The passing away of the former national security advisor and former foreign service officer Brajesh Mishra last week has resulted in a welter of tributes, many very mushy, a few critical, but almost all of them throwing light on the uncomfortable influence that the Vajpayee aide held over the media—and the chummy friendship that some in the media shared with the high official in the PMO.
In his diary in Outlook*, Vinod Mehta recounts the role played by Mishra in ordering raids on the magazine’s proprietor after Outlook had exposed the wheeleing-dealing of Vajpayee’s “son-in-law” Ranjan Bhattacharya:
“I know one does not speak ill of the dead but try as hard as I might, I cannot think of anything nice or complimentary to say about Brajesh Mishra. All my exchanges with him were thoroughly unpleasant. Once after a few whiskies at vice-president Hamid Ansari’s house, he asked me why I had turned against Atal Behari Vajpayee.
“I responded by asking him why he had ordered the I-T raids on my proprietor’s residence in Mumbai and why he threatened me over the phone, denying a story given to us by the Vajpayee household, of how much Vajpayee disliked Arun Jaitley.”
“There was, however, one time when I saw him ruffled. And let me make a clean breast of it, even if it concerned The Indian Express. This was when the paper had carried a series of exposes embarrassing the Vajpayee government: the petrol pump scam, the scam on allotment of institutional lands to Sangh Parivar front organisations, and the Satyendra Dubey (the IIT engineer murdered while working for the NHAI by the mafia in Bihar) case.
“A top official in the State Bank of India, for decades this company’s bankers, told me — with a great deal of surprise and dismay — that he had got a call from “somebody” in the PMO to give the Express trouble. He said when he told the person the Express Group had “impeccably” clean accounts he was asked if he could somehow still give it grief. The banker was an old Express reader, loved the paper, and was aghast.
“I sought time with Vajpayee, and the tea had just been served when I said to him, “Suna hai, aajkal aap ne PMO se dadagiri shuru kar di hai.” I told him the story. And I must say Vajpayee looked genuinely shocked and swore he had not given any such instructions.
“Next day I was invited to Mishra’s office. “Arrey bhai, aisi baat thi toh… why didn’t you tell me first? Where was the need to go to boss? He has never pulled me up like this, and I am not used to it,” he said, now more rattled than annoyed. He promised that it was all “freelance” activity by a Sangh Parivar “busybody” who hung around in the PMO, “misusing” people’s phones, and that the “mischief” had been nipped.”
In his Sunday Sentiments column in the Hindustan Times, the TV anchor Karan Thapar writes of an interview he did with the Pakistani president Parvez Musharraf for Doordarshan six months after the Kargil war and three months after he had staged a coup, in the year 2000:
“When I got back from Islamabad I sent him a VHS of the interview. When I rang the next morning to ask what he thought of it he said he hadn’t seen it but his tone and manner suggested he had. What followed convinced me I was right.
“‘Have you told the press about this interview?’ he asked. The question surprised me because broadcast had not been cleared and I had no assurance it would be. Doordarshan, after all, is government controlled. ‘Yes, yes, I know that,’ Mr Mishra interrupted. ‘If I were you I’d let people know.’ Then, after a pause, he added sotto voce: ‘And tell them when it will be shown.’
“Now I was certain Mr Mishra was steering me. He was suggesting a strategy that would make it awkward, even difficult, to deny broadcast but without in anyway saying it would be cleared.
“Naturally, I followed his advice. PTI put out a small story that the interview would be broadcast the next day. The Indian Express front paged it. And then the drama began. A battle waged within the government over whether it should be shown. Various ministers — and the Army Chief — asked to see it. I assumed they all had a say in whether it would be cleared.
“At 7 in the evening I rang Mr Mishra. I could tell he was chuckling when he came on the line. ‘I know you’ve rung to ask if I’ve seen the interview. I haven’t but I’ll catch it tonight on TV.'”
* Disclosures apply
Photograph: courtesy Tribhuvan Tiwari/ Outlook