Travelling with a CM and his cash in election time

First Print 18 November 2018


Pandit Shyama Charan Shukla was tall. And not only physically. He was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh thrice. He cared for the state and was passionate about irrigation schemes, which he knew better than any engineer. Apart from Shivraj Singh Chouhan, he was the only chief minister of MP who would talk constantly about its development.

His father was MP’s first chief minister, Ravi Shankar Shukla, and younger brother VC Shukla was a star of Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. He was also one of the most transparent politicians I have met. We got on well, may be due to some of my reporting that did not put Arjun Singh, another politician from MP and his bête noir, in favourable light.

Ahead of the 1990 assembly election I landed in Raipur for covering the poll campaign for the magazine I worked for then, India Today. I talked to Shukla and he graciously agreed to take me with him in the chopper that the Congress party had hired for him as one of its key campaigners.

Laden with flasks of tea and boxes of savoury, we took off early one morning on the campaign trail of Chhattisgarh region, then part of united MP. An aristocrat, Shukla always packed his favourite Darjeeling tea, known for its unique floral aroma and distinctive bitter taste that he loved to sip throughout the day accompanied by tasteless biscuits, pungent cheese and baked chivda. That was his meal.

At the first stop, after finishing the meeting, Shyama Bhaiya, as everyone used to call him, took the local candidate to one side of the tarmac, talked to him and then passed on a packet. He wanted to talk in confidence, I thought. At the second stop he called the candidate near the chopper, delved into his briefcase, took out something, wrapped it in a newspaper and handed it over to him. The story was repeated at the third stop-over.

Journalists are, by training, a curious lot. My ears pricked up. But there was no way to know what was happening. But Shyama Bhaiya’s regal nature soon came to my rescue. He was tired of the unnecessary camouflage. At the next stoppage he took out thick wads of currency, counted the bundles, wrapped it in a newspaper and handed it over to the candidate, unconcerned that I was watching.

But even that was too much of an effort for Bhaiya. No Royal person likes to touch money personally. It is a job for the minions. And our Shyama Bhaiya was a royal person, if nothing else. When he boarded the chopper after finishing his public meeting, he simply took out a few bundles and handed it over the waiting, expectant candidate. It was apparently the party fund, reaching the candidate in such unorthodox manner.

Darjeeling tea in the time of electioneering

It was always fun to go on a campaign trail with Shukla. I shared his passion for Darjeeling and he would keep me supplying with steaming hot tea, always served in fine bone china. Ahead of the 1993 assembly election, I found myself enclosed in a room at Raipur airport’s private hanger along with Shukla, film star-turned-Congress MP Sunil Dutt, a local politician and another journalist friend.

The legendry actor had been drafted to campaign for the Congress candidate from Bhilai. Shukla gave him a tip or two about the area and then remarked casually, “I don’t understand why those guys in Delhi want to send film stars, naach-gaana wallah, to these areas. We don’t need them.” He did not mean offence. And Dutt was too much of a gentleman to respond.

Having packed off Dutt to Bhilai, we started for Rajim, Shukla’s constituency where I wanted to see his campaign. It was quite late in the evening as we started. But that suited Shukla perfectly, who used to come into his elements as the moon would rise in the sky. He was something of a night bird. It was not unusual for officers to be summoned at 2 a.m. with files when he was the chief minister.

“My going to Rajim is a waste of time,” Shukla had told me earlier, “I will win this election even if I don’t go there. People love me. But one has to do these things.” So he decided to drive himself and show us around, as if he was taking us on a picnic.

The driver was sent to the back seat to look after the tea flasks and chivda. Bhaiya took the wheel and asked us — me and my journalist friend — to climb into passenger seats. That he could drive well was beyond doubt. Often he would drive so fast that the pilot vehicle had to struggle to keep pace. The security vehicle would be left far behind.

This anecdote is as much about electioneering as about his driving skill. On the way Shukla felt the need to have tea. But instead of stopping, he asked the driver to serve us tea in the moving car. In cups. No tea mug for the connoisseur. It was a prim and proper tea service, poured in delicate bone china, cups and saucers and spoon and all. Even as driving at high speed Shukla continued to sip his tea, balancing his saucer and cup and steering wheel and gear and clutch and brake.

Not a drop spilled from his cup. Don’t ask us about ours.

Shukla won that election from Rajim, as he had done five times before that.

Untold Stories, my column in First Print, 18 November 2018

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