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‘You as Editor will be respected by politicians’ – Ajay Singh was told, he still quit media

'Fiji: A Love Story' is diplomat Ajay Singh's memoir, which was left unfinished when he passed away in 2020.

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I moved to Fiji Islands where I worked as a Senior Sub-Editor for Fiji Times, the oldest and largest selling English daily in the South Pacific. In December of that year, I returned to India to join Surya India, a monthly magazine. Its editor was the late Khushwant Singh; I and the young Maneka Gandhi were his two senior assistants.

In April 1977 Aroon Purie hired me as a Senior Correspondent to lead the young editorial team of India Today, a fledgling fortnightly news magazine he edited. Those were epochal times in Indian journalism. Barely a month ago, the Janata Party had been voted to power, defeating the Indira Gandhi-led Congress, after Mrs. Gandhi had unexpectedly ended the Emergency and called the elections. Our team members were all in their mid-twenties as, indeed so was I, and we were all privileged and excited to be there at the beginning of a new and exciting era in Indian journalism.

However, I left India Today in 1978 to take over as Deputy Editor in charge of Morning Echo, an English tabloid daily brought out by the Hindustan Times Group. This job was a comparative breeze, and, looking back, was perhaps most memorable for the great times with the inimitable Chand Joshi, legendary journalist and an even more legendary figure at the Press Club, the then favourite watering hole of Delhi journalists.

The good times, so to say, came to an end in March 1980 when I quit HT to take over as the Managing Trustee of the Kisan Trust, set up by Mr. Charan Singh, better known as Chaudhary Charan Singh. Chaudhary Sahib, as we all called him, had been the prime minister till Mrs. Gandhi rode back to power in January 1980. I knew him only slightly but he was good friends with my father.

One day I received summons from Chaudhary Sahib to meet him at his 12, Tughlaq Road residence. One of the key objectives of the All-India Kisan Trust, he explained, was to create an alternative media platform which would speak the language of the peasants and poor people of India, and he was looking for a young, bright and educated person to look after the trust and its publications. I was candid with him about our differing world views since I still held extreme leftist beliefs and I was sure he would revisit his intention of hiring me as the Managing Trustee.

Ajay Singh with Malaviya Kartar Singh, Mulayam Singh and others | Shipra Publications

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However, I had not taken into account his deeper insights into human psychology, drawn from his long years in public life. He was confident I would look beyond my idealism and come around. Some days later, I found him sitting with my father at our residence, Tamavua, in Vasant Vihar, Delhi. It was here he asked my father to hand over his only son (me) to him and, in return, take his only son Ajit Singh, a computer engineer who had returned from the United States and joined the DCM Group of Industries. After his retirement, my father was working as an Advisor with Sri Ram Fibres, part of the DCM group. Clearly the elements had conspired to persuade me to quit Hindustan Times and join the Kisan Trust.

When I shared my decision with my media friends, most notably M J Akbar and S P Singh, they were horrified. And when I met K K Birla, the chairman of the company, he too tried to dissuade me: “Ajay you are a young man and doing well in your job. Here you have the opportunity to move up as Editor soon. Politicians come and go. There is a bright future for you in the media. You as Editor will be respected much more by the politicians and they will be approaching you. But outside you will be moving behind them.” I told Birlaji politely to accept my resignation and relieve me as I had made up my mind.

It was thus that I became the Managing Trustee of the Kisan Trust, and the Editor-in-Chief of its three media offerings: Real India, an English fortnightly, and Asli Bharat, a weekly broadsheet in Hindi and Urdu. Chaudhary Sahib was, of course, the Trust’s chairman and its trustees were all nationally known figures: Devi Lal, Madhu Limaye, George Fernandes, Biju Patnaik, Sharad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Dr. Swarup Singh, ex Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University. Interacting with this stellar set of leaders was a deeply learning experience.

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Post my association with Chaudhary Charan Singh, my rise in politics was rapid. In 1986 I was elected as a member of the legislative council in UP. After Chaudhary Sahib’s death in May 1987, I was unanimously voted by the trustees to replace him as the Chairman of the Kisan Trust. In 1989 I won from the Agra parliamentary seat as a member of Mr. VP Singh’s Janata Dal Party and joined the Union Council of Ministers in the short- lived Government led by Mr. Singh, as Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Railways. During the post government period I chaired various government autonomous bodies. Finally In 2005, I was appointed as India’s High Commissioner to Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands, the circumstances of which I detail later in the book.

I am retired now, sporadically contributing to various journals and newspapers in India and abroad. With my four-decade long association in journalism, politics, governance, diplomacy and social work I do not lack subjects on which I have something original and relevant to say. These subjects include the non-Congress politics of the Janata Parivar, my experience of working closely with two Prime Ministers of the country, Chaudhary Charan Singh and VP Singh, and my interactions with the big movers and shakers of contemporary Indian politics.

Finally, I decided that the book I would write would be on Fiji, spurred on by my two muses. First, and foremost, was my late wife Shiromani who in the last decade of her life had begun to badger me, “Write, my love, write. What a waste it would be if you don’t! You have had the unique privilege of working closely with some of the greatest in Indian politics, and had some truly great journalists as friends. So, write…”. Seeing me spending hours in my study, she would often say, “You read so much, you know so much, you have stories to tell, on top of it you write so well, it will all be such a waste if you don’t….” I wish now that I had written this book when she was alive; she would have plugged gaps in my memory and introduced much colour that will now sadly be lacking.

Second, was my dearest friend from school and college, Aman Nath, the owner of the Neemrana group of hotels. When I left for my odyssey around the globe in 1972, he had given me a heavy, hard-bound volume of blank pages, in which he wrote: “You want to wake those weed grown roads of the past into a song of sable words…. The cleavage you knife, pores of paper and fills it with its royal blood…. So, write.” Now, Aman lent his whole-hearted support to Shiromani’s urgings to write my book.

This excerpt from ‘Fiji: A Love Story (Memoirs of an Unconventional Diplomat)’ by Ajay Singh has been published with permission from Shipra Publications.

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