The breaking news that never was; saga of meeting Zail Singh

M Somasekhar

In June 1987, exactly 33 years ago, as a young agency reporter with the PTI, I went to the Raj Bhavan in Hyderabad, high on excitement and hoping for a breaking news story.

The then President of India, Giani Zail Singh (1982-87), was staying in Hyderabad. One day his office called for a meeting of the media at short notice. It’s a usual practice for Governor’s and President’s to hold ‘At Home’ on occasions like Republic Day and Independence Day etc. In the case of President, it’s been a long tradition to spend a couple of weeks in Hyderabad every year, as Summer and Winter sojourn. 

When I reached the Raj Bhavan, I found the Durbar Hall, fully packed with who-is-who of Hyderabad Media and some officials. So, my expectation grew. Not being very privy to the political intricacies, perhaps, my hopes were a bit misplaced. The Governor of Andhra Pradesh then was Smt Kumudbhen Joshi.

The turbulent backdrop

As history shows, the relations between Zail Singh and the young Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi were all but cordial during those times. Reports were rife of the PM even ignoring the President on some occasions to brief on important matters.  

Against this background, there were expectations that the President could announce/resort to some harsh action.  It was Zail Singh’s last year and few months in office and may be the final visit to Hyderabad. During the early months of 1987, the simmering rift between the two was reaching a crescendo. 

In April, a very long meeting of two and half hours between Zail Singh and Rajiv Gandhi had reportedly taken place, where many issues and differences were discussed threadbare. It appears that the president, whose term was ending on July 25 that year, decided to have truce with Rajiv Gandhi and complete his term and leave without scarring his enduring relationship with the Gandhi clan. 

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The bonhomie at Raj Bhavan

As it turned out, the entire affair and proceedings were a damp squib to my anticipations. After the initial welcomes, the President said, he wanted to meet every Journalist present in the Hall personally as it would be his farewell visit to the wonderful city of Pearls and Nawabs. He also recited some Urdu couplets and won the hearts of the Hyderabadis.

What followed thereafter was an elaborate, shake hands, namaste, Gale -Milna (hugging) and exchange of greetings and pleasant talk, ending with a photo opportunity. Thanks to P V Sivakumar, the photojournalist of The Indian Express and a good friend, I got the above picture.

But, always regret, missing a breaking news, if at all there was to be one.

Zail Singh and Gandhi family 

It was no secret that Zail Singh was a staunch loyalist of the Nehru- Gandhi family. He was particularly devoted to Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi. If D K Baruah, the AICC President, declared that “Indira is India and India is Indira”, during the Emergency in 1976, Zail Singh reportedly went a step further to say “I will gladly sweep the ground that Indiraji walked upon,” after he had enough indications of being made the first Sikh President of India.

According to history, Zail Singh, was reportedly kept completely in the dark on ‘Operation Bluestar’ of  May 31, 1984 by Mrs Gandhi, though the two had met the previous day. He came in for tremendous criticism from the majority of Sikh community for his silence.  After the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, the same year on October 31 by her two Sikh bodyguards, things went bad to worse with the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and other parts of the country.

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As the President, he bore the brunt of the anger of his own community too. However, he did not resign and continued after swearing in Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister. Somehow, the two shared a strained relationship most of the tenure but carried on.

In 1994, Zail Singh suffered serious injuries in a car accident and succumbed.

A picture of pride at home

When PV Siva handed over a print of the picture, I was happy to get it, but the disappointment of not getting the story lingered on. The situation was completely different at home. My folks, especially, mom and dad were maha thrilled seeing the photograph.

One fine day, a week later, I found the picture nicely framed and put in the small hall of our home in Krishnanagar Colony in front of what was then the Musheerabad Jail. It was a well located place, close to the main road and well connected to all forms of transport. It meant a steady stream of relatives and friends too. Very often, the photo became a point of conversation for my relatives, parents et al.

However, sometime in 1992, when we moved house to Gandhinagar, the frame too got packed and lost in the shifting. Then, I moved on to New Delhi in December 1993 and Zail Singh was spending a retired life and P V Narasimha Rao, the ‘Telugu Bidda’, was the PM. He was riding the wave of economic reforms with Finance Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, after saving India from an economic disaster. 

Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad.

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