Dileep Padgaonkar (1944-2016): The man who held 'the second-most important job in the country'

Three views on the former editor of 'The Times of India' who passed away on Friday.

FromThe TOI Story: How a Newspaper Changed the Rules of the Game by Sangita P Menon Malhan, HarperCollins Publishers, India, 2013.

The need for new blood in the editorial team was first recognised by Ashok Jain. But he had been persuaded by some of his editors that talent was scarce in the country and the exercise was practically a non-starter. Once Samir Jain came into the picture and found himself at odds with many of the journalists, it was imperative to infuse new talent...

Perhaps the most notable recruitment on the editorial side was of Dileep Padgaonkar, who came in as associate editor in September 1986. His association with The Times of India started in 1968. Just twenty-four then, he had sent in a piece to The Times of India. The legendary Sham Lal was the editor. He liked the piece. Dilip Padgaonkar next asked him for a job, and got it.

He was the Paris correspondent at the The Times of India for the next five years, and then elevated to assistant editor. In 1978, he left The Times of India to join UNESCO. In 1986, he was done with this stint. This is when he ran into Gautam Adhikari in Paris.

Around this time, Ashok Jain was exploring the idea of setting up an international edition of the The Times of India in New York along with Ramesh Chandra Jain, then the CEO of Times Television. They were to stop by at Paris, and were asked to look up Dilip Padgaonkar. They offered him the job and he accepted.

“They hit it off right from the beginning. Dileep displayed class, intellect, global exposure and his collection of Hussain paintings,” said Adhikari. Dilip Padgaonkar was intellectually inclined to Leftist ideology and thought, but apolitical. Samir Jain brought him in. (“Gautam was Samir’s right hand. He had a room next to Samir’s room. Samir had flanked Giri [Girilal Jain, editor of The Times of India from 1978 to 1988] with Gautam on one side and Dileep on the other. Arun Shourie had been appointed executive editor but that was too short-lived. It didn’t last. Giri saw to it that the experiment failed. One would’ve thought that Gautam would’ve taken over,” said a former assistant editor of the TOI, who did not want to be named.)

Two years later, Samir Jain elevated Dileep Padgaonkar to executive editor. This was done when Girilal Jain was still around. It marked the start of a new era.

“Samir Jain’s thoughts annoyed traditional journalists. But he was less interested in influence and more in reach,” Dileep Padgaonkar told me. ‘If you are not in the market, you have no mindshare and therefore no profitability,’ Samir Jain would say,” he added. “Those who argued against this were not ready to look at what was happening around them, particularly in America. Much is made of the fact that he was close to Sulzbergers of The New York Times. He was! He had met both father and son. He may have even learnt a few things but he wasn’t going to swear by them. The key words in his dictionary are mindshare and profitability. The NYT model was not for him but for his editors and journalists,” he pointed out.

From JS & The Times of My Life: A Worm’s-Eye View of Indian journalism by Jug Suraiya, Tranquebar, 2011

“I have the second-most important job in the country,” said Dileep whom all of us in TOI called Paddy when he was out of earshot.

Paddy made this remark during an interview with a magazine journalist. When the interview was published it created a stir in Delhi’s media world. The remark wasn’t original. I don’t know who first said it, but in Bennett Coleman folklore, whoever was the editor of the TOI was deemed to hold the second-most significant position in India after that of the prime minister.

What caused a buzz in the hornet’s nest was not the originality or otherwise of the statement but that Paddy had had the chutzpah to make such a pronouncement in public print. Second most important job in the country? Who did the fellow think he was?

Well, the fellow only knew too well who he was: he was the editor of the TOI, the largest-selling – and arguably the most politically influential – newspaper in the country.

What the hell. To paraphrase Robert Clive, Paddy might well have added that he stood amazed at his own modesty at describing his job as the second most important in the country. Why not the first most important? Indeed, why not?

All right, so Paddy as a follow-on to Giri wasn’t any Great Thunderer. So what? The Times they were a changing and Great Thunderers weren’t much in demand any more. Moreover, was Thundering really suited to the French temperament, even when the temperament had perforce to express itself in Anglais, what with lamentable shortage of Gallic publications in India? No. Thundering was definitely de trop...

Thundering was becoming – or, indeed, had already become – passé. Paddy was the antithesis of a Thunderer. He was the embodiment of urbane, cosmopolitan chic. He could quote from Andre Malraux with equal facility as from the Vasishta Yoga. He was neither too tall, nor too short. He was not bearded, nor did he sport a moustache. When seated, he did not cross his legs in front of The Family. He was a good writer, but a better manager. He was perfect for the role of “manditor” of the new TOI that SJ [Samir Jain] had envisaged. He suited the “comfort zone” of The Family.

“Manditor” is a conflation of “managing editor”. But while “managing editor” conveys the sense of an editor who also puts in a bit of time on management, “manditor” makes it clear that the first duty of the person in question is to manage, editorial functions such as writing being secondary. In fact, not even secondary but tertiary.

“Writing is a Class III activity,” SJ would often say. Class I and Class II activities being, respectively, formulating company policy and implementing company policy.

