As Sharad Pawar emerged from his Lutyens bungalow in New Delhi and ran his eyes round the posse of journalists gathered in his garden, some with cameras, I saw his face light up as he spotted me standing rather forlornly to one side of the crowd.
He greeted me like a long-lost friend, even as other journalists jumped around to glare at the stranger in their midst who he bundled away to the outhouse where his office was situated.
They had been waiting there for hours for a quote from him and here was this unknown who had been granted an audience so instantly. I could feel their eyes boring into my back and their bristling got my own hair to stand on end.
Inside his office, I had to wait a long time before Pawar finished with his business and before I was ushered into his presence. I had never had Pawar this generous to me before and he indulged me in small talk before asking what had brought me to Delhi and to his home particularly.
It was the decade of the 1990s and Congress president Sitaram Kesri had just pulled the carpet from under then prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda. Everyone was expecting Pawar to split the Congress again and help reinstate Deve Gowda but he was speaking to no one in Delhi. That is when my editor decided to fly me to the national capital to see if I had better luck with Pawar.
Now it seemed I did not even have to ask, Pawar was quite forthcoming even before I started to shoot the questions.
I had a great story and the national headlines but that did not endear me to anyone even in my own newsroom. That is when I discovered the difference between the media in Mumbai and those in Delhi and why Pawar had found it more comfortable to speak to me rather than any of the celebrity journalists in his garden.
At the time, under the influence of my then editor, I was seriously considering moving my base as a journalist to New Delhi. He wanted to ease me into the capital city so I worked long stretches in Delhi, sometimes weeks, at others of a month or two, before returning to Mumbai.
But soon I began to feel constricted by the close, parasitic relationship between politicians and journalists in Delhi and savoured the independence of Mumbai media more.
For journalists attached to various beats in New Delhi were almost possessive of the political parties and leaders they interacted with.
In that almost incestuous relationship, there was no room for an outsider like me – they were ready to gouge my eyes out if any of their politicians gave me an exclusive or better quotes. That is what happened when Pawar told me he would stay a loyal Congressman and Kesri would have to take his chances. He would not be raiding any party to make up the numbers for Kesri or anybody else.
“Kesri is in his eighties. I still have at least 20 years to go in active politics. Why should I jeopardise my career for his foolishness?” he asked.
I was stunned for Pawar would not have been as forthcoming in Mumbai. But I could see he was extremely uncomfortable with the Delhi journalists who were forever advising the politicians and telling them how to run their parties and governments, something that would not be countenanced in Mumbai and journalists wouldn’t even dare attempt.
The Delhi politicians played along and I was never sure whether they were indulging the beat reporters or were being actually manipulated by them.
For in Mumbai, there were no such nexuses.
The relationship between politicians and journalists was strictly professional and source based. Pawar never really took to Delhi. Neither did I. However, given his national ambitions he had no choice. I cut my losses and returned to Mumbai, unable to deal with the cut throat competition in political circles in Delhi.
However, a little over five years ago, I began to realise how insidious the relationship between journalists and politicians had gotten when I tweeted a meme sent to me on WhatsApp from a source in Gujarat comparing the number of people Ajmal Kasab had shot down in Mumbai to those killed on Modi’s watch in Gujarat (which was more than Kasab’s tally). “Yet Kasab is hanged and Modi is rewarded,” it said.
I didn’t think much of the trolling and abuse I got on Twitter for that post until one of the top editors from Delhi called me to ask what I had posted. Apparently, Jaitley had called him to raise objections about the post and wanted it deleted.
I told my colleague then that my Twitter handle was personal and that in any case the meme was viral on WhatsApp. He called back to ask the source and I told him it was a BJP man from Gujarat. But when he called again to ask me to name the man, I evoked the right to safeguard the identity of my sources even on social media.
I could see my colleague was highly embarrassed but I also understood the pressure he was under from Jaitley. I had heard that Jaitley was influencing most political journalists in Delhi and was being sarcastically referred to as the Bureau Chief of all media outlets in Delhi.
Jaitley’s demand, I thought, was an attempt to extend his influence to journalists in other cities but then perhaps he thought the better of it and at least I heard no more from him or anybody else in my organisation.
After his passing away, the cringeworthy tweets by several journalists, some describing him as their guiding star and mentor still surprised me somewhat. A politician could be a source you might be in touch with every day and I can even understand that he might plant reports on you against rivals in his party (like Jaitley did about Sushma Swaraj and her episode with Lalit Modi) or against other parties as he routinely targeted the Congress whether in opposition or in government.
But how can a politician be a journalist’s mentor? That tweet by a television journalist got the politicians in Mumbai ruefully acknowledging that no matter how hard they tried, they could never influence journalists in the manner that Jaitley had done.
Because Mumbai's journalists consciously hold a distance from politicians even if they are ideologically on the same side. Jaitley did change the course of the media and by extension the country. He, however, cannot be blamed entirely for that but both he and the Delhi media have greatly harmed the country.