In 1999, the third Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition in four years came to power. As far as numbers were concerned, both the party (with 182 seats) and the coalition (with 296 seats) seemed comfortably placed. Instead of the troublesome Jayalalithaa, the National Democratic Alliance had the less troublesome Karunanidhi inside the tent. The pundits predicted a full term for Mr Vajpayee and his coalition. Atalji mostly got the cabinet of his choice, with Jaswant Singh – humiliatingly barred by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the 13-month 1998 coalition – as foreign minister. My relations with Vajpayee were good. Very good. I had known him since my Debonair days and when I moved to Delhi in 1991, I had several opportunities to meet him socially and officially. He was leader of the Opposition and I often found myself sitting next to him at banquets. He didn’t say much, but listened with interest. Like Ronald Reagan he loved jokes. He was not overly humble, but neither was he pompous. He knew his own worth and therefore did not need to prove anything.

Since I was a self-confessed pseudo-secularist and vocal about it, most BJP politicians kept me at arm’s length. Not Atalji. Perhaps he was a pseudo-secularist too! I used to go over for tea, with appointments easily fixed through his personable press officer, Ashok Tandon. Once when I went to see him he looked uncharacteristically glum. I asked him if anything was wrong. “Aap ke baad Jayalalithaa aayengi.” (After you Jayalalithaa is coming.) And then he laughed for the first time.

Mr Vajpayee, not the most media-friendly of politicians, gave me a rare, extended interview in early 1999, just after the fall of his government. He sincerely believed that if any prime minister could make peace with Pakistan, it was a BJP prime minister like him. He would give the example of how a hardline Republican president in the US, Richard Nixon, was able to achieve a breakthrough with China. I asked him if being a poet helped him keep his cool. “Yes,” he replied. “They say about Ram that the expression on his face when he was going to be enthroned and when he heard he was going into exile for fourteen years was the same.”

No saint

Mr Vajpayee’s poetry presented me with a little difficulty. When I was editor of Pioneer, a slim volume of his poems had been published. I gave it to the eminent Hindi writer Nirmal Verma to review. He kept the book for some time but sent no review. Finally, he rang up to say he couldn’t do it. “The poems are not worth reviewing. They are the work of a well-meaning amateur. If I review it, I’ll have to slam it, which I don’t want to do.” I asked one or two other big names in Hindi literature. They also refused for the same reasons. Eventually, I got it reviewed in-house by Kanchan Gupta, who later joined Vajpayee’s PMO as speech writer. He produced the goods.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was no saint. He liked to drink moderately and eat non-vegetarian food less moderately. Being a bachelor and a political star (Henry Kissinger: power is the ultimate aphrodisiac), he was never short of female company. When he became India’s first bachelor prime minister, he juggled a strange domestic life. A Mrs Kaul, whose husband was a college professor and had passed away, moved into 7 Race Course Road, along with her daughter Namita and the daughter’s husband, Ranjan. Namita’s official designation was foster daughter and Ranjan Bhattacharya became foster son-in-law. Vajpayee, to his credit, made no effort to hide the ménage à quatre. Foreign journalists posted in Delhi would ask, tongue firmly in cheek, why the brave and fearless Indian press never wrote about Vajpayee’s unusual family arrangement. I would say it was our strength, not weakness, which dissuaded us from tabloid voyeurism.

Reign of the triad

Brajesh Mishra, NK Singh, Ranjan Bhattacharya | File photos
Brajesh Mishra, NK Singh, Ranjan Bhattacharya | File photos

AB Vajpayee’s PMO fell into the hands of three individuals. Brajesh Mishra, who had been India’s permanent representative at the UN between 1979 and 1981 and on deputation with the United Nations till 1987, was his closest aide. Mishra took an anti-Soviet line in the UN when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. That line was sought to be reversed when the Congress came back to power in 1980. Brajesh argued that it did not behove India to suddenly change its stance, but Indira Gandhi insisted. He put in his papers. Vajpayee and Brajesh were chums. When things got hot for the “moderate face” of the BJP inside the party, he would pop off to New York to spend time with Brajesh, doing, rumour had it, some naughty things.

Mishra roped NK Singh, a suave bureaucrat, into the PMO as officer on special duty for economic affairs. The third member of the trio was Ranjan Bhattacharya, Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law. His background? The hospitality business or more accurately the banqueting business in luxury hotels.

