Prabhash Joshi (1937-2009): The doyen of Indian journalism
"Sriman, Aapne Devi Lal aur V P Singh ko lagta hai bahut naraz kar diya (Mr, it looks you have annoyed Devi Lal and V P Singh)," Prabhash Joshi asked me the moment he got down from his car.
"So Sir, it looks you you have also got to know about it," I replied. "Know about it, you bet, they had wanted you to be sacked," Mr Joshi dropped the bomb. Putting his arm around my shoulder, he then took me inside, and narrated the entire story. I was then the State Correspondent for the Indian Express, based at Shimla in Himachal Pradesh.
Only a few days back, Mr V P Singh, Mr Devi Lal and Mr Ajit Singh, the trio contesting against Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989 general elections, had come to Himachal Pradesh to campaign. After the public rally held at Kufri, a little beyond Shimla, the three leaders sat down for a press conference at the Wild Flower Hall. It was there that V P Singh blamed Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, for using the official machinery in elections.
"Mr Singh," I asked, and added: "You came today in the the official beechcraft aeroplane of the Haryana government, so please tell me who will pay the bill." Before V P Singh could reply, Devi Lal, the then Chief Minister of Haryana, blurted out: Bhai, Devi Lal will pay the bill."
"Will Devi Lal pay the bill or the Haryana government," I asked. "You should know," he said in chaste Haryanavi, adding: "Devi Lal means the Haryana Government." I tried to correct him telling him that Haryana government meant the people of Haryana, and Devi Lal means he himself. Mr V P Singh intervened explaining that it becomes absolutely necessary for a chief minister to use his aeroplane otherwise by the time he returns back, the files on the table would touch the ceiling.
"Exactly, Mr Singh, this is what I want to convey. It is for the same reason that Rajiv Gandhi is also using the official machinery," I replied. Mr Singh then walked upto me, took me aside, and asked me which newspaper I represented. I knew my question was politically incorrect, and was not surprised to find even the journalists in the hall trying to avoid me, lest they be associated with me.
The next two days, Mr Prabhash Joshi said, both Mr Devi Lal and V P Singh had frantically tried to reach the editors of Indian Express, asking them to sack me. It was by sheer chance that when Devi Lal tried to reach the newspaper's owner Ram Nath Goenka in Mumbai, the call was put through to Mr Prabhash Joshi, who happened to be in the pent house of the Indian Express towers in Mumbai.
"Devi Lal must have called me at least ten times during the day. Every time, he wanted to know what action have we taken against you." I was listening to him very attentively. "Finally, in the evening I told Devi Lal that we have heard his complaint, and decided to file it," added Mr Joshi. This surely infuriated both Mr Devi Lal and Mr V P Singh, who finally did reach Mr Ram Nath Goenka, but in vain.
Mr V P Singh became Prime Minister after the elections, and Mr Devi Lal the Deputy Prime Minister.
Prabhash Joshi is no more today. He succumbed to a heart attack soon after India lost to Australia in the thrilling one-dayer at Hyderabad on the night of Nov 5. While the nation lost one of its doyen's of journalism, some rightly rate him as the bhisham-pitamah of Hindi journalism, to me it is a great personal loss. He was like an elder brother to me, always prodding and supporting my initiatives. I am very fortunate to have featured in his columns/writings and in his speeches.
He was not only a great journalist, the likes of which we may not see again, but was a also a great social reformer and activist. Even at a stage in his life when his health (he had already undergone a bypass surgery) would not allow him to take so much of physical stress, he was extensively travelling, mostly to mofussil towns and villages speaking about the economic injustice being perpetuated through the process of globalisation. It was in fact difficult for me to keep pace with his travels.
I once told him that you beat me in travelling. He would laugh it off, and once came up with a light remark: Who can beat you Mr Devinder Sharma. I am only trying to take your message to the masses. And I want to do it, before they beat me in this race"
And as Neerja Chowdhury writes in her obituary piece today in Times of India: "As he moved around in recent months, speaking in city after city, he would say, half in jest: It is because I move from Pune to Surat to Bhopal, I am able to elude the 'asli sipahis' (real soldiers) of Yamraj 'jo mujhe pakar nahin pa rahe hain' (who are unable get me)." On Thursday night, they finally got him.
