Quote, misquote, unquote

At a time when television news was just coming of age in India (the mid-Nineties), I recall I was in Delhi when the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri had pulled support from the Deve Gowda government.

On a day when no politician was willing to say anything at all, I found myself standing in Sharad Pawar’s garden along with several camera crews and reporters who were desperate for a `sound byte’. They were all expecting Pawar to break up the Congress and go over to Gowda. But Pawar refused to say anything as he walked out of his home and into the outhouse that served as his office. All that the cameras could catch was his retreating back.

Hanging around with the rest of us were Praful Patel and Murli Deora. Patel was quite savvy and managed to say just the right things to the cameras. Deora, on the other hand, got torn between his loyalty to then Tamil Manila Congress president G K Moopanar and Kesri. At last, one channel managed to extract from him his heart’s desire: to see Moopanar as PM.

A few minutes later fright set in in slow reaction. Deora was terrified that Kesri would hold that view against him and remove him from the post of Bombay Congress president. “Please don’t misquote me,’’ he pleaded with that particular TV anchor.

“No question of misquoting you, Murlibhai,’’ said the anchor. “Just think: if Mooopanar becomes PM, toh aapki Rajya sabha seat pakki! (You are sure to get a Rajya Sabha seat if Moopanar becomes PM!)’’

I was woken early morning by Murli Deora the day after the telecast of that sound byte. “That rascal!’’ said Deora. “He misquoted me even after I told him not to!’’

I tried to gently point out to the distraught Deora that there was nothing like `misquoting’ on television. “You are caught by the cameras and you have to admit to what you said.’’ Unlike with print journalists who until then were being wronged all the time by being accused of quoting out of context.

Kesri, too, soon got into trouble over some unsavoury remarks about the RSS. I never said anything of the kind,’’ he said later. “They quoted me out of context.’’ But a close examination of the tapes had revealed that he had said every word he did and meant it, too.

Thereafter politicians, at least in Maharashtra, caught on quickly to the dangers of live television. From the temptation of the glamour of television, they began to take more care about what they said on camera. Though, as late as last year, one in Bombay grumbled to me about how a particular channel had made him quarrel with a colleague and probably put his career in jeopardy, with his leaders in Delhi not quite amused.

“But why did you ever say the things you did?’’ I asked.

“Well, this girl woke me up at 3am saying she had to submit the sound bytes by seven that morning or else she would lose her job. I was sleepy and not in my senses so I don’t really remember what I said. She then promptly went across to my rival and got him to react. And for nothing at all this has become such a major controversy!’’

The man survived that particular scare and I notice that he is not seen very much on television these days, though he continues to hold a high party position.

Those, though, were all errors of judgment. But, in all these years, I have never come across a pair as stupid as Maharashtra Pradesh Congress president Manikrao Thakre and former Maharashtra minister Satish Chaturvedi. They were at a press conference in Wardha preparing for Sonia Gandhi’s rally to conclude the `gram to Sevagram’ (Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram) campaign undertaken by the state Congress. They did not even bother to leave the room after the press meet and continue their private discussions elsewhere. It is not as if there was a sting planned or any of the camera crews meant malice. In fact, the camera has caught on tape several crews wrapping up and removing their microphones. Only Star Mazha’s (the Marathi arm of Star News) camera was still rolling and the mikes were not switched off.

Now Thakre and Chaturvedi have been caught discussing amounts collected from Maharashtra ministers (in lakhs) to buy flags for the rally. Chaturvedi is even heard (and seen) being disrespectful to Maharashtra CM Ashok Chavan by saying, “Ab aya woh line par (He has now come onto the track).’’ Thakre had earlier been telling him how the CM, who had promised Rs 2 crore long ago, had just released the amount. “Unke paise dene ki niyat hi nahi thi (He had no intention of giving the money),’’ said Thakre.

Now that they have been caught with what can only be described as `pants down’, Chavan attempted to put a spin on it, saying Thakre did not know the Hindi language too well and meant `aaypat’ (capacity to pay) instead of `niyat’ (intention). “He meant I did not have the capacity to pay rather than the intention to not pay,’’ Chavan said. Thakre, too, tried a whitewash saying the money discussed (in crores) were funds collected by workers rather than extorted from either ministers or the Chief Minister.

Now every political party holds rallies that do not get held for free. I have known Sharad Pawar to ask his ministers to cough up huge sums in the early days of NCP for party rallies. The NCP, then, even used to charter planes to fly in journalists from Delhi and Bombay to places like Nagpur to cover those rallies – things like that do not come with small price tags. The Shiv Sena asks its shakhas (branches) to each bring in lakhs, if not crores, before every rally. The BJP puts similar pressure on its cadres. And perhaps large parts of those huge sums do come in small notes of tens and twenties from the people. I do not think any political party can claim otherwise.

But only the Congress has claims to sheer stupidity and idiocy. For, you cannot even say that a state party president and a minister of three decades’ experience did not know better.

I do not know how the Congress top leadership might react. But both Thakre and Chaturvedi have certainly made my day. I have never laughed so hard in all my life as I did on Thursday (the day Star aired their asinine, really dumbass, conduct)! Its things like these that make life as a political correspondent so much less boring. Vive le Congress!

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