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A Journalist and a Gentleman: Inder Malhotra (1930-2016)

Ajoy Bose (ajoyboss@gmail.com) is a senior journalist and author

Veteran journalist, political commentator and author Inder Malhotra who passed away on 11 June refused to present himself as a crusader. In a long and distinguished career, however, his commitment to journalistic ethics was exemplary. As a quintessential reporter, he had a vast network of contacts but his work remained fearless and unbiased

Inder Malhotra was a no-nonsense journalist with a rare lack of self-importance that so many media stalwarts assume. I got to know him in 1978 when I took over as India correspondent for  the Guardian which he had to give up after becoming editor of the Times of India, Delhi. He was my senior by more than 20 years and one of the best known journalists in the country but insisted on a matey back slapping relationship with a young maverick like me. I think he quite liked and supported the surprise decision by the then Guardian South Asia bureau chief Simon Winchester to offer the much sought after India string to a 25-year-old over the claims of far more senior contenders.

He himself leapfrogged in his twenties to covering national politics at a time when veteran journalists ruled the roost. Inder’s phenomenal people skills helped him cultivate important political figures and key bureaucrats as prize sources who provided both information and insights about the corridors of power.  Many of them regarded him as a personal friend. The most notable of these was Feroze Gandhi, son-in-law of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The close companionship that developed between the budding young journalist and the charismatic Congress leader from the mid-1950s gave the former an exceptional insider’s view of the behind-the- scenes drama of the formative years of government and Parliament in India’s first decade of independence.  As Feroze got more and more estranged from his politically ambitious wife Indira he turned increasingly confrontationist with his father-in-law prime minister. He was both lonely and in an insurgent mood. Inder became his sounding board.  They drew closer and closer – their relationship cemented by late night drinking bouts, forays to Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, Old Delhi to eat tandoori chicken and makhni dal accompanied by endless political discussions.  Indeed the day he died  (7 September 1960) Feroze, a heart patient, after developing a sudden pain in his chest chose to visit his journalist friend rather than the doctor. It was on Inder’s insistence that he went to Willingdon Hospital where he collapsed and was declared dead.

To Inder’s credit he did not use his personal access to the first family of India to push his career prospects or peddle gossip about them after Feroze fell out with his wife and father-in-law. . Although he must have been privy to a lot of salacious details of the breakup between Feroze and Indira the young journalist was far too much of a professional as well as a gentleman to reveal too much even in his later biography of Indira Gandhi regardless of the sensational publicity the book would have received had he done so. On the other hand, Inder was far too good a newsman not to use his friendship with Feroze to both expand his network of contacts in the Congress and get insights into the working of the Nehru administration.

Astute Political Commentator

Yet Inder Malhotra’s uncanny skill at networking political and bureaucratic contacts was not his only journalistic quality. He also developed into an astute commentator as early as his mid-30s and was known for his piercing leaders (editorials). After Lal Bahadur Shastri took over the reins of power Inder’s prescription for the task before the new leader who had large shoes to fill was memorable:

the country's first post-Nehru prime minister needed steady hands, not brilliant minds, reliable men and women to serve as self-effacing, industrious ministers who would diligently study files and briefs, ably answer questions in Parliament, be of comfort to the state even if a bit of a bore, perhaps, to the Opposition.

A few years later when the Congress was dealt a series of shock defeats across the country from Punjab to West Bengal, the political commentator summed it up in one brilliant line “There was not a single Congressman in power all the way from Waga Border to the Hoogly River”.

While Inder’s heart lay in writing political reports and commentary and not in editorial administration or institution building he displayed fine professional mettle when it came to taking a stance on office politics and issues. In the late 1960s he resigned from the Delhi resident editor’s job in the Statesman in protest against the arbitrary manner in which the then editor Pran Chopra was sacked by the management ostensibly for not being more critical of the Marxist led Left Front government in West Bengal.  Although Inder was not even remotely leftwing he felt that this was an unacceptable breach of editorial freedom. Many years later he would react the same way and leave the Times of India Delhi resident editor’s job after the advent of Samir Jain, the proprietor’s son and the new Vice-Chairman of Bennet Coleman, who sought to diminish the status of journalists in the newspaper.

Inder Malhotra was not inclined towards any particular ideology, political party or even social cause. Nor did he project himself as a media crusader or a votary of the freedom of expression. Yet despite this very down to earth approach to journalism his 65 year long career was almost entirely guided by a fierce but quiet commitment to journalistic ethics far more perhaps than others of his tribe who made a bigger noise about it. He remained a quintessential reporter doggedly pursuing his basic professional task of writing on events around him without fear or favour and Indian journalism will be very much poorer without his presence.


 

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