During Vajpayee’s final term, this trio took complete charge. They controlled the PMO. Atalji, never keen on matters of detail, blessed the arrangement by not interfering. However, he had a fair sense of what was going on. The trio, especially Brajesh Mishra, was detested in the BJP. The feeling was mutual. LK Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Narendra Modi watched helplessly as Brajesh marched imperiously to his own tune. There was no love lost, especially between Mishra and Advani. Vajpayee made it clear to the party and the RSS that he was prepared to make compromises in most areas, but not over Brajesh, whom both the BJP and the RSS wanted out. If the parivar insisted on Brajesh going, Vajpayee would go with him.

Namita and Ranjan Bhattacharya | PTI file photo
Namita and Ranjan Bhattacharya | PTI file photo

Power centres

The husband and wife team of Ranjan and Namita were the other power centres in 7 Race Course Road. Vajpayee may have had some reservations about his son-in-law. However, the foster daughter could do no wrong in his eyes. Namita and Ranjan began assiduously cultivating the Delhi media. They had unconcealed contempt for what they called knickerwala journalists; they mingled with Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt, Shekhar Gupta – even me.

Ranjan and Namita invited my wife and me for lunch to the Chinese restaurant at the Oberoi, Taipan. I was happy to accept because I wanted to get to know the people who ran the Vajpayee household. And dabbled in other matters too. They were charming hosts. The talk was inconsequential and gossipy. At one point my wife dropped her napkin. Ranjan, in a flash, picked it up. I was touched by the gesture. “We must have you both over for dinner,” I found myself saying. It was fixed; only dates had to be agreed.

Midway during the lunch, a seedy-looking man flashing diamond rings and reeking of aftershave walked over to our table. He greeted Ranjan effusively, Ranjan responded equally effusively, as did Namita. He looked like an upmarket realtor. A few minutes later another gentleman of a similar description arrived. The interaction was repeated. My antenna went up. Both men appeared to have aspects and mannerisms of cosmopolitan wheeler-dealers. I told my wife as we were going down, “We are not inviting these people to our house.”

...

The activities of the trio had found cursory mention in the media. Nothing more. Our reporters came back with the full chronicle: the three were running riot. We put two senior reporters on the job and in March 2001 published our cover story, “Rigging the PMO”. It provided details of numerous decisions taken by the PMO, brazenly favouring a select group of business houses, especially the Hindujas and Reliance. With the former, Mr Vajpayee had long-standing personal relations; he had even written an indiscreet note to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, seeking his indulgence on their behalf in the Bofors scandal.
We got hold of a letter, which in today’s context assumes relevance. It was written in January 2001 by the telecom secretary to the industries secretary (who is vested with the authority to approve FDI), complaining how his minister and his ministry had been totally bypassed by the PMO when it cleared FDI up to 74% in the telecom sector. The ministry had warned in writing about allowing more than 49% equity in telecom.

Our coup d’état, however, was a smoking gun interview with a senior bureaucrat transferred so often that he quit a year before retirement. EAS Sarma was widely known in the civil service as “an outstanding officer, honest to a fault”. He had served as secretary in key ministries – power, expenditure, economic affairs. In his 36-year career, Dr Sarma had been transferred twenty-two times. The latest, which he got to know through the media, convinced him that enough is enough.

...

The hidden hand orchestrating these deals appeared to be that of Ranjan Bhattacharya. While all three worked in concert, the third man remained behind the scenes.

Once “Rigging the PMO” came into the public domain, consternation and panic set in at the PMO. Outlook and its editor could be dismissed as congenitally biased. Dr Sarma’s revelations, on the other hand, were not easy to dismiss because of his widely acknowledged reputation for probity and professionalism. None of the specific instances of wrongdoing could be denied or contested. His testimony was rich in detail.

Vajpayee summoned me home for tea. It was an unhappy meeting. NK Singh, Vajpayee conceded, could if necessary be shown the door. Brajesh and Ranjan were another matter. I had got it wrong, Vajpayee mildly scolded, those two were pure as snow. I refused to get into a wrangle with the PM. Suddenly, he changed the subject and launched an attack on Outlook correspondent Saba Naqvi, who was covering the BJP. “I don’t know what has gone wrong with her lately; she is always writing against me.” He suggested she had been covering the BJP for too many years. Perhaps she needed a change of beat.

The two reporters who produced the earlier story were still digging. This time they were concentrating on Ranjan’s precise role in the PMO, something which the disgraced BJP president Bangaru Laxman had indicated on the Tehelka tapes – he had made it known that power and infrastructure deals were Ranjan’s main focus. An RSS swayamsevak, RK Gupta, was also caught on tape, saying, “Ranjan is doing for himself. In one deal I killed (outmanoeuvred) Ranjan and Brajesh Mishra.” Word got around Outlook was working on another exposé, this time centred on the son-in-law.

