This was the most hush-hush trip I have ever undertaken in my long professional career as a journalist. We were travelling, but did not know the destination. Neither did we know why we had embarked upon that mysterious journey, veiled in secrecy from the very beginning. All this at the behest of one man – Arjun Singh, the Machiavellian master of political intrigues.
The suave and sophisticated chief minister of Madhya Pradesh always did things in style. He had the knack of turning mundane into mystery. It all started with that intriguing phone call.
It was January 1982. I was hammering at the keys of my typewriter, trying to finish a story for the Indian Express, the newspaper I represented at Bhopal. Kunwar Sahib, as Singh was known in political circles, asked me whether I was free in the last week of the month. The last week of the month was still a good three weeks away. I replied in the affirmative.
Kunwar Sahib was known as a man of few words: “May I request you to keep those days reserved for me.”
“Sure, but what is it?”
“I can’t tell you right now. But it is personal, and very important to me. Kindly treat it as a personal request from me. And please keep it confidential.”
Arjun Singh was one of the most courteous politicians I have met. He would always make it a point to get up from the chair to greet me and would not start any conversation before enquiring about my family.
I was thrilled. Such a powerful politician sharing a personal and important secret with me! The way the ‘personal request’ came, I thought I was the privileged one, the lone recipient of secret information from someone so high up. I was doubly thrilled.
Little did I know then that at least half a dozen other journalists in various parts of the state were in similar stages of exhilaration. They had also received identical calls from the chief minister.
On 22nd January 1982, I received a sealed, embossed cover from the CM Secretariat. It contained a hand-written letter from Arjun Singh, prefixed ‘Personal’. The hand-delivered letter said: “I would be grateful if you could find it convenient to spare a couple of days for this engagement.” It also informed me that arrangements had been made for my travel. Accompanying it was a formal, typed invitation asking me to be ready to travel on 27th January 1982 as a personal guest of the CM.
The suspense was killing.
The hand-written letter and the carefully drafted words of the invite sought to create the impression as if its recipient had been singled out for a big honour. The mystery over the nature and the destination of the trip promised a front page scoop. I immediately informed the office and sought their permission for travel.
By the morning of January 27, it was clear to most of the ‘chosen’ ones that they were not the only “personal guest” of the CM. The government officials scooped the half a dozen odd invitees from their homes and put them on a train to Satna. What was happening in Satna? No one knew. Was that our destination? No one was sure.
The mystery was finally unveiled that night, after we reached Satna. Arjun Singh had invited Mother Teresa to Churhat, his home town, to lay the foundation stone of a childcare centre for handicapped and orphaned children and a children’s hospital. Singh had donated seven acres of his ancestral land for the purpose.
We met a moist-eyed Singh at the foundation stone laying ceremony blessed by Mother Teresa. He explained in chocked voice that it was a personal dream for him because he had seen the poor suffering.
I was thinking in terms of a front page earth-shattering story. Instead of that I got a single column item for inside pages. We had been literally taken for a ride by Arjun Singh’s famous politics of culture, courtesy and conspiracy.
The Bhopal newsmen invited on the trip were the lucky ones. Deshbandhu editor Ramashrey Upadhyay, invited for the same event, had quite an adventure. Elderly Upadhyay, fondly known as Panditji, was also enticed to travel as CM’s ‘personal guest’, without informing him about the destination.
Officials at Raipur, where Upadhyay was based, first transported him to Bilaspur by train. The Raipur officers handed him over to the Bilaspur Commissioner, who told him that he had been instructed to send him to Shahdol. Will the CM be there? Poor Commissioner did not know.
Panditji was given a car to reach Shahdol . That lag of the trip proved to be quite adventurous. The officer accompanying him decided to take a shortcut and encountered a flooded stream on way. A boat was arranged hastily. The boat deposited them on the other side of the stream. After walking for considerable distance in riverbed they found the road, and another car waiting for them. He was totally exhausted by the time he reached Shahdol.
But Shahdol collector told him that he had received instruction to send the CM’s “personal guest” to Satna. He also had no idea where the CM was. By the time Panditji reached Satna, he had travelled by rail, road and boat and also walked in a sandy riverbed — without knowing why in the hell the CM was so keen on meeting him!
First Print 2 December 2018