(TOI gossip had it that the reason Paddy had pipped Gautam Adhikari at the post for the editorial gaddi of the TOI was that SJ felt that Gautam, being a better writer than Paddy, might allow his writerly instincts to get in the way of his managerial duties...) ...

Paddy used the editorial axe on my column only once. Sometime in 1989 I did a take-off on Bal Thackeray, who was shown being busy pulling wings off flies. When asked by a sidekick why he was pulling wings off flies, the Shiv Sena supremo was made to retort in my column: “Why am I pulling wings off flies? Because, stupid, minorities don’t have wings for me to pull off them, that’s why.”

In those days, my column used to appear on Sunday. On Sunday morning I got a call at home from Paddy.

“Your column’s been carried in the Delhi edition, as you must have seen. But I’ve had it pulled out of the Bombay edition,” said Paddy.

Before I could respond, Paddy continued. “I thought I’d phone you and tell you about it, before you found out for yourself later and blew your stack. Do you want to know why I had your column dropped in Bombay?”

“I do,” I said.

“It was because I knew that you’d never forgive yourself if, because of something you’d written, a Shiv Sena mob had attacked the TOI’s office in Bombay and beaten up our colleagues, including Dina and Bachi,” said Paddy. Dina Vakil was the resident editor in Bombay, where Bachi, who had left The Statesman to join TOI was also posted...

[On leaving TOI ]

How could Dileep Padgaonkar – officially anointed manditor of The Times of India, favoured No 1 Munimji to The First Family, diplomat and courtier par excellence, have been transformed into a rabble-rousing mutineer, a Miltonic Lucifer arrayed in dubious battle against the hosts, not of Heaven, but of the Jains, which could be said to be pretty much the same thing? How could Padgaonkar, bhakt yogi without compare, have turned into an adharmic subversive? How could the perfect manditor of the TOI, polished debonair, not too tall, not too short, no beard or moustache or other facial singularity, who never crossed his legs when in the presence of The Family, who could, thanks to his good Saraswat brahmanical lineage, at a pinch, conduct corporate Diwali pujas and other quasi-religious observances in shudh Sanskrit sprinkled with French, have become so bolshie as to want to bite the hand that had so lovingly fed it?...

Some said the seeds of disaffection had been sown years ago, when Paddy, along with other staffers, had been asked to handwrite invitation cards for a TOI function. Journalism is one of the bitchiest professions going, full of people who will see slights to your amour propre, even when you can’t see them yourself, and egg you on to do something about it, in the name of journalistic honour, which some might say is a contradiction in terms if ever there was one...

From Lucknow Boy by Vinod Mehta, Penguin Viking, 2011

[In his book The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, American investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh had named former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who had been a deputy prime minister under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during 1967-69, as the American Mole who had been leaking cabinet decisions to the Americans. On October 6, 1989, a Chicago district court dismissed Morarji Desai’s $50-million libel suit against Hersh.]

The irrepressible maverick Subramanian Swamy arrived to complicate matters. He held a press conference in Bombay during which he stated that Morarji had been unfairly indicted. The “real” spy was another deputy prime minister of India and former chief minister of Maharashtra. When asked if Swamy was referring to the late YB Chavan, he smiled knowingly. Except for one paper in Hyderabad, no one took notice of Swamy’s disclosure. Significantly, this was the first time an alternate name to Morarji Desai had reached the public domain.

I and other editors of The Independent followed these developments closely. I asked our Delhi bureau to check out the new revelations. They came back with a copy of the RAW [Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency] letter to Rajiv and suggested the story had merit. And then I, and I alone, made a terrible, unforgivable error of judgement. I mistook the RAW letter as the gospel truth.

On October 19, we published an eight-column banner headline, “YB Chavan, Not Morarji, Spied for the US”.

For two days, the story went largely unnoticed. Except for Mid-Day, which carried our Chavan report almost verbatim, the rest of the media kept away. That did not suit the perennially insecure editor of the Times of India, Dileep Padgaonkar. While the other editors in the group were troubled by my presence, Dileep had a special and urgent reason to feel troubled. I and my team were producing an English paper every day which looked infinitely better than the paper Dileep was editing, and on many mornings it even read better. Mr Padgaonkar’s insecurities increased when word got around that at a meeting with his senior managers, Samir mentioned me as a possible editor of the Times of India.

Dileep and the Maharashtra Times editor, Govind Talwalkar, got together to ensure the Chavan story did not go unnoticed. In an editorial on October 21, the Times viciously attacked me and The Independent. It went so far as to incite physical violence against me, suggesting that if it did occur, it would be my own fault. Departing from its pompous, lofty, measured tone, the Times launched a series of vituperative onslaughts targeting me, which observers found astonishing since the two papers were “sister publications”. One Opposition leader told the media that while the story was indeed objectionable, it was the Times group which created the “hysteria” around the report.

I hold no grudges against Dileep Padgaonkar. He is who he is. However, the man who once claimed he held “the second most important job in the country” can be legitimately charged with single-handedly opening the door for the denigration and decline of the Editor as an institution. When Dileep’s bosses asked him to bend, he crawled. Since then, it has been downhill all the way for other editors.

All excerpts with permission from the respective publishers.

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