Saturday, September 29, 2007

Whispers in New Delhi's corridors of power

Presumably, the most read media in New Delhi bureaucratic circles is not The Times of India or Hindustan Times, but a little known Bhopal-based website with a pedestrian title – Whispers in the Corridors -it keeps you posted on impending postings & transfers of IAS/IPS officials; it carries rumors on who’s under suspension, who are tipped to go on deputation to the Centre, from where; and whose name is up for reversion to the parent state.

Whispers publishes political tidbits, corporate changes and other water-cooler gossip. A recent post in Whispers claimed that intelligence agencies have put together a list of top 50 movers & shakers in politics, the men who call the shots in corridors of power in various state capitals. The website calls them ‘big brothers of political masters’; and it claims the PM has the list, along with information on the degree of their proximity to PMO and 10 Janpath.

Whispers doesn’t name names, but throws up clues for the benefit of those familiar with the dynamics of power. A certain Mumbai-based businessman is said to have the remote-control on Rajasthan; he can get done anything in the state. If you can’t guess who, here is a clue - he takes active interest in cricket; holds a diplomatic passport. Another businessman, again from Mumbai, can move matters in Bihar; clue – deals with auto industry. ‘A shipping and trading magnet’ can do things in Gujarat; a Mumbai builder is the man for Maharashtra. A Delhi-based real-estate developer is said to be calling the shots in Haryana; A promotee police officer is believed to be doing it in UP.

How about Madhya Pradesh? The site has nothing on this. But my guess is Suresh Mehrothra, the man behind Whispers in the Corridors.

Anyway, reading Whispers is fun. Much of it is, admittedly, hogwash, but many of its hunches, they say, approximate facts. Snag is in figuring out facts from the hogwash.Which is why Whispers, they say, has become required reading for the bureaucrats in the reckoning, besides liaison men and the lobbyists who do the rounds of the Secretariat corridors and the central hall of the Parliament House.

Whispers reminds me of Claud Cockburn’s cyclostyled gossip-sheet that kept London’s Whitehall on the buzz in the 30s. Called, simply, The Week, the gossip-sheet was read by bureaucrats, by leading politicians, bankers and journalists. Philip Toynbee said, “this cyclostyled sheet, which made public all the news and rumours of news which the official press fought shy of, was a squib which exploded effectively in many strange places”.

Claud Cockburn, in an introduction to a book by his wife, Patricia – The Years of The Week – wrote: “Friends and enemies are in agreement at least on one fact. It is that The Week exercised an influence and commanded an attention grossly, almost absurdly, out of proportion to its own resources”.

Perhaps, one could say the same about the Whispers of Bhopal. The Week of London was produced with the help of a few part-timers, in a dusty, one-room office in Victoria Street. The Bhopal website is brought out from a modest government quarter (allotted to journalists) at T T Nagar. The Whispers publisher, Dr Suresh Mehrotra, has a degree in medicine, but he has been a journalist as long as I have known him.

The media incarnation of Suresh, I believe, had its beginning as a Hindi journalist reporting for a news agency from Ujjain. Most high-flyers have had humble beginnings. Suresh and I came to be posted as newspaper correspondents in Bhopal around the same time, in early eighties. I worked for The Times of India, and he, for the Free Press Journal that had opened an edition from Indore.

For someone new to the print media (he had till then been a UNI wire service reporter), that too, in a paper that had yet to make its presence felt in Bhopal, Suresh kept up a steady flow of ‘exclusive’ news stories, much to the surprise and envy of his colleagues in the media. He was quick to earn a grudging recognition from media peers; he developed a network of contacts in official and political circles. I found him unfailingly helpful whenever I needed a contact or information on a story I was working on.

Contacts are the life blood of a newsman; and Suresh had it in abundance. Whispers thrives on official shop-talk; and it has sustained for six year now, on the strength of Suresh Mehrotra’s extensive contacts. Soft-spoken Suresh has a way with people that makes you swap cell number and e-mail addresse with him on your first meeting. I lost touch with him long before they invented e-mail;before the cell phone tsunami hit us.I learnt of his Whispers during a recent Delhi visit.

Cross-filed from Desicritic and in Zine5.

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