For several of us doing political reporting in the eighties and the nineties, one of the things we looked forward to were the political discussions we could have with people like Nikhil Chakravartty and Madhu Limaye. Both kept open houses and we could walk into their home in the evening, often without appointment, and chat about the latest political development. Often we would try and decode the latest political googly by one or another player. Besides giving a new angle or new insights into what was happening on Raisina Hill, these discussions used to be intellectually stimulating.
One could be reasonably certain of finding Nikhil Chakravartty at 5 pm at his 35, Kaka Nagar flat, where he lived for years. My memory of him is sitting in an easy chair, reading one of the papers and magazines that used to lie around his chair, with a tray of tea before him and he would ask you to share it with him. Sometimes he would ask for pakoras to be made, if it was a rainy day.
I got to know Nikhilda, as he was universally known, in the early nineties during the premiership of P.V. Narasimha Rao. Since I was writing on the Congress party and the Prime Minister’s Office for The Indian Express, I used to welcome talking to him to make sense of Narasimha Rao’s moves —he was often referred to by journalists as “Pout” because of his famous pout— and his “management of contradictions”.
Nikhilda knew “PV” very well. They had been friends. Nikhilda was known to see him for chats that lasted “an hour or two” even when PV was the Prime Minister.
Their friends knew that during the 1975-77 Emergency, PV used to write against the Emergency, under a pen name in Mainstream that Nikhilda edited. Nikhil Chakravartty had started the magazine in 1962 as a forum for public debate on political and social issues
Nikhilda scented trends before they became visible. He also knew juicy anecdotes about who was “in” and who was “out” in the top echelons of power. For instance, he suggested to me that I should get to know Rajesh Pilot, who PV liked as a go getting politician, and who he was planning to promote. PV brought Rajesh Pilot in the Home Ministry as the Minister for Internal Security as a counter to the more staid S.B. Chavan who had been appointed the Home Minister. Chavan had been a childhood friend of PV, and PV could not bring himself to drop him, but he obviously wanted to checkmate him on several issues. It was for nothing that Narasimha Rao was referred to as modern-day Chanakya and he did not let his left hand know what his right hand was doing.
Nikhilda could hold forth on a variety of subjects, be it the structural adjustments that were taking place after the opening up of the economy, ecological degradation, the dismal state of civil rights in many parts of the country, or Indo-Pak relations. But he was also a very good listener and his copy very readable. He always preferred to call himself a reporter.
Once I had gone to see a Minister in Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet and Nikhilda was also there. We heard about PV’s crucial trip to the US in 1994 when he had met Bill Clinton. I was impatient to get information for a story. When we came out together, he told me gently, you invariably get more information if you don’t interrupt the flow of information by asking too many questions, but by just giving gentle prods to keep the flow going.
Nikhilda always had time for his younger journalist colleagues and encouraged them. The first issue of the magazine Outlook created a raging controversy because it carried a story on the romantic novel “Insider” by Narasimha Rao. PV had given a manuscript of his novel to Nikhil Chakravartty for his comments.
Sagarika Ghose had managed to get the manuscript and gave a romantic spin to her article. It made for a crack story to write about a love story written by the Prime Minister of India. PV suspected that Nikhilda had “leaked” the manuscript. It is possible that Nikhilda may have felt, in all good faith, that PV being a person of literary sensibilities, the publication of a story on the “Insider” might invite welcome comments on it. In any case the manuscript was going to be published.
The PV-Nikhilda relationship survived the “Insider” episode, though PV used to say to some of his colleagues that a “friend could be a journalist but a journalist could not be a friend”.
Though a friend of PV’s, Nikhilda would not spare him in his writings. PV’s ministerial colleagues, who knew Nikhilda well, would urge him not to criticise PV “too much in public”. “You meet him for hours, you can always pass on your criticism to him in private,” they would say. But Nikhilda would say, ”He (the PM) takes a public stand. I as a journalist also have to take a public stand in criticising him.”
Nikhilda has been lauded by his contemporaries as a communist, socialist, historian, author, teacher, human rights activist. But he was a journalist before he was anything else, and one who would not be boxed in. He was fearless in his criticism and commentaries on current affairs, and political personalities, many of whom he knew well and had easy access to. They took criticism from him because of the dispassionate manner in which he wrote—he had no personal axe to grind— and because of the respect he commanded.
For many he was an icon for the stand he took during the Emergency, when he had refused to be cowed down. When his editorials were censored, he would leave the page blank, and when that was disallowed, he suspended publication of Mainstream for a spell.
PV offered him a Rajya Sabha nomination. But he said ‘no’ to it. Had he wanted, he could have entered politics even earlier, since his wife Renu Roy, who became an MP in 1952, was related to B.C. Roy.
The announcement of the Padma awards was held up for 48 hours in 1990 because Nikhilda, who had been named for a Padma Bhushan, was abroad, and could not be contacted. But he said ‘no’ to that also. He believed that journalists should not be identified with the ruling establishment, if they had to remain impartial.
He knew many powerful people well, but he belonged to that breed of journalists who did not use journalism for making money, or for getting into politics, or for furthering their publication’s commercial interests. If that meant bringing out Mainstream on a shoe-string budget, with money from advertisers who were his well-wishers, he was satisfied with that. And yet such was the respect he commanded that he was on all the committees that had anything to do with the media—Press Commission, Press Council, Editors’ Guild, Namedia. It was hardly surprising that he was the most natural choice to head the Prasar Bharati Board established as an autonomous public broadcaster.
In the last ten years since his death, the media scene, which is in some way reminiscent of the “gold rush”, has changed dramatically. So has our politics. With new and complex challenges thrown up from the government and the market forces, Nikhil Chakravartty is missed today. But the trouble is they don’t make them like that any more.