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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 28

The Power of One

Monday 30 June 2008, by T J S George

From the end of the 1950s, Delhi became India’s densest journalistic jungle. The transplantation there of a wholly Bombay phenomenon like Frank Moraes was a pointer to the inexorability of the process. No one will understand the economics of newspaper proliferation in Delhi. What is clear to all is that by the end of the Nehru era, the Capital of India had more journalists per square inch than any other city in the country.

Among them were stars. Inevitably, some twinkled by pretension. But the genuine ones were men of style and gravitas who exercised considerable power in proportion to the power of the publications they represented. The bigness of the journalist was synonymous with the bigness of his paper and sometimes vice versa. Nikhil Chakravartty was the only star who, astonishingly, sparkled on his own voltage, unaided by association with a major newspaper. His name was enough to attract attention, to command respect. He represented the Power of One. And as stars went, he shined the most. He spread his light from a niche where only Sachin Chowdhury of Economic and Political Weekly and Romesh Thapar of Seminar shared space with him. If we take into account the number of young persons he trained as journalists in his India Press Agency years, he could be compared with S. Sadanand whose Free Press Journal in Bombay was the greatest journalism college of the 1950s. If we consider his lifelong addiction to “going on my rounds” every day, he could be compared with the doyen of a previous generation, Pothan Joseph, whose early morning rounds were legendary exercises in insights gathering.

What made Nikhil Chakravartty so special? He was not an erudite economist like Sachin Chowdhury, or a glamorous social figure like Romesh Thapar, or a master of the classics like Pothan Joseph. He was not even a faultless user of English like Frank Moraes was. Nikhil’s secret was his seeming simplicity. He was a sharp observer, a keen intellect and an expert at seeing the processes behind events. But his simplicity is what made him a friend of everyone he met. People opened up to him. People trusted him. People felt safe in his company.

Even V.K. Krishna Menon. Famous for not suffering fools as well as for holding his cards close to his secretive chest, Krishna Menon had frequent one-to-one sessions with Nikhil. Evidently the Defence Minister was keen on hearing the Editor’s analysis of events and personalities. In one session Krishna Menon shared with Nikhil some sensitive information concerning defence matters. After everything was explained, Krishna Menon said: “Nikhil, this is not to be whispered. Not to the leaders of your party, not even to Renu.” Nikhil smiled his benevolent smile and replied: “Krishna, your difficulty is that you have never been a Communist. Nor have you married. So you do not know how Communists function. Nor do you have any idea of husband-wife relationships.”

Nikhil himself narrated the story to some close friends without of course whispering a word about what the Defence Minister had said. It was a story that summed up Nikhil’s personality and functional style. It revealed his talent to win the confidence of others, his intimacy with the tallest leaders of his time, his professional integrity, his wit. Completely devoid of flamboyance, Nikhil had no showmanship in him. He was all substance.

WAS his emergence as a man of substance part of the evolutionary history of Bengali communism? There is, after all, a “class difference” between the first generation Communist leaders of Bengal and of other States in India. In Kerala, which is bracketed with Bengal over the politics of communist power, the leaders came up through revolutionary struggles, often bloody. E.M.S. Namboothiripad was a lone exception in that he was the scion of a landlord family. But he too turned to communism through the social revolution that sought to end the feudal-reactionary traditions that plagued the Namboothiri community.

Bengali communism, on the other hand, was shaped by leaders who came up through academic study rather than struggles at factory gates and paddy fields. It could be said that the flames of revolution were lit in Bengal by sparks brought from Oxford and Cambridge. A family had to be not just well-to-do but fairly rich to send a young member to England in the 1930s and 1940s. Many rich Bengali families did that. And many of the bright young men turned unexpectedly to radicalism in repudiation of their class background. Aurobindo Ghosh and Subhas Chandra Bose might have carved out a brand of radicalism all their own. But a host of others like Bhupesh Gupta and Jyoti Basu and Hiren Mukherjee and Arun Bose and Mohit Sen and Indrajit Gupta returned from Oxbridge as Communists—as did Nikhil Chakravartty and his wife-to-be, Renu.

It will be invidious to draw a distinction between peasant communism and university educated communism, but the intellectual conversance of the early leaders did give Bengal’s communist movement a sheen its parallel streams in Kerala or Andhra did not have.

Nikhil Chakravartty never repudiated communism. He did discover early enough that the journalist in him required a freedom of space that the restraints of a cadre party could not allow. Only when the Communist Party supported Indira Gandhi’s Emergency did Nikhil decide to give up the party. To him the Emergency was the negation of all that India stood for and he had defiantly protested by closing Mainstream. There was no question of his accepting the unacceptable in the name of party discipline. Yet, he did not break with the party demonstratively with a view to scoring points. He did it in his own quiet way; he just did not renew his party membership. Evidently he was more sad than angry. Let’s note, too, that Nikhil’s journalism was never that of an ideologue. One who did not know of his personal background would not suspect that his writings came from a Communist’s pen. In a landscape filled with Congress journalists, CPM-CPI journalists, BJP journalists and Akali, Samata, DMK, Trinamul, BSP journalists, Nikhil Chakravartty was never a Communist journalist.

This “democrat among socialists and socialist among democrats”, as K.R. Narayanan described him, this “conscience of an era”, as some others hailed him, was, however, guilty of one great dereliction of duty. He did not write the books only he could have written, books that would have been of immense value to the political chronicle and the historiography of this country. Nobody had as many anecdotes as Nikhil had about the men and women who strutted the stage during his generation. They were at once authentic and amazing stories, sometimes tragic, often hilarious, always revelatory. A mere collection of these reminiscences would have provided a treasure chest for successive generations. A book on the birth of communism in India, one on the wars between socialists and capitalists inside Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet, one on the Emergency—many are the volumes that Nikhil Chakravartty’s unique insights and experiences would have turned into contemporary classics.

But he pretended be “only a reporter”, perennially “on his rounds”. The fact is that he did not have the patience to sit down to the long and lonely—very lonely—task of writing books. More than once I suggested that I would provide him a room in Bangalore with a tape recorder and good meals at fixed timings. All he had to do was talk and I would have the tapes transcribed and edited for his final approval. As a special incentive I offered to lock the room from outside. Nothing worked. I now feel it was my mistake. I should have offered to lock myself in as well. With someone to ask him questions, he would have found it easy to talk, and talk, and the tapes would have added up.

Alas, wisdom always dawns late.

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