From the obscure villages to the Prime Minister's house, was his reach. I don't think any journalist or activist or educationist can ever think of such a wide reach across the horizon. In fact, those who campaign in Geneva or Brussels or Washington DC do not know that if it was not for Prabhash Joshi, India would have thrown in the gloves in the multi-lateral trade negotiations much ago. Prabhash Joshi did not understand the nitty-gritty of the negotiations but used his skills and ability to bring people who matter onto a single platform, and influence policy decisions.
Just prior to the WTO Ministerial conference in Seattle in 1999, one day I called up Mr Prabhash Joshi. I told him that India is unlikely to stand up to the US pressure in the forthcoming talks, and my hunch is that India will buckle and sign on the dotted line. In fact, the position paper that India has prepared and submitted to WTO is very weak, and it looks India will sacrifice the livelihood of its 600 million farmers. Prabhash Joshi understood the urgency, and was equally concerned.
He said let us talk to the ex-Prime Minister Chandrashekhar. We both went to him, and I explained to late Mr Chandrashekhar the threats ahead. We pondered over the issue, and then finally Mr Prabhash Joshi suggested that let Mr Chandrashekhar organise a dinner at his place for all the big wigs in politics, and let us invite Dr M S Swaminathan to come and explain the threats to Indian agriculture. Chandrashekhar agreed, and we then got a suitable date from Dr Swaminathan.
A few days later, the dinner happened at Chandrashekhar's place. Among those present included former Prime Ministers V P Singh, H D Deve Gowda, Inder Gujral, and a galaxy of politicians including the then Agriculture Minister Nitish Kumar, and also Sharad Pawar. Nitish Kumar was so preturbed after listening to me and Dr Swaminathan, that immediately thereafter he called the Agriculture Secretary to prepare a presentation for this group.
Sharad Pawar (the present Food & Agriculture Minister) offered to host another dinner the next evening, and also promised to bring some more senior politicians from across the political spectrum, so as to understand and take a collective decision. Every one agreed, and Dr Swaminathan also extended his stay in Delhi.
The next evening we met at Sharad Pawar's residence. The Agriculture Secretary made a power-point presentation. Believe me, it appeared very clearly that our decision makers were actually not aware of the ground realities, not aware of what was being negotiated on our behalf at WTO. I remember Mr V P Singh and Mr Chandrashekhar asking me several times as to what the particular statement like the subsidies to the US farmers would mean for Indian farmers, and so on. As far as I can remember, Sharad Pawar for instance was absolutely convinced after the meeting that WTO was harmful for Indian agriculture.
It was then decided to set up a small committee, which would include V P Singh and Chandrashekhar, to go and meet the then Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee. This happened, and we know India's position before the WTO underwent a dramatic change. Several years later, Prabhash Joshi was instrumental in initiating another similar high-level political meeting before the Cancun Ministerial.
Only a few days back, I had discussed the possibility of holding a similar all-party political dialogue on the agrarian crisis and farmer suicides, including the dangers of GM food crops and corporate agriculture. With both Chandrashekar and V P Singh no more with us, Prabhash Joshi suggested that this time we could involve the respected former Lok Sabha Speaker Mr Somnath Chatterjee. Now with Prabhash Joshi also departing, I am not sure whether I would be ever able to influence political thinking the way he could.
Prabhash Joshi was the hero in journalism, but remained an unsung hero of the movement against globalisation, was always for economics to borrow the phrase from E F Schumacher (who had a strong influence on him), 'as if people mattered.' He has left an unfinished task for me and my colleagues. He has taught me to stand up for the poor and impoverished. He has taught me to never be in the awe of big names and personalities, to stand up for truth and have faith in people. I assure you Mr Joshi, I will stand upto your aspirations and dreams. You have given me the confidence to say: Yes, I can.