My brush with INDIRA GANDHI

· Political

On 1st. of January 1978 I joined Rediffusion Advertising. Not the Rediffusion you see now, famous with the baggage from the days. Rediffusion: striving, lean , thin and hungry. Modled much in the line of the then famous advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. Rediffusion was started and run by B School graduates of IIM. Arun Nanda at the helm as Chairman and Ajit Balakrishna and Subhash Chakraborty both Marxists , one from Kerela and the other from Bengal ruling the roost. Ajit was in charge of Finance and Subhas as the Branch Director of Calcutta Office also in charge of Media.

I joined as the Media Assistant to grew up as a Media Manager to be trained by none other than Subhas on a number of reputed clients reading like a who‘s who in industry. Union Carbide, Indian Tube, Ananda Bazar and not to forget the most important Jenson & Nicholson and Reckitt & Colman.I was a sort of a back room boy working endlessly on Media Plans which best suited the client. Like most agencies the opportunity to meet the client was rare and maybe once a year in the annual presentation. Within this I did have the opportunity to meet the client through a harmless piece of paper,a statutory agrrement drawn up between the President of India and the Client. This was the agreement for release in All India Radio and Doordarshan. And it was to be signed religiously with the Head which meant meeting the Aruns. Arun Neheru at Jenson & Nicholson and Arun Singh at Reckitts. I came close to them as I waited many an afternoon to catch the all important bosses.

It was the Aruns who were responsible to get Rediffusion introduced to the Indian National Congress. Or to be precise to get the other Arun, Arun Nanda to meet Mrs. Indira Gandhi. As you would recall, Indira Gandhi served as the third Prime Minister of India for three consecutive terms from1966 to 77 and a fourth term from 1980 to 84. In between she was out of power and our story unfolds during this period, in 1979.

In 1979 both the Aruns, were dragged into politics. The two Aruns : Singh and Nehru. They were as different as chalk from cheese. Both had entered politics laterally, both had been Box-wallahs, both had been brought in to assist the Gandhi family. But there the similarities ended. Arun Nehru had been Sanjay Gandhi’s choice, and one can see why. Arun was brash and loud-mouthed and he knew how to throw his weight around, both literally and metaphorically. He was introduced in the kitchen cabinet and inducted into politics soon after the 1980 election that had brought Indira Gandhi and Sanjay back to power. Mrs Gandhi had fought from two constituencies, Medak in Andhra and Rae Bareli in UP. She had won both and decided to retain her Medak seat. They were looking around for a trusted man for Rae Bareli, which they considered a family pocket borough.The story is told of how Sanjay Gandhi was at the breakfast table one morning when the safari-suited cousin Arun Nehru shuffled into the room, and the idea stuck Sanjay like a lightning: Why not him? Sanjay is said to have asked, and so entered the future ‘Big Boss’ of the Rajiv days. Nehru never quite fitted with the Rajiv set, but he was planted there by Indira Gandhi more to ‘protect and guard’ her soft and reluctant heir.

Arun Singh, on the other hand, was entirely Rajiv Gandhi’s choice. ‘We were the Beatles Generation,’ Rajiv had once said of his own group of friends. It was Arun Singh who had given this label to the bunch — a happy and boisterous lot who loved their cars, their music, their women, and who loved the merry swing of their lives, dreamy, a little careless and a little innocent about the hard stuff of life. They seemed to make up a new Camelot, as it were, bleary with vision of hope and glory. It was not politics or power that brought Amitabh Bachchan or Mani Shankar Aiyar or Arun Singh to the national centrestage, but Rajiv Gandhi.The two Aruns were often bracketed as being the two who were closest to Rajiv Gandhi, but Arun Nehru never belonged to the Rajiv set as Arun Singh did. Born in the princely family of Kapurthala, Arun Singh had been at Doon School and later in Cambridge with Rajiv Gandhi. After doing his MA in 1971, Arun Singh had joined Metal Box and later Reckitt and Coleman. Arun and Rajiv were great friends and so were their wives, Nina and Sonia. When Rajiv moved into 5 to 7 Race Course Road as prime minister, he made the Singhs live in the adjoining bungalow, with just a wicket gate separating them.

The Aruns coming from corporate background wanted to ‘corporatise’ the party and one of the thing that they recommended was a Campaign for the coming 1980 Indian General Election held between January 3 and 6. They had an extensive meeting with Arun Nanda whom they briefed from where the campaign started rolling. Arun took charge of the creatives, Ajit the finance and Subhas the Media Plan. It is here that I come in and we got to work extensively on an All India Plan and I was happy that both the Aruns had highly recommended that I get involved. I was pleased as punch . Massive, to say the least was the exercise. I spend 15 days at a stretch in office sometimes going over to Subha’s house for guidelines. The plan involved practically all media across Indian Subcontinent , with out a single discussion with any outsider as this was top secret. It is during this period that I had my learning on the Indian Media , many of them an eye opener to say the least. Facts such as the Chinese in Calcutta chose not to vote. So do you take their limited Chinese newspapers for a campaign to build their opinion or just look over their shoulders? There are more revealing facets .

