Bombay journalists of a certain vintage—I am one of them—all have a Murli Deora story. I do too.
Deora, a veteran mover and shaker behind the scenes in the Congress Party who died yesterday at 77, had the demeanor and body language of an eternal dealmaker. He exuded that sense that there is always a political deal to be had no matter how seemingly intractable the disagreement.
You could spot him in any social situation and feel that he was in the midst of resolving a particularly vexatious situation. He could do that because he was not a doctrinaire politician but a pragmatist, a quality that he perhaps carried over from his life as a businessman.
I knew Murlibhai reasonably well both in Bombay (it was that when I lived there) and then in Delhi. Given my reflexively shallow mind, I always noticed that in unguarded and sometimes even guarded moments, he had a delightful weakness for cussing under his breath. There was a particular cussword that slipped out of him almost as a punctuation. I am sure there are many politicians who curse but I knew of only Murlibhai who did it in a manner that sounded rather complimentary. In that he was like the Parsis of Bombay who curse with such refinement and affection.
Early on in my career, when I used to interact with him in Bombay as a young journalist, the conversations were mainly about local politics. He was the all influential president of Bombay Regional Congress Committee (BRCC), which although a city-based outfit of the ruling Congress Party, was perhaps the most powerful by virtue of being in the heart of the money world. For a long time Murlibhai was the most important fundraiser for the party.
He was a consummate political insider who, not being excruciatingly ideological, could reach out to any politician of any persuasion without any problem. Deora’s steadfast commitment to the Gandhi family, particularly to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was legendary. He never showed it off but it was well known within the party that if anyone could enter the rarefied circle at will, it was him.
If there is one line that could sum up Deora—it is not my case that he necessarily used it—it would be “To problem kya hai usme? (So what’s the problem there?)” He could have started a business called ‘Problem-solvers-R-Us’.
Murlibhai was not a schmoozer in the sense that is understood here in America but he had the knack to chat up anyone across a wide spectrum of interests. He had this habit of appearing to switch off in the middle of a conversation but that could be misleading because he was invariably paying attention.
My Deora story is trivial but still indicative of how he always reached out. It was sometime in 1984 or 1985. Getting a home telephone line in the India of the 1980s was a privilege/nightmare of indescribable proportions. Naturally, I did not have one at home for quite sometime. In one of my meetings, Murlibhai found out and asked me straight up, “Tere ko ghar pe phone chahiye?” (Do you want a phone at home?)” I said yes in the general sense and not in the spirit that he had meant.
In his mind the moment I said yes, he would call the boss of the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), the state-owned phone corporation right there and a line would be installed in the next few hours. Being an idealist I told him I could not possibly accept that favor. He understood where I was coming from and did not persist even though he was amused by my refusal.
On another occasion, he found out that I stayed in a rented apartment. His inevitable question was “Tere ko flat chahiye? (Do you want a flat/apartment?)” What he meant was he could get me one sanctioned from the special journalist quota that the Maharashtra state government had set aside for the media at a highly subsidized rate. I declined, of course, much to his amusement again.
In both cases, one could tell that Murlibhai was not even remotely trying to influence a young journalist. He did not need me in anyway or for that matter any other local journalist to function as a politician of consequence. He was already one. By the time I met him, he was a veteran politician, having been the mayor of Bombay in 1977-78.
Deora was urbane even though some of his manners were not fully varnished. I always thought if there was ever a genuinely serious Indian political movie, a character like Murlibhai would make an extremely compelling character. He was old school in the sense that he believed politics was the art of the possible.