‘You go to meet the prime minister and all you can talk about is my bluddy swimming pool?’

Vir Sanghvi Updated on August 01, 2021
Vir Sanghvi

When prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was lectured on free market economics, and cornered about the luxury addition in Satish Sharma’s farmhouse

* Before we went, Aveek [Sarkar] told me he wanted to make it hard-hitting

* For about twenty minutes, while I watched in horrified fascination, the prime minister of India was Aveek Sarkared and could barely get a word in

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* Rajiv now felt obliged to defend Satish. And yet he did not want to deviate from the bantering tone of his interview. So he decided to take the question head on.

****

By 1988, Sunday was once again a major player on the political scene. We were no India Today but we had the clout to be taken seriously by politicians and access was no longer a problem.

Our interview with Rajiv Gandhi, the first that Sunday had got since early 1985, and the first that Rajiv had given in a while to any publication, came about partly as a consequence of our enhanced stature and partly because of Aveek’s relationship with G. Parthasarathy, who was now looking after media relations in the PMO.

Before we went, Aveek told me he wanted to make it hard-hitting. He was particularly interested in economic issues and wanted Rajiv to clarify whether he was a reformer at heart. I was more interested in the politics so this was fine with me.

Rajiv met us in the Cabinet Room at 7 Race Course Road, the official part of the prime minister’s house. (The residence was at number 5.) He was friendly and welcoming and eager to explain himself. So he answered every single question candidly even when it might have served him better to be a little more circumspect. Early in the interview, I recognized that this was a key weakness in his style (from his perspective, not ours).

Most prime ministers speak from an elevated pedestal. Usually interviewers are too intimidated to ask awkward or rude questions. When they do cross some invisible line, the prime minister answers the question but you sense that he is not pleased. So, overall you can rarely squeeze more than two or three rude questions into an interview.

Rajiv, on the other hand, liked to banter. He treated interviewers as equals and enjoyed the back and forth of a lively conversation. This made him more likeable but it also made him more prone to gaffes.

This was particularly evident when we came to his friend and aide Satish Sharma. Satish had been a pilot at Indian Airlines and had flown with Rajiv. He had begun to get involved in Rajiv’s politics even when Mrs Gandhi was alive but had only come into his own during the second half of Rajiv’s prime ministership.

He was a shadowy figure and most people did not know that he even occupied a small hut in the Race Course Road complex that he used as an office. But among those in the know he was regarded as one of the country’s most powerful people. Industrialists would line up in the waiting room of his hut and ministers would stand to attention when he called.

Sharma’s importance stemmed from his closeness to Rajiv and while this should have made Rajiv hold him accountable it actually had the opposite effect. Rajiv took the line that Satish had given up so much to help him and was overly protective of him.

A Rude Life: The Memoir / Vir Sanghvi / Penguin Random House / Non-fiction / ₹ 699

 

Sharma had hit the news after a paper reported that he had imported marble tiles for a swimming pool at his farmhouse in Mehrauli. I had gone to see him at his little hut shortly after the controversy broke and he offered an elaborate defence. His wife was Dutch, he said. Her father, who was well off, had gifted them the tiles. What was the big deal?

So when I started asking Rajiv about Satish Sharma and his marble tiles, I knew what the party line would be. Once Rajiv had finished telling us about Satish’s father-in-law, I asked what I regarded as the key question.

Satish Sharma did not come from a rich family. He had never got much further than being a pilot in Indian Airlines. How did he have the money to afford a large farmhouse in Mehrauli with a huge swimming pool?

Rajiv was not expecting that one. And I guess, at some level, he had no answer. A politician would have said something like ‘I don’t know. You will have to ask Satish about his financial affairs. I can hardly speak for him.’ That would have killed the conversation.

But Rajiv now felt obliged to defend Satish. And yet he did not want to deviate from the bantering tone of his interview. So he decided to take the question head on.

Well, look at us, he said. When I was a pilot, we saved and saved and built a small farmhouse in Mehrauli.

Yes, I said, but Satish Sharma’s farmhouse was much larger than his. Could he think of many Indian Airlines pilots who had such luxurious farmhouses?

Rajiv said that, like him, pilots did indeed have farmhouses.

And did they, I continued, all have large swimming pools? Was this something all Indian Airlines pilots could afford?

Yes, said Rajiv stolidly. They have them.

This was demonstrably untrue and when the interview appeared, Indian Airlines pilot organizations, who were always asking for pay rises, put out statements saying how badly off they were. None of them could afford large farmhouses, let alone swimming pools.

Aveek then took over for the economic portion of the interview, a dangerous area for Rajiv because he had to defend the policies he had inherited from his mother while controlling his own more free-market instincts.

Still, he kept up the friendly tone. What he didn’t realize was that when it came to subjects like free market economics, Aveek Sarkar did not banter with his friends. He lectured them.

So for about twenty minutes, while I watched in horrified fascination, the prime minister of India was Aveek Sarkared and could barely get a word in. At one stage, when poor Rajiv tried to expand on his position, Aveek interrupted magisterially to tell him why he was completely wrong.

I can’t think of any other prime minister of India, before or after Rajiv, who would have tolerated this kind of behaviour from two journalists. But then, that was both Rajiv’s strength and his weakness.

We went back to Calcutta to transcribe the interview only for Aveek to get a call from Parthasarthy, who had sat through the interview glumly. Could he come and see us in Calcutta?

Absolutely, said Aveek. He could even stay at his house.

So, Partha (as he is known) flew down, stayed with Aveek and then had dinner with Aveek and myself at Aveek’s home.

There were one or two small things in the interview, he said, that the prime minister had said, that may have given the wrong impression. Could he amend the transcript a little?

I waited for him to mention the swimming pools. But no, he was concerned with one or two foreign and economic policy issues. Aveek listened patiently, offered him some very good wine and made it clear that he would not amend the transcript in any way.

It says something about those times that the conversation was conducted with no acrimony and with great cordiality. Partha was obviously disappointed that Aveek would not agree to any changes but he respected Sunday’s position. It made no difference to his relationship with Aveek.

The interview appeared. It was a big deal: the lead story in every newspaper. The swimming pool dominated political conversation for days and we were (justifiably, I think) very pleased with ourselves.

Rajiv never held it against us. When I interviewed him during his spell out of power, he even joked about it. (‘You think you are going to get me to talk about swimming pools,’ he laughed.) Satish Sharma was not pleased. I met him in Goa a few months later and he said: ‘What kind of journalist are you? You go to meet the prime minister and all you can talk about is my bluddy swimming pool?’

(Excerpted with permission from ‘A Rude Life: The Memoir’ by Vir Sanghvi published by Penguin Random House)

Published on August 01, 2021
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