Why I ignored Giani Zail Singh though I went to interview him

He came and sat on the sofa and looked at me.  I looked the other way.  He looked expectantly at me. I avoided his glance. I did not know who he was. I was at the Raj Bhavan and had fixed time to interview Giani Zail Singh. He was the president of India from 1982 to 1987. The image of a president was that of one wearing a white turban, and the red rose that was conspicuous in the buttonhole of his dress.  That is how we’d seen Giani Zail Singh as president.

I got into journalism in 1988. It was perhaps in the following year that Zail Singh came to Hyderabad. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984 and her son Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister by then President Zail Singh. In the general elections that followed, Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to a massive victory – largely because of the sympathy that had got generated due to the killing of Indira Gandhi.

As I sat in a room at Raj Bhavan in Hyderabad,  I was reminded of what Zail Singh had become popular for. He’d said that if his leader (Indira Gandhi) would have wanted him to pick up a broom and sweep, he would do it. That was how loyal he was to his leader. Indira Gandhi knew his loyalty and made him President of India.

Rajiv Gandhi was unlike his mother.  It was public knowledge that he did not respect Giani Zail Singh. The custom was that the Prime Minister would call on the President at regular intervals and brief him about the functioning of the government. Rajiv Gandhi, for some reason, felt he did not owe the President of India any such niceties.  The pilot-turned-politician who was catapulted to the seat of power showed no courtesies to Zail Singh. But it was not that Indira Gandhi handpicked a nobody to make him President of India. She exercised a choice and it was for a purpose.
Giani Zail Singh had got his name because of two reasons. His actual name was Jarnail Sigh.  Born in Punjab in 1916, the young man went to jail several times challenging the regime in Faridkot. He grew in stature so much that ‘Jail’ became his name – pronounced as Zail Singh. The ‘Giani’ prefix he got was because of religious education.  Giani Zail Singh was chief minister of Punjab from 1972-77 and then got elected to the Lok Sabha later.

That was his background before Indira Gandhi chose to make him President of India. The way Rajiv Gandhi treated him with scant respect hurt Giani Zail Singh and he was heartbroken even when he laid down office in 1987.

I was keen to know firsthand, how Giani Zail Singh saw himself through his turbulent times, being the President of India and being ignored by a young Prime Minister who was 40 years old.  I wanted to know how he felt about the democratic system in India.
As I waited for him, a personal assistant of the former president approached me and said Zail Singh would see him in just a few minutes. I wasn’t complaining that I had been kept waiting. Moreover, I was eagerly looking forward to meeting him and was glad that it was happening.
After a while, the man I referred to earlier, came and occupied the single sofa right in front of me. My mind was fixed on seeing the former President of India, in the attire that we had always seen him. Since the man sitting in front of me had by now fixed his gaze on me, I looked at him, this time inquisitively at him. He looked inquisitive.

“Let’s begin,” he said having watched me for at least a couple of minutes doing nothing but staring at nothing in particular in the room. “Begin what?” I said to myself even as I looked at him with a query in my face. “Go on. Ask him your questions,” the personal assistant whispered in my ears, as he himself looked a bit amused at what was going on.

But I was waiting for Giani Zail Singh and not this someone. “It is him,” the PA told me with an emphasis. I looked at him. Giani Zail Singh understood the reason for my confusion. He had taken bath and left his long hair open to dry. He had come to meet me without wearing the turban and not in the expected style of dressing! And I had not recognized that it was Giani Zail Singh sitting right in front of me!  All was forgiven as we exchanged smiles and I accepted the person sitting in front of me as Zail Singh himself.

I did ask him about his tenure as President of India and especially Rajiv Gandhi’s attitude towards him. The feeling of hurt was there.  Despite all the issues that cropped up, Giani Zail Singh said democracy should be strengthened.

“No, dictatorship is not right. And Kingocracy has no place,” he said. Never mind that there is no such word as Kingocracy in the dictionary. Instead of monarchy, he had said Kingocracy. Loved that word.

“I did not think you would want to take a picture of me,” Giani Zail Singh said as I politely indicated to him that my photographer was waiting to click pictures. The man with the unshorn open hair went inside. And he came back as the Zail Singh! Dressed as he always did, and making a perfect picture. This picture and episode have remained etched in my memory.

Takeaway: A gnani can sail through troubled waters. 

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