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The day Rajiv sacked me
Bhaskar Ghose
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October 13, 2005

Doordarshan Days

Have you read the Introduction to the series?

Have you read Part I: The prime minister and the fly

Have you read Part II: When Rajiv was attacked

Read on for former Doordarshan Director General Bhaskar Ghose's startling account of his encounters with India's then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

In this extract from his hilarious memoir Doordarshan Days, Ghose recalls the circumstances of his departure from Doordarshan:

Girish Mehra left the information and broadcasting ministry about a year and a half after I joined. He was moved to the ministry of heavy industry, from where he retired, and then became high commissioner to Canada [Images] for some years. His place (as secretary) in the ministry was taken by Gopi Arora, who was -- and continued to be -- a key figure in the prime minister's office.

I had known Gopi earlier so I found it very easy working with him, but there was a world of difference between him and Mehra. Gopi wanted to know great deal about how matters were handled in Doordarshan and discussed virtually every aspect of it. But these discussions were in no way a laying down of instructions on how to do things; they always remained mere discussions. Out of these emerged some new and better ways of handling matters, but they were never thrust upon us.

I have wondered, occasionally, just what role Gopi played in my removal from Doordarshan. He became information and broadcasting secretary when Rajiv Gandhi was politically vulnerable. One would have thought that at a time like that he would have kept his closest advisers near him; why then did he send Gopi to I&B (information and broadcasting ministry)?

I knew that Gopi continued to do some work for the prime minister's office but I hadn't the faintest idea what it was. Gopi had some personal staff from the prime minister's office and handled some files from there with their help, never using the personal staff he had been given from the I&B ministry.

It was after he came to the ministry that the chorus of resentment at the way I was handling Doordarshan, headed by the redoubtable Ajit Panja (then minister of information and broadcasting) and ably supported by other MPs from West Bengal, became more and more vociferous. Not that Gopi was responsible for any of that -- he was the one person who kept reassuring me that it was the sort of thing one had to live with, and advised me to go about my work without giving it too much thought. I am just putting together certain events here that occurred around a particular time, like stars that move into a certain zodiac sign or 'house'.

However, while I trusted Gopi greatly and sought his advice on much of what I did, I always felt there was an area which he kept within himself, a sort of secret place where all kinds of facts and developments were stored, something that made him appear just a little reserved, preoccupied, sometimes abstracted. It made me wonder just what he was so preoccupied with.

He told me a strange story long after we had both left the government. Apparently at one time Rajiv had actually wanted to dismiss me from the Indian Administrative Service when the chorus against me was at its most shrill, and had said as much to Gopi, who was aghast.

He informed Rajiv that he couldn't dismiss an IAS officer unless there were very good grounds and only after a high-level inquiry had been conducted into the misdemeanours, and there were none, he pointed out, as far as I was concerned. According to Gopi, the prime minister persisted, and Gopi told him if he did issue dismissal orders I would go to court.

'Let him go to court,' Rajiv is supposed to have said. 'We'll face him there.'

Gopi put his foot down and told the PM that even if such orders were issued, he would not carry them out. Rajiv expressed some surprise at that, but Gopi vehemently repeated that he would not carry out orders that were blatantly wrong.

All of a sudden, Gopi recounted, Rajiv's position on the matter changed right then. He was known for doing that -- he would pursue one line of thinking and then suddenly change to something diametrically opposite.

'All right,' he told Gopi, 'you don't have to get so excited about it. We'll just transfer him from there.'

This is what Gopi has told me and I have only his word for it. If Rajiv had indeed said it, it must have been to Gopi alone. At the same time, however, I simply cannot believe that Rajiv was deceitful.

Shortly before I was moved out, I met him one last time in his room in Parliament. I had accompanied the visiting DG of Syrian television, an event shot by the Syrian television crew accompanying their DG. The formalities were over, and I was leaving, when Rajiv called me back.

"Bhaskar," he said, "just stay on a minute."

Rajiv personally went to the door that led to the main corridor of the Parliament building and locked it.

"What's all this I hear about your being anti-Congress?"  he asked.

"Anti-Congress, sir?"  I said, completely surprised. "I'm not anti-Congress or anti or pro any party."

"That's what I thought," Rajiv said. "But all these Bengal MPs in the Congress are saying your news is slanted against the Congress. They say you're Jyoti Basu's (then chief minister of West Bengal) man." He laughed in that very contagious way he had.

"I'm only doing what you told me to do when I joined, sir," I said. " I've been trying to keep the news objective and credible."

He nodded. "I know. I watch the bulletins."

Then he came up to me and put an arm around my shoulder. "Look, Bhaskar. You're doing a fine job. Just keep it up. But be a little careful. There are some people who don't wish you well. Go on doing what you're doing, and remember," he smiled disarmingly, "I'm always there."

There was a knock on the inner door, and Sheila Dikshit, then minister in the prime minister's office, B G Deshmukh, the cabinet secretary, and Serla Grewal, principal secretary to the PM, came in.

Seeing me there they froze and their faces darkened. I knew it was time for me to leave. I made a discreet exit. I also knew that I was going to feature in their discussions with him, but I nevertheless felt that I had Rajiv's unqualified support and he understood that all the complaints were trumped up. It seems to me quite unbelievable that the same Rajiv, who was so encouraging then, could have told Gopi that he wanted to dismiss me from the IAS.

And then, one Sunday afternoon in October 1988, I got a call at home from Gopi. Gopi worked on Sundays; come to think of it I never have found out when he didn't work. He asked me to come and see him in his office. I asked if I could see him on Monday, as I had some guests over for lunch, who had already arrived. No, he said, I was to see him immediately. I excused myself and went to Shastri Bhavan (in New Delhi).

"Bhaskar," Gopi said, "I have some bad news. You have to handover as DG of Doordarshan."

I looked at him blankly. It didn't register for a time. All I could think to say was, "But today is Sunday."

"All right, hand over on Monday." Then he stopped and added, "Bhaskar, I am really very sorry. I tried hard to stop it, but I am afraid I couldn't."

"Where are they sending me?

"That's it, you see," he said almost angrily. "I told them, at least give him a good posting. He's more than deserved it. But they wouldn't listen to that either. They're sending you to the department of culture as additional secretary. There's not enough work for a secretary but they've created a post for you there."

I got up, picked up the transfer order and left.

There was really nothing to say.

"Oh, Bhaskar," Gopi called after me, "see Serla Grewal. She's very anxious to see you."

I drove almost mechanically to her house, parked the car and went inside.

"You see, beta," Grewal told me anxiously, "the PM is very keen to have a really good officer in culture. He feels it's being neglected badly, and he wants you to revive it."

To order Doordarshan Days online click here

Excerpted with the publisher's permission from Doordarshan Days by Bhaskar Ghose, Penguin Books India, Rs 395.

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