Where have all the gentlemen gone...

RG and my team
An article in a leading weekly bought back memories long forgotten and if that was not enough to jog the memory hard another article did the needful: making me decide to share one part if my life I had chosen to keep to myself for my own reasons. But it seems to be open season as books are being published with gay abandon about the very years of India's history that I am about to write about. Some of you may know about what I could call my brush with the political world. Being an interpreter and conference administrator I was called to service conferences of all kind and thus came into contact with the establishment and for personalities. This is not meant to be my life story but let me simply say that a series of occurrences led me to via many conferences and even the Asian Games to be called upon one evening after the Congress had lost the 1989 elections by Rajiv Gandhi who requested I come to see him at Race Course Road asap. I think I was with him in less than an hour that included a drive from South Delhi and the lengthy security procedure. I had only met him briefly after the elections results and did not quite know what to say but he put me at ease, and with his charming smile told me he needed my help. I need to tell you that prior to this day, I had been engaged in making a data base of Congress workers with my team and hence I guess my administrative capabilities were known to him. Anyway he asked me to follow him and took me to a huge room that was filled from floor to veiling with unopened letters. The simply asked me if I would handle this. It was a challenge I could not refuse. The pile contained letters form Heads of State as well as from humble workers, Xmas and New year greetings as we were in December and much more.

I told him I would get back to him with a plan. Though I knew I would give my time pro bono, I also realised that I would need a team, computers and much more and thus would have to come up with a monthly budget. The next day I had some clear ideas and was all set to share them with RG, but was surprised to find a posse of politicians, some who today are big shots, waiting for me. They said they would be giving me instructions about how to manage the Congress President's (CP as everyone seem to love acronyms) correspondence. A red light started flashing in my mind. This is was bad news but anyway I would give them a patient hearing. It took me a minute to know that I would not do what they wanted as the first sentence they came up with was: you have to answer all letters written by senior Congressmen and then the coup de grace you will only answer letters written on good quality paper and never to answer nasty letters. I nodded as expected and was just waiting for a chance to leave these men and their ideas and storm into the CP's office and lay some ground rules.

RG must have known that there was something wrong as I entered his room. Being who I am I told him to find someone else for the task as the conditions his people had set were not acceptable. He asked me to calm down and tell him what happened. I explained that for me his correspondence was a unique occasion to build a PR exercise that would help him regain the trust of many and hence letters by Congressmen on beautiful paper was the lowest priority while the nasty letters were top priority! He smiled and said he agreed 100% and that it would be my way. I felt smug but also knew I had made a whole set of new enemies! I also knew that every letter would be answered no matter what.

We worked out a great system  were not only did we answer all letters but also initiated our own on festivals, birthdays etc. So imagine my surprise when I read an article entitled pre-paid connection that begins with these words: Namaskar! This is your MP speaking. I wish you a very happy birthday and apologise for not being able to attend your celebrations. But I will try to meet you the next time I visit the locality,” says a voice message by Election Awaaz, a Gurgaon-based political consultancy firm... â€œIf you are the voter who gets a personalised call like this, how would you feel? Wouldn't you vote for the MP?” asks J.P. Singh, founder of Election Awaaz. 

I guess this is how the hundreds of thousands of people from across the land felt when they got an unexpected letter from RG, more so those who had sent vitriolic letters and probably never expected then to be answered. I remember one person who wrote back saying something like: I still do not agree with your views but was consider you a true gentleman!

I guess my team and I were an avant garde political consultancy firm. Makes one feel quite good. Our task was herculean as we had to open thousands of letters each day, categorise them, read them and answer them. Our rudimentary computer and its floppy disk was a help but nothing compared to the software one has today. And then the letters had to be folded, put in an envelope, the envelope glued and then stamped and posted. No SEND button! It was a great learning experience particularly as one understood how political parties worked and how it was not for the likes of me.

In 1991 elections were called and I suggested that we write a nice and positive letter to everyone on our data base. I made a draft and submitted it for approval. Imagine my horror when my letter was rejected and a new draft sent to me which was arrogant and supercilious, the exact opposite of the image we had built over the months. I was up in arms again and sent a rather hard note to CP telling me that I would not be party to the draft he had sent and would resign if forced to do so as I could not do anything that I know would harm him. He sent me a short note stating: your draft OK! Sadly things did not turn out as we would have hoped.

So imagine my surprise again when I read these words in the article mentioned at the beginning of this post: In a new book out this week, My Years with Rajiv and Sonia, Rajiv Gandhi's aide, former Union home secretary R.D. Pradhan, quotes the late prime minister saying in 1991 that he did not want a negative campaign. His advisers Rajiv Desai, Sam Pitroda, Suman Dubey and Prannoy Roy wanted Rajiv Gandhi to be confrontational. Roy, writes Pradhan, wanted a campaign that would "shock and wake up" voters. Rajiv was adamant, and said no.

Hey that is my story! And I still stand by it.

Seeing what goes in the name of electioneering today makes me gag and run a mile. Where have all the gentlemen gone!