Saheb's Soviet misadventure

By Rajiv Shah
The “official” reason forwarded for not allowing scribes was, there was an intelligence input which said a terrorist might enter into the Sankul in the garb of a journalist.
However, circumstantial evidence suggested that the “ban” was imposed in the wake of the snoopgate which is rocking Modi’s image. CMO knew: Increasing number of scribes was keen to know what had happened and how, who that woman known to Modi was, why was “security” beefed up around her involving some top cops, and whether all this was done officially. Also under suspicion was suspended IAS officer Pradeep Sharma, who had introduced this woman to Modi. Many scribes know Sharma personally. Not that they could get any lead, but all the same, there were apprehensions.
The other day evening, I was chatting with a senior journalist-colleague in the Times of India, Ahmedabad. He wondered whether the short-lived ban smacked of what I had experienced in the former Soviet Union. “Don’t you remember, you told me once how, to enter into a Soviet building, the accreditation card was of no use and you were accompanied with a cop?” Indeed, the practice under the communist regime was similar to what Modi’s office was trying to experiment with. And the parallel was striking. Like in the Soviet government offices, in Gandhinagar Sachivalaya, too, on getting an appointment, a security guard was to accompany you to the office of the person with whom you had appointment. It was to ensure that you didn’t go astray.
My stint in Moscow as special correspondent of the pro-Soviet daily Patriot and weekly Link between 1986 and 1993 suggested how the Iron Curtain was imposed on all journalists alike, foreign and local. On reaching Moscow in January-end 1986, the first thing I was told by a Soviet Foreign Ministry official, whom I met for my accreditation card, was that the press office attached with the ministry was not meant to give information. “Out spokesperson is TASS (Telegraphic Agency of the Soviet Union). You will know whatever we want to tell you through TASS”, he told me. And what if I had queries? His cryptic reply was, “There is foreign ministry spokesperson who briefs media every Wednesday afternoon. You can direct your queries to him”.
In Gandhinagar, the information department does exactly that. A government spokesperson meets media only when Modi asks him to, generally every Wednesday afternoon, not otherwise. Ministers have long been asked not to utter a word. Former cabinet minister Jay Narayan Vyas, a government spokesperson till the last polls, in which he was defeated, would frankly tell reporters that he wouldn’t react on any subject till he was asked to. Bureaucrats – who used to be quite frank in late 1990s – are either tight-lipped or talk “off the record.” Apprehensions of snooping and stalking hang over their faces. Indeed, like TASS in the Soviet Union, the only ”government spokesperson” in Gujarat is the information department press note!
Of course, in the Soviet Union, there was a separate Soviet propaganda agency, Novosti, which helped one get appointments with government officials and academics – but all on its terms. Even such arrangement doesn’t exist in Gujarat. In fact, without Novosti support, approaching individual patrocrats, as they were known outside the Soviet Union, was virtually impossible. About a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I tried to directly meet a senior Communist party official in a central committee office, situated opposite the KGB headquarters. He was head of the India Desk of the ruling party. I think his name was Felix Yurlov. I approached the Novosti man, specially assigned to me for appointments, for a meeting. I wanted to know what the Soviet government thought of India in the era of perestroika and glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev.
It wasn’t easy to get appointment. “Why do you want to meet him? What purpose would it serve?”, I was asked. Finally, I managed the appointment and reached the sprawling gate of the central committee. Refusing to give a smile, the guard there looked at me carefully, saw my accreditation card, scanned through a list, phoned up to find out if there was an appointment, and finally, a militia man came to accompany me to meet the partocrat. Yurlov met me. He was quite warm when we exchanged pleasantries. But the moment I asked him questions about Soviet policies, he refused to take any of them. I was disappointed. Our meeting lasted for not more than 15 minutes.
Unlike now, I travelled a lot in the Soviet Union. Enamoured by VI Lenin, founder of the Soviet regime, I particularly visited the places where Lenin was imprisoned and exiled in eastern Siberia. It was easier for foreign journalists to travel. Yet, formalities had to be completed. Twenty-four hours before departing from Moscow, I must inform the Russian foreign office where I was to go and on which dates, where would I stay, and proceed. During my trip to eastern Siberia, a Novosti man accompanied me to help me out. I was shown a museum of Buddhism to showcase the great freedom of religion in the country. There, in my poor Russian, which I had picked up, I asked questions to the museum in charge about persecution of Buddhists. Someone overheard me, and began telling me what had happened. “This is not for what you are here”, the Novosti man told me, and I was whisked away.
In another incident, when I went to the small Caucasian province of Dagestan, I met well-known poet Rasul Gamzatov. A war veteran, I had read his poetry and was pretty impressed by his couplets. I wanted to do an interview. Tens of people had gathered at the place where the interview was arranged – only to listen to what Gamzatov said. One of my questions was whether he thought there was anything like Soviet poetry. The question was controversial, as the Communist ideologues believed, a new type of genre had developed called socialist realism, which eulogized socialism and communism. In the Soviet Union, it was “Soviet poetry” or “Soviet literature”, hiding the language in which a literary work was created.
Gamzatov was frank: “No there isn’t anything like Soviet poetry. There is Russian poetry, Avar (the language of Dagestan) poetry, Ukrainian poetry and so on. Poem always reflects the local milieu and belongs to the place where you live, and not to the entire country”, he declared. The interview was published, and Novosi which had arranged the meeting was terribly upset. “Our purpose has not been served. You asked Gamzatov a wrong question. Whatever he said answering your question has been published even in local media in Dagestan. This has damaged us”, I was told.
I don’t want to believe that India may slip into a similar regime. Yet, there are traits in the man being projected as the country’s Prime Ministerial candidate which indicate his love for things Soviet. He wants all panchayats in Gujarat to be unanimously elected, and has made a big thing out of it. He also wants compulsory voting – a bill on it awaits Gujarat governor sanction for quite some time. Both are traits of the former Soviet Union. Veteran Masood Ali Khan, CPI organ New Age correspondent in Moscow, who died in 2004, would make fun of both during informal talks. I met him during election time. “They have all been asked to vote. As always, there will be 99 per cent polling, and 99 per cent votes will go to the one and only Communist candidate”, he said, smiling.
The recent decision of the Gujarat chief minister’s office (CMO) to “bar” the entry of accredited journalists to enter the Swarnim Sankul – the swanky complex built to house Narendra Modi’s office and of his Cabinet colleagues – wasn’t surprising. Only those journalists who had prior appointment or were “invited” by officials sitting inside had to be allowed in. The decision was implemented for about a week, but was lifted because, to quote a Modi aide, it was imposed because of a “misunderstanding.” While the aide didn’t explain what this “misunderstanding” was, it left me wondering whether it reflected the suspicious character of the man who has come to known as “Saheb”.