Different with a difference

Pramod Mahajan was frothing at the mouth one day many, many moons ago. I was working for The Indian Express then and the paper had published an anchor story by me which detailed how the BJP was preparing to translate the Koran into Sanskrit.

I had all the details duly substantiated – who had translated the Koran, when the decision was taken to publish the translation and who had approved or disapproved.

It was obvious it was an insider leak. Much as that had rattled Mahajan that morning, it had flummoxed me as well when I was first approached with the story by my source.

My anti-saffron ideology was well known to this insider and I was naturally suspicious, smelling a rat. “Why are you telling me all this?’’ I asked the man. “You know I am not one of you.’’

“That’s precisely why I have picked you,’’ he replied. “If I go with this story to a saffron ideologue, they’ll just kill it. Others might just use it for their own agenda. With you I can be sure it will see the light of day and be published.’’

“But what if you are wrong?’’ I asked. “How can the BJP ever think of translating the Koran into Sanskrit? It goes against their grain.’’

“That’s exactly it! If this is what the BJP really wants to do, then I don’t see how different they can be or even how they differ from the Congress. Obviously, they are not confident about winning the elections and this is just a tactic to woo the Muslim vote. We expect such ploys of the Congress, but the BJP was supposed to be different, wasn’t it?’’

The year was 1995. The BJP was poised on the cusp of a national election and sensing victory (they did form a government 13 days after those elections). The insider was a hardliner, a purist who believed firmly in the saffron ideology and couldn’t care less if the BJP won or lost so long as they did not compromise on their agenda.

“If I am wrong, I will cut my head and place it at your feet, Behenji,’’ he said, desperate to convince me to go with the story. As such, it took us days to have the facts substantiated (my editor was very thorough about that) and Mahajan’s reaction was all the confirmation I needed that it was true.

When Mahajan had stopped letting off steam, it was clear to me he was not denying the story as much as bullying me into spilling the beans on the identity of the source. “Oh, no. That’s between me and my editor alone,’’ I said, resisting all the arm-twisting, including a spiel on how misguided a journalist I was and how in his three years as a journalist early in his career (I had been one for 13 years by then) even he knew better what was true and what wasn’t.

“Well, if that story is not true, please feel free to walk into my office any day and complain to my editor. Or write a letter to him. Or complain to the Press Council. Or just take the paper to Court,’’ I said, trying to keep my cool.

He did none of those things, of course. Just mumbled to others about what a “poison pen’’ I was and declared me persona-non-grata to the BJP. Yet my source continued to leak gems of stories to me and when I once told him I was serious about knowing why he was treating me with such regard, he said, “You, at least, believe in your ideology. These people don’t. Yeh log doodh ki dukaan se daaru bechte hain. Bazaar mein aapki jeb kat jaye toh aap kuch naihin kehenge. Par mandir mein agar kisi ne aapki jeb kaat li, toh aap kya kehenge? (These people sell liquor from the milk shop. If your pockets are picked in a marketplace you might say nothing, but what will you say if some one picked your pockets inside a temple?’’

I finally understood. Our interaction continued for very long and except for stopping to talk to me, local BJP politicians could not do a thing to stop the leaks from within.

The threat to break my legs came from a close Mahajan aide some months later when at their national executive in Bombay, hordes of BJP workers made a beeline for Kamathipura, Bombay’s red light district, choosing some “aish’’ (fun) over party president L K Advani’s speech. They disappeared in such numbers from the meeting venue that Advani had to declare that his speech be `taken as read’ and close the proceedings for the day.

But that story was not mine. It had occurred to other reporters as well and one of them had made straight for Kamathipura where the BJP men had not even bothered to disguise or otherwise conceal their identities. Ten years earlier, Congressmen had similarly ignored Rajiv Gandhi and spent the day at Kamathipura during the Congress centenary celebrations in Bombay. But while then then Bombay Congress president Murli Deora had just sheepishly muttered, “Men will be men,’’ and let it go at that, now Mahajan was once again frothing at the mouth and telling me, “I knew there were Congress reporters and that there were BJP reporters. But I didn’t know there were red light reporters!’’

It was meant to be an insult but I pointed to the byline – that of one of my male colleagues – and told him, “A good reporter will never let go of such a story. I would have done that story myself but he was there before me and my editor chose to give him that assignment rather than me.’’

When Mahajan turned his back and stormed off, his aide told me quite menacingly,“ We don’t want to see you anywhere near us for the rest of the convention. If this continues it will mean some broken hands and legs.’’

“Are you threatening me?’’ I demanded.

“Some arms and legs will be broken,’’ he repeated.

“Just try me!’’ I challenged.

I returned the next day, rather tentatively, of course, prepared to return home with some broken bones. But in what could only be described as anti-climax, the man (including Mahajan) just ignored me and looked through me as though I did not exist. I had proved my point and called their bluff. But things were never the same between me and the BJP again.

Mahajan and I, of course, continued to cold-shoulder each other until the day he died but over the years he had added a long litany of secular-minded journalists (or those the BJP calls pseudo-secularists) to his list of people to malign. I wonder what he would have said today to the question I had asked years ago and never received a reply: “Why does the BJP believe in beating up journalists who differ or do not do a PR job for them with their stories?

The saffron attack last week on the offices of the television channel Headlines Today (which even the BJP could not defend except with some ludicrous and bizarre charges against both the Congress and the media) for some revealing truths on `Hindu terrorism’ has vindicated my stand that while parties like the Congress show tolerance levels of up to 95 per cent, the BJP does not have even five per cent of tolerance for a differing view.

Like I told Mahajan then, that’s why (and how) the BJP is different. And continues proving to be so.

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