At a Rashtrapati Bhawan banquet Vajpayee, while walking to his seat, stopped and had a word with me. He said he had something to discuss. Someone would get in touch with me. It is possible there were a couple of black sheep around on our staff who were leaking information. The PMO seemed to have a fair idea of what we were up to.

As our exposé got ready for press, I got several calls from Brajesh Mishra. I knew if I took his call he would try and persuade me to either drop or delay the story. I told my secretary to tell his secretary that I was out of town. One evening, when I came home from work, my mother seemed unusually excited. She said a very nice man from the prime minister’s office had telephoned. He was exceedingly polite and called her “mataji”. She couldn’t recall his exact name. “Brajesh something,” she said. My eighty-plus mother urged me to quickly return his call, as he had requested.

In the last week of March, our second exposé – “Vajpayee’s Achilles Heel” – appeared. It began, “Ever since Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister and consolidated his hold over the NDA, the whispers in the corridors of power have been about the formidable clout Brajesh Mishra, NK Singh and Ranjan Bhattacharya enjoy.” Later in the report we were more specific: “Over the last couple of years Bhattacharya’s influence has grown … a cross-section of people Outlook spoke to, including bureaucrats, industrialists and politicians, say Bhattacharya is a ‘powerful yet invisible’ force which drives the PMO. His primary conduits, say all, are Mishra and Singh.”

We flagged the deals Ranjan was meddling in. Topping the list was the Rs 58,000-crore national highways project which had been moving at a frenetic pace because of the extra push being given by the PMO. The first lot of contracts had been awarded to a clutch of seven dubious Malaysian firms. The Rs 20,000-crore Reliance Hirma power project, referred to earlier, was also on Ranjan’s radar. He and the PMO were pushing the Reliance case for a counter-guarantee which amounted to a gift for Reliance...

When Jagmohan’s tenure as telecom minister was abruptly terminated through the powerful lobby of private operators who owed the huge sum of Rs 3,179 crore to the ministry, they knocked on the door of the PMO via Ranjan. The defaulters included Birla, Reliance, Tata and Essar. These influential corporates pressed the PMO for extension of the payment deadlines. They succeeded. Further, they pushed through the draft of a new telecom policy heavily tilted in their favour. The Samata Party, a vital ally of the NDA, in a stinging letter to Vajpayee on 16 March, demanded a probe into the various corruption charges against Mishra, Singh and Bhattacharya.

A long-time RSS pracharak, who had faithfully served the organization for little material reward and who saw the BJP as the natural party of governance in place of an atrophying Congress, was quoted in the magazine as saying, “In one stroke the reputation built over 40 years has been destroyed.”

A couple of days after our second expose hit the stands, Brajesh Mishra and NK Singh held a press conference. Without mentioning Outlook even once, they denied outright all the charges as “mischievous” and “baseless”. It was a commanding performance.

The raids

On 29 May 2001 at 8.30 am, “in one of the largest operations launched in recent times”, the proprietor of Outlook, Rajan Raheja, was raided by the income tax department. As the Hindustan Times put it: “More than 700 officials began search and seizure operations in 12 cities across the country. About 120 premises in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Chennai, Surat, Madurai among other cities were raided.” The paper also noted that the editorial office of Outlook in Bombay had been raided.

The raiders from 7 Race Course Road made one stupid mistake – they entered our editorial office on the tenth floor of Raheja Chambers in Nariman Point. And took over all the computers and harassed the lone journalist present at that early hour. Floppies were removed. IT officials, it appeared, were hoping to find evidence of tax evasion in the files of old stories Outlook journalists had sent from Bombay! Our correspondent Manu Joseph had his bag searched and diary confiscated. “We were well within our rights (to raid the editorial office) since evidence may be lost,” justified the director general of investigations, G Saran.

...

I wrote a letter to the prime minister which I released to the press.

“Dear Atalji, 

“The income tax raids on Outlook’s proprietor, and worse, Outlook’s editorial office, are shocking. You yourself have been a victim of the Emergency, so you know better. 

“I appreciate that you, your party and some of your advisers do not always agree with our point of view. But to order income tax raids!”

I was careful to ensure my letter did not sound like a mercy petition.

“I write this letter to you not because I want you to do anything. An editor must learn to live with such things. I write this letter because I hold you personally in such high esteem and I am sure you did not know of these attempts to muzzle the free press of India (I lied. He knew). 

