‘Are you a red light reporter?’

Some years ago, when Sitaram Kesri had pulled support from the Deve Gowda government in New Delhi, I called Sharad Pawar to ascertain what he would do – would he split the Congress to support Gowda, would he go along with Kesri (whom he abhorred) or would he make a bid for the top job himself?

A bitter laugh resonated down the line as Pawar asked, “Why do you need to ask me! I thought you had already made up your mind that I had few supporters, that I could do nothing.”

I was startled for a second. Then I recalled that two days earlier I had written a piece to that effect – though the story had been based on what many other politicians had said to me, on the record as well as off it.

“I am not saying it, Mr Pawar,” I said. “Your detractors are.”

“Who are my detractors?” he asked.

“You know better than to ask me that,” I replied. “You know exactly who they are.”

He laughed again but this time it was a more relaxed sound. “I am not prepared to say anything right now. Perhaps in a day or two. Call me,” he said and cut the line.

I realised that that had been a snub. Like all politicians, Pawar likes nice things to be written about him but when someone doesn’t he has a unique way of snubbing – the first time you call, he won’t answer. Or he will turn down a request for a meeting or an interview. If you do run into him somewhere, he will literally turn his back on you and not allow you to catch his eye.

Duly intimidated by all this when you do not even dare to say `hello’ the second time after that, he will walk across and ask you in very pleasant tones how you are doing. Or take your call in case you have dared. That is a signal that the hostilities have ended, the snub having been given and received – and duly understood.

But never have I known Pawar to threaten, abuse, insult or otherwise pick quarrels with correspondents in the manner many other politicians do. He understands the symbiotic relationship between journalists and politicians more than most others do. So he never quite slams the door.

I have reason to appreciate Pawar on this score by sheer comparison to some others. I remember the time when the BJP was holding a party executive meeting in Bombay in 1996. I was working for the Indian Express then and we decided to send some reporters to Kamathipura, the city’s red light district to see how the party with a difference was reacting to this big town attraction. We had had some experience with the Congress centenary celebrations a decade earlier — large groups of Congressmen had preferred the mujras in Kamathipura to Rajiv Gandhi’s speech on cleaning up politics.

BJP men had been no different, as we discovered. “We’ve come here to enjoy. Who’s interested in boring speeches?” L K Advani had been addressing the gathering on shuchita, samrasta etc at the time our reporter was in conversation with this particularly enlightened BJP worker, still wearing a badge that gave his name and the State he came from.

The story had not even been mine (the byline was distinctively different) but the next day a furious Pramod Mahajan told me, “I know there are Congress reporters and BJP reporters. But I did not know you were a red-light reporter!”

Before I could get over the shock, his side-kick warned, “Ab ke baar aisa kuchh chhapaa, toh haath-pair toot jayenge, Sujata (Some hands and legs will be broken if anything like this gets published again).”

I just could not believe that the two could have been so crude but then a friend working for a Marathi paper told me I should not have been too surprised. “At least they have warned you before breaking your bones. I didn’t even have that luxury some years ago. Don’t you remember what happened to me?”

I did. She had almost got beaten up by Bal Thackeray’s goons. We had been at a rally in the Konkan where Thackeray was trashing Pawar for his penchant for drinking Scotch. “He has to have videshi. At least I am a patriot. I drink only Indian. Whenever my stomach aches, I down a couple of bottles of warm beer.”

My friend had a headache, so after the rally we went looking for a pharmacy in that small town which was essentially an over-grown village. We were startled to discover two youths in argument with the pharmacist. They were demanding warm Indian beer. “Son, this is a drug store,” said the elderly store owner. “You have to go to the liquor shop for a beer.”

“No,” said the adamant boys, “Balasaheb said if you have a stomach ache, you should drink beer!”

It was a brilliant story for the papers and my friend discarded the rally copy for this one (it was of no use to me because I was working for an agency at the time) – look how Bal Thackeray is misleading the innocent youth in the villages, she reported.

Next day, she was on the run. We learnt that Thackeray’s men were on the lookout for her with the instructions that the reporter should be beaten up soundly. She escaped by the skin of her teeth and lived to tell the tale only because those goons thought she must be a man (she has a unisex name) and so were not looking at (or looking out for) any of the girls as we left town under their nose and headed back swiftly towards Bombay.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since then and Bal Thackeray is no longer in any position to beat up journalists who disagree. Or Pramod Mahajan to insult them. But Sharad Pawar, while still a gentleman, has a lot less patience these days. When you put him in a spot (as many of us did during the course of this election campaign), he snubs reporters by stating in the strongest, condemnatory tones, “Humbug!” or “What nonsense!” Or worse still, “The media today is absolutely full of fools!”

That, by Pawar’s standards, is meant to be an insult. But I guess that’s still a lot civilised.

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