OPINION

Talking to the Prime Minister

When a routine assignment turned into a challenge

In the 1990s, when there was no social media, durbars (people’s court) were held by Prime Ministers at their official residence to lend a ear to the concerns and comments of common people. The janata darbars were held in the afternoons for an hour or so. People got an opportunity to meet and personally hand over their petitions to the Prime Minister. Depending on the Prime Minister’s availability, the darbar was held once a fortnight or once a month. People from all walks of life and all parts of the country attended these darbars. Not everybody got lucky given the Prime Minister’s limited time, but rarely did anybody get upset. In fact, many turned up only to see the Prime Minister from close quarters.

We reporters would take turns to attend these darbars. I had the opportunity of attending a few held by Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

On darbar days, everybody had to go through security check and undergo frisking by the Delhi Police. The Special Protection Group (SPG) would instruct the crowd over the public address system to maintain order. People were randomly divided into groups and made to stand in three blocks in a horse-shoe formation.

Often I found stories from the people waiting patiently in the queue outside. They narrated their difficult journeys, purpose of visit, life’s hardships, and articulated hope. I gathered the issues people cared about most from these conversations and my ‘human interest story’ for the day would be ready. Besides, there was also the comfort of knowing that the Prime Minister was available to the media at other forums. The darbar was meant for the people.

After the Pokhran nuclear test in 1998 was announced by Vajpayee, his next darbar (held usually on Fridays) assumed significance. Specifying three questions to be asked of the Prime Minister, my Chief of Bureau told me, “Go as a commoner this time.” It was an outrageous request. In that crowd how could I go near Vajpayee, reveal my identity, and ask political questions? This was not a press conference. I was miffed.

As it happened, Vajpayee arrived late that afternoon and I found place in the third and last block of people waiting for their turn. The SPG kept the excited crowd at bay behind a thick rope as the Prime Minister walked on a path on the other side of the rope surrounded by another layer of security. Sensing my diminishing chances of an interaction, I suddenly jumped over the rope along with the photographer, all in the hope that the Prime Minister would answer my questions.

This shocked everyone as we had violated the protocol and landed ourselves right next to the Prime Minister. However, he did not flinch. Stopping and smiling he asked what the matter was. In 120 seconds I had his comments on our exclusive post-Pokhran questions. The unexpected honour of talking with Vajpayee was heady even as one of the SPG guards desperately tried to grab my hand and pull me back.

I wonder what would be the outcome of such an impulsive act today. It is a different matter that the Prime Minister is out of bounds and the Lok Kalyan Marg is now closed to the public.

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