A corner of Punjab in Bombay

Some years ago I wrote this story about Giani Zail Singh in my column ‘anandan ON WEDNESDAY’ which appears in the print edition of the newspaper every, well, Wednesday. I guess it bears repeating in another context. Zail Singh had become President of India just as I started off as a rookie in journalism and all I had heard about him were wise cracks about his bumbling ways.

Then a Sikh neighbour of my parents told me, “Wisecracks apart, he has to be indeed a wise man. Or else he would not be called a ‘giani’.”

But along with native wisdom, Giani Zail Singh was also a Congressman. And though he might have had a hand in misplaying the politics of Punjab vis-a-vis the Akalis that led to a phenomenon called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale which took the life of the Indian Prime Minister for whom he would hve swept the streets with a broom, a recent television interview wherein two of my former editors at the Indian Express, Arun Shourie (being interviewed) and Shekhar Gupta (who interviewed Shourie) recalled some gems of wisdom from Giani Zail Singh brought the story back to mind — I do not think anyone can match Gianiji even today.

Shourie said Zail Singh had once told him that the tragedy of India was that the Centre had rootless wonders as national leaders while the real leaders (like Vasantdada Patil or M G Ramachandran) were in states and they could never be Prime Ministers. Gupta recalled Zail Singh had again spoken in tragic terms to him about the Congress party at the time he was President: that the party had only ‘mundes’ (children aka Rajiv Gandhi and his cohorts) or ‘gundes’ (the aggressive leaders of the time).

Now my own story, heard from older journalists, is from the early days of the Press Club in Bombay (which is now a fine institution but) which then had little apart from four walls and a few tables and chairs to call itself a club. Nonetheless, journalists on the committee used to conduct press meets with various national leaders from time to time and one of these was Giani Zail Singh when he was chief minister of Punjab.

After the meet, as the Giani looked around, members lamented that they just could not afford a refrigerator on the measly membership fees that the grossly underpaid journalists paid out each year. So they had to make do with just an ice box which could hardly go very far in storing food and drinks. The Giani generously donated a refrigerator to the Press Club.

“I will go back to Chandigarh and have my bureaucrats send one to you from the chief minister’s relief fund,” he said.

However, he ran into trouble as soon as he had returned to his state. The chief secretary of Punjab put his foot down when the Giani asked him to dispatch the fridge forthwith. “The Punjab chief minister’s relief fund is only for the people of Punjab. You cannot donate from out of it to anyone in Maharashtra or anywhere else in the country,” the chief minister was told.

Now Gianiji had made a promise and he was not going back on his word to an expectant media in Bombay. He understood the truth of his chief secretary’s statement and knew he could not violate any norms that would go against the grain or the people of his own home state. I am told he brooded a while about how he could keep his promise without violating the laws of the land. The he came up with a brilliant idea that I thought only a Congressman could have done.

He called the secretary of the Press Club the next day and asked when the club might be holding its annual general meeting. When told that that was more than six months away, he asked the man to call an emergency general meeting within the week. To the flummoxed secretary, he explained his predicament and said, “I do want to donate that refrigerator to your club. But then there is this law. So I would be grateful if you call this meeting and pass a special resolution donating a four feet by six feet bit of space in one corner of your club where you might want to place your fridge — to the government of Punjab! Once you have sent me a copy of that resolution, I can send you the fridge without violating the law for I will then be donating to Punjab and not to Maharashtra. The bureaucrats will not then be able to raise objections; if they still do I can overrule them truthfully by reminding them that the fridge stands in a corner of Punjab and not Bombay!”

I am told the entire club was stupefied by the brilliance of the Giani’s idea. The meeting was called, the resolution was passed and up until very recently when the club was wholly overhauled and renovated, that corner belonged to the government of Punjab even as the Giani’s fridge became old and unusable and was replaced by a couple of newer models over the years. Though no fridge stands in that corner today, that four feet by six feet of space, by law, still belongs to the government of Punjab, I should think!

Now if Sukhbir Badal, the deputy chief minister of Punjab, was paying more attention to the files in his own secretariat, he might find a copy of this resolution and then might be able to donate the Rs 1 crore he has from the Punjab development funds to his school in Simla, in similar fashion, without much trouble. Though how a school in Himachal Pradesh might belong to Punjab, I do not know. What I do know is that parties in opposition to the Congress are far more innocent, straightforward (even if or when they violate the laws of the land) and get caught on the wrong side oftener than Congressmen ever do.

There is nothing that seems to faze the Congress and, while they may suffer electoral defeats, they plod on and recover, by fair means or foul, in better form than parties like the BJP or the Shiv Sena or some others across the country do. Sometimes their wily ways are good for the country – like when the Congress-NCP in Maharashtra drove the Enron power corporation out of business after the Sena-BJP government had sold out to the American company between 1995 and 1999. Other times, it can be very very bad, like the return of people under charges of corruption to various committees in parliament.

Giani Zail Singh’s wisdom and wily ways, though, remain unmatched. It kept journalists in Bombay cool, comfortable and slaked for years. Given the aggression of the opposition in Punjab, which has clearly caught him on the wrong foot, one might not be able to say the same of Sukhbir Badal and his alma mater, I guess!

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