VINOD MEHTA’S LAST HURRAH

Vinod Mehta is no more. This man really had seen threat to Press freedom at close range when he was the head of “Indian Post” or “The Independent.”

His stint in Debonair of course made him famous for the Chatterati and the Glitterati as he really went for his Centrespread. When he took over the Post from Nihal Singh, Vijaypat Singhania asked him what can be done to better the Post as a global newspaper. Mehta in his inimitable style had replied, “it needs surgery right from the masthead to the bottom.”

While he was at the helm of Post the Congress was running amok looting India. His style of journalism obviously was not palatable to the corrupt, venal Congress. It arm-twisted Singhania and a flashy guy like him had no choice but to succumb to pressure. All of Singhania’s daring of flying a solo plane to set a record evaporated when he showed lack of guts to stand up to Congress monster.

Singhania quickly issued a demarche to Mehta not to carry “adverse reports on Rajiv Gandhi, Satish Sharma, Amitabh Bachchan, Dhirubhai Ambani, Sharad Pawar, Murli Deora, Lalit Suri and V.P. Singh.” This hurt Mehta as it would hurt a hungry man in a hotel when told not to eat what he wanted.

When faced with dilemma Mehta had no qualms in resigning. This was a brave step indeed as many others would have easily compromised and licked the boots of powers-that-be. One example is enough. When Shyam Lal was the editor of TOI he was once asked why he crawled when told to bend during Emergency when others like Express had stood their ground. Sham Lal had replied: “No. TOI also fought the Emergency. We did it from inside” LOL

I had met Sham Lal when he took a course for me at Times Research Foundation Institute at Dariagunj in New Delhi when I was selected for the special training. I was the only person from TOI, Ahmedabad so far to have been sent for such a special training at the TRFI. This man was diminutive and unimpressive but was very knowledgeable. Tragedy was when the chips were down he wouldn’t quit like Mehta.

Quitting honorably was nothing new to Mehta. The joke then was after he took over Outlook that he could be already resigning though Mehta was clever enough to scotch such rumours saying Outlook is his baby and he will see it through come what may. He made it then clear there will be no more quitting. Of course it was a tough job for Mehta launching the magazine from scratch as, it was said, many in the editorial had no place to sit and most were accommodated in some dingy room.

From the Post he went to TOI’s “The Independent” and as his is wont stepped on the Marathi manush’s corns carrying a report on Shivaji which created so much furore that TOI bosses, like the Singhanias earlier, dropped him like a hot potato. Mehta was shown the door and he walked out boldly.

That Mehta was truly committed to press freedom there is no doubt when he said soon after quitting Post: “If even a small paper like the Post cannot remain independent press freedom is obviously under threat.”

The Post was a really good paper and was worth reading (not like the trash that Gujarat Samachar much later launched with the same name).

However when the Post folded like a broken chair its staff sent a memo to Singhania saying: “We are deeply disturbed that the editor has been forced to resign on account of political pressures. We too would find it difficult to work under such constraints.” And Singhania was least bothered. His business empire was what counted most.

When the Post was being knocked around by the Congress turbulence it was during that time I went to the Post building at Nariman Point with my close friend Arvind Bisht, who is now Chief Reporter in Lucknow TOI. We both were than in Lokmat Times and though we were paid well and taken good care of I had a sudden call from TOI, Ahmedabad. Once I decided to move out Bisht was very upset. He simply walked out with me. I was coming to Ahmedabad and for his sake had to go to the Post for Bisht to submit his application breaking journey in Mumbai for a day or two. (Those days one came to Ahmedabad via Mumbai).

Bisht sensed something was wrong and as we were walking out of the Post building he had a premonition telling me, “Bala I don’t think I will be joining the Post even if they call me. I will be meeting RE of Lucknow TOI Ramesh Chandra and I am sure to get a job there.” Good he joined the TOI when Post simply imploded.

Death of Indian Post was a tragic end to one of the finest newspapers of that time. I don’t know about others but it broke my heart. Killing the Indian Post was a cowardly act and blame goes to Singhania, whose business empire was cracking under tremendous pressure from the venal Congress, as much as to the civil society which took it lying down.

Like all great men Mehta too had one slip when he carried a story that was splashed front page in THE INDEPENDENT with huge 72 bold points with the headline screaming: “900 Cr LAND SCAM IN GUJARAT” I was then in the TOI Ahmedabad and was wondering how no one, let alone our own boys, were missing such a lovely story. Actually the story was a dud, so dud that the Gujarat government did not bother even to react mildly nor Mehta dared to pursue the “enormous” scam. That was a quiet burial indeed.

As old feeble Mehta came on TV channels he showed lot of patience even when he wanted to say something desperately usually waving his hands to catch the moderator’s eye. The most shaky feeling surely he must have had only in Arnab’s show when this maverick was firing his daily fusillades of questions for so long that many forgot whether it was a debate or simply meant to listen to Arnab’s soliloquy. Many times Arnab ignored Mehta till the fag end. Mehta took it on his chin in good spirits.

If someone engraved his epitaph it could read thus:

“Here lies a man who mocked Death when it said : ‘YOU’RE FIRED’”

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