S. Jaipal Reddy, veteran parliamentarian and former Union Minister, passed away on July 28, 2019, in Hyderabad. He was 77.
On November 12, 1947, Deepavali day, Gandhiji addressed over All India Radio (AIR) more than two lakh refugees from Pakistan gathered at the camp in Kurukshetra located about 160 kilometres north of Delhi. Since he could not get away from Delhi owing to pressing political developments, he was persuaded to address the refugees over AIR. Gandhiji held no public office or position in the government and it was truly a public service broadcast by AIR that carried the Mahatma’s message of love and fortitude to the suffering refugees—some of whom were even without shelter—bringing them succour on that cold and bleak November day.
On November 12, 1997, we were commemorating the 50th anniversary of this broadcast, the only live broadcast of Gandhiji on AIR, at Broadcasting House, New Delhi. Jaipal Reddy, Information and Broadcasting Minister, came to launch the commemoration by unveiling two plaques, one in Hindi and the other in English. The unveiling was to be followed by presentations by choirs drawn from schools and colleges of Delhi and from AIR. Jaipal Reddy insisted that the plaques be unveiled not by him, but by two safai karamcharis, one woman and a man, employees at the very bottom of the hierarchical structure at Broadcasting House. This simple act was typical of the man wedded to his ideological moorings right up to the end. Moorings of inclusion and social justice.
Three years later, in 2000, November 12 was declared Public Service Broadcasting Day by Sushma Swaraj, then Minister of Information and Broadcasting.
In fact, when Jaipal Reddy became the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the I.K. Gujral-led Janata Dal government in 1997, the Government of India issued the notification enforcing the Prasar Bharati Act to give autonomy to AIR and Doordarshan. The Act had been passed by both Houses of Parliament and had received the presidential assent on September 12, 1990, but it had to wait for seven long years to be notified, on September 15, 1997. That the autonomy and independence of AIR and DD is still nowhere near being achieved is, of course, another story.
As Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Jaipal Reddy would often say that his Ministry had no place in a democracy and if he had his way, it would have been wound up a long time ago. The comment embodied his firm belief in free media to empower the public and to speak truth to power.
During his second stewardship of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, on September 12, 2004, Jaipal Reddy launched the 10th anniversary commemoration of Jan Prasar, which strongly advocated an independent AIR and DD. We gave a presentation of what was to be done. Jaipal Reddy gave a dismissive one-liner in reply: the plan was “grandiose”. We were truly disappointed that day. A plan for a public broadcaster, if it had to empower and transform the lives of the poor, and marginalised had to be grandiose, to start with, if nothing else. Jaipal Reddy, of course, had his compulsions.
In 2005, he appointed me a member of the Executive Committee of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), my alma mater; that was the first time an old student had been given the honour. When I started taking a keen interest in the various activities of my old Institute—setting up of the Community Radio, “Apna Radio”, IIMC International Alumni Network, and so on— Jaipal Reddy told me one day with his inimitable tongue-in-cheek humour: “If I had known you would take your work so seriously, I would have thought twice before appointing you.” Later, I was appointed by him on the three-member search committee to look for a new Director to head IIMC.
Jaipal Reddy studied at Osmania University, Hyderabad, where he completed his Masters in English Literature and Bachelors in journalism. It was here that his leadership qualities shone, as the president of the Osmania University Students Union.
As a child, Jaipal Reddy was stricken by polio. He used crutches to walk but never allowed that affliction to deter him. From a student leader of Osmania University, he rose to become one of India’s most outstanding parliamentarians.
Jaipal Reddy became a member of the Congress party, then the president of the Andhra Pradesh Youth Congress, and later the general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee. But when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975, he resigned from the party in protest and joined the Janata Party. He contested against Indira Gandhi in Medak Lok Sabha constituency in 1980. He was the general secretary of the Janata Party from 1985 to 1988.
When he was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1984 from Mahabubnagar, he was already known for his oratorical skills in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly where, as the MLA of the Kalwakurthy constituency for four terms from 1969 to 1984, he was heard with rapt attention.
Jaipal Reddy was subsequently elected to the Lok Sabha four times, and in 1998 he won the Outstanding Parliamentarian Award. He was also a member of the Rajya Sabha on two occasions, 1990-1996 and 1997-1998, and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha from 1991 to 1992.
Some called him a wordsmith, but his speeches in Parliament were incisive and marked by sharp wit, always backed by well-researched homework. When he raised an issue, alarm bells would start ringing in the Treasury benches. He could quote from Plato, Mill, Laski and Russell from memory at the drop of a hat. He added many a word and phrase to the Indian parliamentary lexicon. “Humungous fraud”, was one such expression he used in the Lok Sabha when he found the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was pushing for shilanyas in Ayodhya in 2002. The Treasury benches protested and wanted the phrase expunged while the opposition tried to explain what the word meant. The tumult led to the House being hurriedly adjourned. But Jaipal Reddy, never to be put down, was soon back in the House two days later with a quip on the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee: “There is a humungous hiatus, a gigantic gap and a gargantuan gulf between his public image and private reality.”
In 2002 again, during the debate in the Lok Sabha on the Ayodhya imbroglio, demanding the removal of L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi as Ministers, as they had been charge-sheeted, he said, addressing Joshi: “But my philosophical problem with you is that you confuse history with mythology, philosophy with theology and astronomy with astrology.” The intellectual confusion in the ranks of the BJP leadership could not have been put more aptly.
His transition from an Opposition leader to the Treasury benches was smooth. He had the unique distinction of being the spokesperson of two distinct political formations that were both secular in their outlook. He was one of the few politicians of our times who discouraged his family from entering politics.
Upon the disintegration of the Janata Dal, he rejoined the Congress party in 1999 after a gap of 24 years. He would talk of his last days in the Janata Dal and say that he had stood “like the Casabianca boy on the burning deck until the deck itself collapsed”. He was targeted for joining the Congress, especially by his erstwhile colleagues of the Janata Dal. He would say that he had no option but to rejoin the Congress for he had “staked his reputation at the altar of ideology”.
In the two successive Manmohan Singh governments, during 2004-2009 and 2009-2014, Jaipal Reddy held many Cabinet positions: he was Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Minister of Culture, Minister of Urban Development, Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, and Minister of Science and Technology and Earth Sciences. In May 2004, when he was given the Culture portfolio, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reportedly told him that he could not have found a more cultured person to head the Ministry of Culture.
In October 2012, when he was shifted from the Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry to Science and Technology, it raised a political storm. Differences had risen over gas allocation in the Krishna-Godavari basin to Reliance, and Jaipal Reddy refused to budge. He had stood the ultimate “chastity test”, he would rationalise it later.
He was deeply disturbed by the fact that ideological debates and intellectual discussions were no longer in fashion. As a progressive liberal and social democrat, he was keen to contribute to “rekindling intellectual interest in political processes”. His lifetime of intellectual engagement led him to write Ten Ideologies: The Great Asymmetry between Agrarianism and Industrialism (Orient BlackSwan, 2018). Which politico of our times would have written such a treatise?
Throughout his eventful and challenging political life, he stuck to his Nehruvian socialist and secular ideology, never compromised on values, and truly led by example, keeping to the adage that he must not only be above suspicion but must be perceived by the people to be above suspicion. He kept to his ideology and moral compass, which guided him and showed him the way forward.
Suhas Borker is Editor, Citizens First TV (CFTV), and Convener, Jan Prasar, New Delhi.