“Of all the people in public life today, you stand for certain values which go beyond party politics. If I was not convinced of this I would not be sending you this note. 

“Best wishes and godspeed with the operation.” 

(He was going in for some surgery.) 

I did not even get an acknowledgement to the letter.

Rajan told me a lovely raid story. As the searches were going on at his residence, the sleuths were having difficulty in finding some substantial loot. At one point, one of the inspectors asked Rajan if he could use the phone. Permission was granted. He dialled a number in Delhi and said quite audibly, “Sir, problem hai. Kuch mil nahi raha hai.” (Sir, there is a problem. We can’t find anything.)

The raids on Outlook evoked a measure of sympathy in the profession. It could have been more forceful, especially from the higher echelons, but I am not complaining. The Editors’ Guild issued a strong statement; the Congress party spokesperson said “the raids are yet another manifestation of authoritarianism and an assault on the free press”. The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) passed a resolution condemning the government for ‘curbing the freedom of the press and unleashing a reign of terror on the scribes’. Khushwant Singh in his column came out in our support. Kuldip Nayar in the Hindu wrote: “One vainly hopes that the liberal Vajpayee will one day wake up. So far he has proved to be only a mukhota (mask), as RSS ideologue Govindacharya once said.” I read no editorials for or against the raids. One reason for the ambivalence could be the extensive links Mishra, Singh and especially Bhattacharya had developed with the media.

Once they found little or nothing in Rajan’s house, office and companies, the income tax authorities resorted to mendacity. They announced the discovery of Rs 51 lakh in unaccountable cash. Again through a press release I had to set the record straight. Not Rs 51 lakh but Rs 51,000 had been found in the residence of an ailing relative of Rajan Raheja. The cash, Rajan explained, was kept in the house for emergency medical expenses.

The lies did not bother Rajan. The harassment did. He would be summoned to the damp, piss-stinking offices of the Enforcement Directorate and made to wait from 10 am to 6 pm. He would then be told to come again the next day. Besides, the income tax inspectors would ask for some 20-year-old file, keep it for a while and give it back. Then they would ask for another, and another. It was clear that interrogation and examination was not the real purpose; hounding and hassling was. Rajan asked me to see if this could be stopped. His entire group was doing nothing else but looking for files!

Humiliating experience

I rang up Brajesh Mishra. He agreed to see me. When we met, he feigned surprise, even shock. “You have been raided! I know nothing about this. Very unfortunate. You know both Atalji and I believe in press freedom. We would do nothing to harm the press.” Listening to him, I nearly vomited. He then lectured me on the importance of a free press in a democracy.

What happened next remains perhaps one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I had to reassure Brajesh I was never in any doubt about his and the prime minister’s commitment to press freedom. The raids on Outlook must have occurred due to some misunderstanding or perhaps some fault on our part! All this to butter him up for my next move. I told Brajesh I was not seeking any favour in the ongoing tax evasion investigations. All I was asking for was an end to the harassment of my proprietor. Could he please do something? “Of course, of course,” he said. “I am very sorry to hear Mr Raheja is being troubled.” He picked up the phone and fixed a meeting between me and the finance minister, Yashwant Sinha. My interaction with Brajesh lasted no more than ten minutes. I shook his hand, thanked him and ran out of his room. I urgently needed fresh air to recover from his hypocritical bullshit. Yashwant Sinha made no pretence of surprise. “I read something about it.” He promised Rajan’s harassment would stop. Miraculously, in 24 hours it did.

A week later President Narayanan sent for me. The Delhi Union of Journalists resolution had been received by his office. I recounted to the President the whole Mahabharat. He said he had read the Outlook stories. I found out later that Narayanan sent the DUJ resolution with a covering letter to Vajpayee, who was most upset at receiving the communication.

It was never the same again between me and Vajpayee. I continued to meet him formally and at one briefing he held for editors, something he did rarely, I sat through without saying a word. He came up to me at the end and said, ‘Aap aaj bahut chup hain.’ (You are very quiet today.) I smiled snidely.

There are not many politicians I like on a personal basis. Vajpayee was one of the few I did. History, I suspect, will remember him with question marks. Was he a liberal conservative, or someone who put his finger up in the air to find out which way the wind was blowing? A politician who aspires to be a statesman needs to have a moral centre. Did Vajpayee have one? That, I am afraid, is a question-mark question. Fali Nariman told me that despite all of Vajpayee’s inconsistencies he ‘liked the old boy’. I’ll ditto Fali’s opinion.

Excerpted with permission from Lucknow Boy: A Memoir, Vinod Mehta, Penguin India