I was reading my colleague Sujata Anandan’s blog on her experience with the Gandhis when memories of my first meeting with Indira Gandhi came back to me in its totality.
It was somewhere at the end of 1975 or beginning of 1976 when Prof. V.P.Dutt, former Vice Chancellor of Delhi University gathered a group of students, teachers and employees from the Campus to meet the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Dutt Saheb who was close to Ms Gandhi (he was subsequently a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha) had sounded around a dozen of us students and some teachers and karamcharis to initially meet him. We were told that Ms Gandhi was planning to bring in some education reforms and was meeting groups of students, teachers and others from the university community in order to formulate a new policy.
We were asked to assemble at the Arts Faculty and were told that we were going to meet the Prime Minister at 3.30 p.m. on the designated day. I do not know about others but I was really excited about the meeting. I had seen Ms Gandhi on a few occasions, first time as a small kid when Panditji had passed away and again when as the Information and Broadcasting Minister in the Lal Bahadur Shastri Cabinet, she had come to inaugurate a new ward at the Silver Jubilee Tuberculosis Hospital (now called RBTB hospital) near my home in the Kingsway Camp area.
I had been the president of my college and it was indeed a privilege to have been invited to meet the PM. Dr Rajendra Prasad, my teacher and now the Principal of Ramjas College who was at that time one of Prof. Dutta’s favourites, had conveyed the invitation to me. On the day of the meeting we were packed in cars belonging to some university faculty members and transported to 1, Akbar Road where Ms Gandhi would meet her visitors. We were all taken to a big room and seated.
The then Congress president, D.K.Barooah was already present joking with others who if I recall correctly included P.N.Dhar, Ms Gandhi’s principal secretary, P.N.Haksar and Prof.Nurul Hasan, the education minister. There was total silence in the room when Ms Gandhi elegantly dressed in a brownish printed saree walked in and took her seat. After a short introductory speech by P.N.Dhar, she made a few comments and invited those of us who were there to share our views.
One by one, she listened to everyone very patiently. My turn came to speak and I narrated T.S.Eliot’s famous couplet, “Where is the life we have lost in living, where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge and where is the knowledge we have lost in information”. I explained that our educational system suited only those who could mug up things and did not relate to those who wanted to really absorb the concepts. She paused for a minute and re-assured me with a smile that she would ensure that education became more meaningful.
The inter action had lasted for a full three hours. She invited us to have tea and snacks with her. Ms Gandhi bowled everyone over when she served tea personally to the guests and also made them have biscuits and cookies while chatting with them informally. I can tell you that some in the group who were earlier critical of her came out praising her. Her charisma had converted them to be her hard core admirers.
I met Ms Gandhi four or five times again, mostly with late Mohammad Shamim of the Times of India who was extremely close to her. Shamim Saab could just walk in and see her whenever he wanted and she would listen to him in rapt attention. I subsequently covered Ms Gandhi at least 6o to 70 times as a reporter. I have yet to see a leader who had greater charisma and there was a time when I could even predict to some degree what she might speak on a particular occasion.
I have vivid memories of the February, 1983 elections to the Delhi Metropolitan Council and Municipal Corporation. Congress had been defeated in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and the BJP slogan was “Andhra Karnataka haari hai ab Dilli ki baari hai”. I was covering the polls for the TOI and on the last campaigning day, I recall there were seven meetings fixed in the pre noon session in rural Delhi. I and some other reporters covered each of these meetings by adopting a simple strategy. We would start for the next venue while Ms Gandhi was winding up her speech and would again do so at the end of that meeting. However, while we were on our way to Narela Mandi, the last spot, her convoy overtook us.
We thought that we would not be able to make it as the police stopped us at the gate of the venue. But no the police did not have its way. Ms Gandhi had been noticing how all of us were attending each of her meetings and were not there for the final one when she spotted us arguing with the cops. She summoned J.P. Goel, then Delhi Congress spokesman and asked him to get us. Till the time we entered and were seated on our designated seats, she did not start her speech. This is what she was. She cared equally for the reporters and photographers. Ask any news photographer of that time, he would swear that she would pose for him till he got the best shot.
I have very warm memories of many other leaders too, but Indira Gandhi was perhaps the most charismatic of them all. I consider her as the greatest mass leader of the 20th century primarily because she knew how to instantly connect with the people. She will always be one of my favourites.