Singing for your supper

Rajiv Gandhi was not sure what he must do. Of course, he did not have to sing for his supper but Sunil Dutt was urging him on. “Please come up on to the stage,’’ said Dutt. “Sing along with us.’’

Rajiv’s trademark shy, dimpled smile came out rather hesitantly and he half got up from his plush chair. “Come, come. Please come up,’’ went on Dutt sa’ab.

Then Rajiv glanced at Sonia sitting beside him and — I was watching the two very closely — I saw her give her head the teeniest bit of a shake. And Rajiv plonked himself back against the cushions again, raising his hands and shaking them from side to side to indicate a `no’.

Dutt’s urgings continued but now Rajiv was quite sure that he would not sing. It was the Congress’s centenary celebrations in Bombay and Sunil Dutt had gone to quite elaborate lengths, along with yesteryears dancing star Vyjayanthimala, to make the cultural show at the end of the day a success.

He had assembled the day’s leading film stars and singers and got them to sing, ‘`Naya daur …hum hain Hindustani…’’ “Our message will not be complete if the Prime Minister does not sing along with us,’’ begged Dutt.

We had all waited with bated breath, I remember. I was working with a wire service then and, in an era before the advent of television journalism, I knew I would have a world scoop if the Prime Minister of India got on to stage and sang a ditty along with a bunch of films stars and Nitin Mukesh, son of legendary singer Mukesh who had sung the original, leading the chorus.

When the Prime Minister declined, a lot of more senior journalists let out their breaths with a very audible whoosh. None of us was sure if the decision had been good or bad – we had lost a story but, as my senior editor then pointed out, probably India had kept its dignity.

Actually, even then, at the back of my mind I was quite relieved that Rajiv did not get onto that stage and sing alongside the film stars.  When I said as much to another journalist, he agreed, “That would have been really a spectacle. He would never have lived it down.’’ (The `naani yaad dila doonga’ remark had yet to come at the time, as I recall, which, along with the `falling of a tree’ remark at his mother’s death, continues to dog him even after his own.)

But, I guess, between then and now there has been a generational shift, not just among politicians but also in politics. That’s why, perhaps, Nitin Gadkari belted out a purely Bollywood number at the BJP’s three-day meet in Indore, with such grand ease (and he is not such a bad singer either, I might add). So did Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. And although they did not make spectacles of themselves, frankly I still missed the point of politicians singing anything but the national anthem at serious political meetings.

I caught the expression on L K Advani’s face as Gadkari was singing. Not too amused there, I thought, as he looked on poker-faced. There were none of those whoops of delight that came from other BJP workers gathered at the meeting. And, for once, I understood LK Advani completely.

Gadkari would have been just in his late twenties when Rajiv refused to sing at the Congress centenary celebrations. But a quarter of a century later, I am still not so sure that politicians should actually sing for their supper. Nevertheless, older though I have got, I find that in my mind I am less fuddy-duddy about these things than I was in my twenties when I had waited simultaneously for a great story and a condemnation of the act as Rajiv dithered at Dutt’s urgings to clamber onto stage and sing alongsie the rest of them.

But not to disappoint Dutt completely, Rajiv urged Congress delegates at the programme to give him the chorus. And I am sure I caught the Prime Minister lip-synching.  But in the absence of any but a Doordarshan television camera, that never got recorded for posterity.

Rajiv later did climb the dais – but only to pose for a picture with the Bollywood fraternity who had worked so hard to put up the cultural nite. I remember a very disappointed Dutt lamenting, “He should have come up and sung along, yaar!’’

To which a senior journalist replied, “You are a film star whom he has turned into a politician. You could not turn a politician into a singing sensation.’’

I still do not know if that was a criticism or just a statement of fact. But, at least now, a generation later Gadkari and his new-look BJP prove that there could be a lot of song and dance about politics. And with the minimum of fuss. Unlike what prevailed at Rajiv Gandhi’s abortive attempt to sing a song about Indians in a new age.

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