piece to the former prime minister. Without even allowing me to finish, he promptly agreed to come to our show, secretaries were told to note details and he saw us off. Prannoy said it was the easiest invitation visit he’d done and I was immediately instructed to repeat my performance for all future visits.
In 1995, when NDTV formally started a guest desk with me as the sole occupant, personal visits were usually the only way to get guests.
I became a familiar caller on many an important person and almost grew roots in party offices. At the BJP headquarters, a relatively unknown Narendra Modi was always happy to have a chat with the few visiting media persons, and the odd cup of tea with him helped while away the time. Morning pujas and ablutions were interrupted by my visits and I enjoyed a range of breakfast cuisines as I joined guests at their table for a cuppa.
Today, one just dials a cell number, but when we started daily guest-based programmes at NDTV it was a very different story. Research meant reading the newspapers every day and using the library. Google, Facebook and Twitter were not a part of our vocabulary. SMS and email came much later. In today’s frenetic world, guest coordinators depend on instant and effective communication. Which reminds me of the way we were before technology and the cellphone were the lifelines they are today.
The morning landline wake-up calls from political editor and sports aficionado Rajdeep Sardesai set the agenda for the day’s newsmaker and sports discussions. No LAN (Local Area Network) connections, internal emails, flashes or breaking-news alerts. News editor Appan Menon kept tabs on upcoming international events, especially elections around the world, and I would haunt the corridors of Jawaharlal Nehru University to get expert voices on Turkish or European general elections. So different from today when we have a host of experts in international relations and strategic affairs to choose from.
My phone directory was a clipboard with computer printouts of landline numbers and the fastest way of communicating with anyone was hopping into our Premier 112 dedicated guest car and driving to where the guest was. No scrolling down to punch a saved number.
Get the guest, do anything to have them on air was our mantra. But with none of today’s instant communication devices at hand, I became quite adept at crawling around the carpet and under furniture, looking for a convenient place to connect our speaker phone for a SIMSAT. I’ve hung on to Ipshita as she precariously perched on a chair on Jaswant Singh’s veranda to silence the wind chimes, when he refused to move, and the phone cable wasn’t long enough to move away from the sound. I’ve stood on the road in darkness, pulling cables from the backup van at Arun Jaitley’s house so we could connect him to meet the bulletin deadline. And I’ve even knelt at Lalu Yadav’s woolly socked feet, out of camera range, holding a mike, barely suppressing my giggles, so that he could do a SIMSAT with “Pranav Bhai”. If only there’d been a 3G unit with me on those occasions.
The VIP culture was almost non-existent in the days of the United Front (1996-98) and the first NDA (1998-2004) governments.
Prime ministers were very accessible, Inder Gujral was happy to do SIMSATs; Deve Gowda and he were frequent guests, sitting in my tiny “guest cubicle” on the newsroom floor, being fed tea and chocolate chip cookies. The only signs of “security” were the visits of sniffer dogs, sometimes seen doing tricks in the newsroom as they waited for the prime minister to leave.
Rajya Sabha MP Dr Manmohan Singh joined Prannoy to discuss weighty economic matters. NDA convener Sharad Yadav, the CPI’s general secretary AB Bardhan and you name any political luminary, they were all happy to join us in our Archana studio. Ambassadors joined us to discuss World Cup football results.
From 1996 to the early years of the new millennium, Bollywood stars streamed in daily for recordings for our breakfast show, Good Morning India. I’ll never forget the look on anchor Vikram Chandra’s face, having ousted me from my seat, as Madhuri Dixit walked past asking if he “was the boy who read the news”. And the dilemma of whom to take first when both superstar Shah Rukh Khan and RJD president Lalu Prasad Yadav arrived simultaneously for recordings.
Accessibility never seemed to be a problem either; when the Congress returned to power in 1999, cabinet ministers Madhav Rao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Lok Sabha MP Jitendra Prasada were frequent guests. The Gandhi family and a few very senior BJP leaders were not so readily accessible, but BJP president LK Advani accepted our invitation to launch our twenty-four-hour channel in 1998 without a moment’s hesitation. Other members of the BJP happy to come were Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who have acknowledged their exposure on our channels. Yashwant Sinha used to join us as a bureaucrat and continued to do so after joining politics.
Getting guests to join us in the studios was much easier when life moved at a more casual pace and politicians would strike a personal rapport. NCP president Sharad Pawar gave me tips on Maharashtrian cuisine and Samajwadi member Amar Singh offered warm hospitality.
But it was not without its dramatic moments. “Minister throws out woman from his car” could have been a headline when I was busy chatting to Minister for Internal Security Rajesh Pilot in his 5–6 car motorcade and he suddenly asked his driver to stop.
Security cars in front and behind screeched to a halt, gun-toting men leapt out and, promising he would join us later, he asked me to carry on. I opened the door to a gawking crowd, hurtled myself headlong into our car to rush to office. This was pre-mobile days and everyone was waiting for me to arrive with Mr Pilot. Had the mobile phone been invented I would have calmly called the office and driven off with my dignity intact.
The importance of immediate communication was being recognised, and in 1999, walkie-talkies brought new excitement into our lives. No more nail-biting anxious minutes wondering whether a guest had been picked up, were they coming, where had they reached, how much longer we would have to wait. Strutting around importantly, whispering into the set, was a heady feeling and reminds me of something we could never do today.
An insistent news editor, Sonia Verma had me drive up to a senior Kashmir police officer’s Delhi residence in our Sumo. Being turned away at the gate and told Sahab was not in was not an option. Clutching my walkie-talkie, I clambered on to the car’s roof to peer over the ten-foot-high wall to see if the man was indeed there or his car was. Frantic tugs on my sari by the driver as he pointed made me turn my head. Three guns had been trained on me from the watchtowers along the garden wall. Needless to say, I got out of there like a bat out of hell.
Excerpted with permission from NDTV – More News Is Good News: Untold Stories from 25 Years of Television News, Edited by Ayesha Kagal, HarperCollins India.