Rajiv Gandhi: He was made for Television but DD not made for him

Rajiv Gandhi played major role in expanding television network in India. While critics began calling DD as Rajiv Darshan, one wonders how he would have fared in age of social media and pvt TV channels

Rajiv Gandhi: He was made for Television but DD not made for him

Mrinal Pande

He took over as Prime Minister following his mother’s tragic assassination in November 1984 and his first appearance on Doordarshan was reportedly watched by some 60 million Indians. There was no TV channel other than DD at the time and very few Indians had access to TV. But Rajiv Gandhi, then just 40 years old, was telegenic. He was calm, composed, dignified and was a hit on TV.

A few months later in 1985, my request to interview the new Prime Minister was accepted. I was then a new entrant into the Times of India Group, (inducted in 1983) and tasked with launching their first Hindi women’s magazine, Vama.

I had been mentored by two wise and crusty women, Pupul Jayakar, the grand patron of art and culture and Kapila Vatsyayan, a great scholar. Both women had broken the glass ceiling and reached the pinnacle of their respective fields and were path breakers. Both of them encouraged me to be bold and badger the PMO for the interview. And I did. Finally, the date was set for 26th February at the DD studios.

I then met with Rajiv’s media advisors and DD officials to finalise the format. I pushed for a panel of women from the same age group, who had excelled in various fields, interviewing Rajiv Gandhi on areas dear to them but seldom debated on TV like education, the importance of India’s informal sector, our dreams for the 21st century and women’s place in it.

After some hesitation, it was decided that it was a workable idea and I should anchor the show. I was gently advised to ensure that the interaction did not descend into cacophony.

On the set day, five women from academe (Dr Karuna Chanana an eminent social scientist and Susheela K. an economist), the arts (Sonal Mansingh) and NGOs working on maternal and child development (Razia Ishmael, UNICEF) interacted with the Prime Minister for DD.

The interview, which was scheduled for 20 minutes, stretched to 45 minutes of extremely pleasant and relaxed conversation and exchange of views. It was anything but dull and predictable. The participants had strong views on the shocking state of Indian women revealed by the 1975 national report on women, Towards Equality. Also, the invisibility of 90% of India’s women in the informal sector whose plight and rights remained unseen and unaddressed.

The Prime Minister turned out to be a good listener and his answers were sincere and logically well thought out. He agreed with the concerns and assured that his government would try to tackle them one by one. He himself was a strong supporter of women’s rights, especially at the grassroots level, he added. Rajiv Gandhi, handsome with an easy smile, confident and a great conversationalist in both English and Hindi, charmed his interlocutors and viewers alike.

After the interview was over, Rajiv warmly thanked each participant and with the telecast of that interview, old fuddy duddy DD turned what Marshal McLuhan described, a ‘cool’ medium. There were the usual snide comments on the obsessively women-centric format and Rajiv’s charisma getting the better of critics. But it was generally well received. Even a fearsome dragon-like critic Amita Malik commented that the interview had the quality of a comfortable fireside chat, rarely seen on DD.

In the next three years Rajiv Gandhi’s government went on to initiate many reforms like 33% reservation for women in Panchayats and
stepped up research and data collection on the state of India’s women
and commissioned the first national report on women in the informal
sector (Shram Shakti) that were fed into a clear National Perspective Plan for women.

Years later, while chairing Prasar Bharati, India’s public broadcaster with jurisdiction over both AIR and DD, I requested that the original tape of the interaction be dug out from DD’s vast but disorganised archives and digitized before it was too late.

I was eventually told that the tape was unavailable. It had possibly been erased inadvertently and used for another recording by a perennially tape-starved DD.

That, as they say, was that!

(Mrinal Pande is Group Editorial Advisor, National Herald)

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