Saturday, September 06, 2008

On Sharada Prasad

Byline by M J Akbar: On Sharada Prasad

His laugh was always a little less than a laugh, and his smile much more than a smile. This was not uncertainty; it was a discretion that suited the gentle character of a true gentleman, H.Y. Sharada Prasad, aesthete, scholar, author, adviser to two Prime Ministers and a muse to whoever was privileged enough to be friend. His warm heart lived on his face; his measured tones were a reflection of his temperament. He believed in understatement, not because he had less to say, but because neither assertion nor aggression was his preferred virtue. If you could not hear, he did not have much to say.

That made him a bit of misfit in Government of India culture, where assertion/aggression between colleagues is matched only by the competitive degrees of sycophancy displayed towards the boss, no matter how often the boss changes. I got to know him when he was working as the senior bureaucrat in the Prime Minister's Office during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure in the mid-Eighties. Continuity across generations is not the easiest of transitions. Sharada Prasad had been Mrs Indira Gandhi's most trusted adviser, joining her in 1966 when she first became Prime Minister and lasting till 1977 when she was voted out of office in India's most dramatic election. He had the prickly [the euphemism was 'sensitive'] portfolio of press relations, not an easy job at the best of times and self-defeating during those interminable 19 months of censorship during the Emergency. He was perhaps the only member of Mrs Gandhi's inner circle to emerge from that calamity with his reputation unsullied. The first decision that Mrs Gandhi took on her return to power in 1980 was to reappoint him to the PMO. That says it all.

But it is a very rare jewel that shines in an heir's court as well. Delhi is more familiar with the Abul Fadl syndrome: Emperor Akbar's star courtier was killed by his son Salim [later Jehangir]. Death is not a modern solution, but a rough nudge into an inconsequential placebo, like an ambassadorship to a trouble-free capital, is. Rajiv Gandhi kept Sharada Prasad on board, not so much for media but to continue in his parallel role, to pen a sagacious speech, often livened by a brilliant turn of phrase.

There is a great distance between the draft of a Prime Minister's speech and its final delivery. A host of hovering "specialists" is eager to intervene. Competition over paragraphs can be sharp as envy jostles with the urge for self-promotion. Sharada Prasad never disturbed the inevitable interference after having crafted the framework. He was never possessive. But if a speech ended up resembling an out-of-control buffet, you could always tell which sections were the creation of a master chef. It was quite different from the slaphappy offerings of butlers masquerading as cooks.

It is not easy to survive in a PMO. There is too much power, and with it too much temptation. That Sharada Prasad managed to survive without the faintest whiff of sycophancy was a marvel. That, trust me, is an achievement in Delhi. But Sharada Prasad could never be part of a rat race. He did not belong to the species.

He left government with the same lack of fuss with which he had survived in it. Departure was a moment of release, not loss. Imperceptibly, and with some vigorous encouragement from a friend, he began writing a column that grew gradually upon its readers till it became an institution. When a collection of his columns was published, it became the surprise bestseller of that season. For the first time a larger world knew of his extraordinary understanding and love for Carnatic music. He found it difficult to be critical of even those he disliked, but he did not refrain from using a pin to prick ego-bubbles. But he did it always with that endearing half-laugh, full-smile.

Wisdom has its own equity. I recall a bit of advice he gave me after being part of a conversation or two. "You can always tell a king," he said, "but you cannot tell him too much."

It is not advice that I have always followed, being in a profession where the risk of stating what you know, against the power of government, must be taken. But you can argue that wiser words were never said for those who want to live in Delhi.

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