At the end of it, with the main Strategy and the Creative it came to nearly a two and a half hour presentation with half an hour for discussion, a pretty long narrative for the Leader of the Opposition. We had no clue how we are to convince Mrs. Indira Gandhi to sit for the presentation. It fell on Arun Neheru to request Sanjay Gandhi to make her mother agree. Mrs Gandhi agreed more to please her son than being convinced of the need of an Advertising Campaign. The date was set and the presentation was to be held at her office in her residence at 1 Safdarjung Road.

Subhas and myself flew to Delhi with tons of back up material and parked ourselves in the hotel. The day came and we went to meet first Arun Nanda and Ajit Balakrishna and then joined by Arun Singh and Arun Nehru. We landed at her residence and I started fixing up the presentation screen and the projector. Those were the days of Kodak Carousel. When all was set Subhas gently came over and asked me to take a break . That is go over and relax in the hotel. The heaven fell from the sky. I was aghast. With so much of working , am I being politely asked to leave? I got into a nasty discussion and just as I was being ordered Indira Gandhi entered and sensing something enquired. To which I was going to raise my voice of protest, smouldered by the Big Brothers much to my satisfaction as I was offered a chair a little at a distance, to sit and watch the presentation.

The presentation lasted nearly 2 hours 45 minutes. There was complete silence. I will not use the cliché ‘Pin drop silence’ as a pin does not make a sound when it falls. There was no break either for coffee or tea or you know what. No questions. Only the rattle of a monologue. Mrs Gandhi sat fixed, looking straight but eschewing every word. No movement. Not even a small rustle of her sari. My position was unique. I was not tense as I was not scheduled to make any presentation and watched the proceeding with rapt attention.

At the end of it all Indira Gandhi wanted the lights on. Then to the team she asked one single question: “Gentlemen … after doing all that you show and want to be executed …. How much of my Electorate do I reach??”. There was dead silence. A team of top level corporate. All from IIM. A single pointed question. Then there was a flurry Arun referred to Subhas and Subhas after some deliberation asked me to check the papers. I pretended to check then to I got up and directly answered her to save the team from embarrassment. I replied that we have the calculated the reach which is based on the National Readership Survey, but to be honest, we have not worked with the Electoral figures. Indira. Gandhi then directing her question to Subhas said. “ I think you are from West Bengal… I am trying to find out that after executing your plan do I need to reach out to my electorate in Baharampore in Murshidabad and to what extent.”. She knew there was no answer. She got up with a flourish which she herself had invented and patented for herself and left the room. That was the end of the great presentation. I was told to pack up and keep things together which I did promptly. After having sat through this long I took a break.

I was never a fan of Mrs. Gandhi. Just the opposite . What with her declaring a state of emergency ,effectively bestowing on her the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties. It is one of the most controversial times in the history of independent India. I remembered that in1977, after extending the state of emergency twice, Indira Gandhi called elections, to give the electorate a chance to vindicate her rule. Gandhi may have grossly misjudged her popularity by reading what, I presume, the heavily censored press wrote about her. In any case, she was opposed by the Janata Party. Janata, led by her long-time rival, Desai and with Jai Prakash Narayan as its spiritual guide came to power.

With this, I was in awe. As I was returning I found her sitting at her desk doing some work.I knocked and entered and presented her my visiting card and asked for hers. You see when you are young you have great strength in such things. You are not afraid of anybody. Nor afraid of your job. If you ask me now I don’t think I can repeat performance. She smiled , for the first time and said she does not carry a card. Then surprisingly she asked me to sit and asked one of her aid to bring something. I could not understand. Then she queried about my job. She complimented me and said that I had done a great work. Her aid came and handed over a box which she presented to me saying that this is in lieu of the visiting card, a left over from her last days in office as the Prime Minister, in her last term. It was a silver frame with the Government Emblem on top containing a smiling Black & White autographed photograph of her. I joined my team as they sipping cups of Darjeeling tea served in Silver trays. They were amused and wanted to know what transpired. Almost thinking I could get the Campaign through.

Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980. I wrote her a congratulatory letter to which she replied. Till her assassination in 1984 we went on with our correspondences and I received a card at the end of the year wishing me he best of the season.

Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister after her assassination on 31st of October 1984. Prior to the general election of 1984 held from 24th to 28th December 1894 the campaign presented by Rediffusion was approved by Rajiv Gandhi and released with the change in creative but minor change in Media Plan. Most of you might remember the campaign as , ‘terror at your doorstep’. The Indian National Congreess came back to power and Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister.Many believe that the campaign played a great role in this. I chose to be different. I strongly believe that the assassination of Indira Gandhi paved the way for the unification of Congress and their return at the hustling.

I still have the photograph of Indira Gandhi and her Seasons Greeting cards in the mantle of my living room.

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