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Rajeev Shukla: The India minister who plays on the front foot

Former journalist Rajeev Shukla is an Indian minister of state, a top official on the Board of Control for Cricket in India as well as the chairman of the popular Indian Premier League

  • From left: Rajeev Shukla with Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan K. Bansal, Minister of State for AgriculturImage Credit: Courtesy: Arun Sharma
  • Shukla with Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan and Indian cricket board chief N. Srinivasan at theIndian Premier Image Credit: Courtesy: Ron Gaunt
  • Shukla with Indian cricket maestro Sachin Tendulkar and Congress party leader Rahul Gandhiat a cricket tournImage Credit: Courtesy: Arun Sharma
  • Shukla with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (centre), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)leader Lal KrisImage Credit: Courtesy: Nilima Pathak
  • Shukla and his wife Anuradha Prasad with Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhuttoin Islamabad in 1996.Image Credit: Courtesy: Nilima Pathak

New Delhi Rajeev Shukla undeniably has a significant clout in Indian politics. He is at a position envied my many.

The Minister of State in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, Shukla is also Secretary, All India Congress Committee (AICC). associated with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and chairman of the Indian Premier League (IPL). In addition, Shukla is a friend to top politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists, film stars, cricketers and media personalities.

“Having been a journalist for almost 20 years and then becoming a politician has definitely been an interesting and enriching experience for me. I realise that strutting around in power corridors for political coverage, a journalist becomes half a politician”
-Journalist-turned-politician Rajeev Shukla
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From starting his career as a cub reporter to becoming a Member of the Upper House of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), Shukla has traversed the long winding road with sheer hard work and an indomitable will.

“I do not take up a responsibility unless I am sure of putting my heart and soul into it,” Shukla told Gulf News in an informal tete-a-tete at his Safdarjung Road bungalow in Delhi. So how do politicians, whom he interviewed in the past as a journalist, now perceive him?

“It’s a change of perception, environment and attitude as well. People change their opinion according to your position. And both politicians and bureaucrats begin to take you more seriously, as they suddenly feel you have become more important,” Shukla said.

Reporting job

“Having been a journalist for almost 20 years and then becoming a politician has definitely been an interesting and enriching experience for me. I realise that strutting around in power corridors for political coverage, a journalist becomes half a politician.

"And constant interaction [with them] leads to personal relations. Many scribes begin to advise politicos on certain matters, to which the latter even pay heed,” he informed.

As a journalist, Shukla frequently visited the Parliament House to watch and report the proceedings from the press gallery.

But, he admits, “When I made it to the Rajya Sabha, the feeling was altogether different. It was absolutely awesome, though not of shock and awe, as I was already familiar with both — the precincts and the people. It was exciting to look at the press gallery — this time from a different angle!”

Shukla had managed the unmanageable while hosting the television programme Ru-ba-ru by having heart-to-heart talks with eminent personalities — both at the national and international level.

“It was quite a task first approaching and convincing some heads of states and finally getting them in front of the camera,” he says.

Denying that he had an extra edge over others in the fraternity, Shukla credited his persuasive skills that worked for him.

“I always try to do a job well and do not attach importance to where I stand. I know the art of maintaining long-term associations. And believe that relationships must not be utility-based and have to be retained beyond profession. It is important that people have faith in you, because as a journalist you work within the parameters of professional ethics,” he said.

Shukla makes a clear distinction between the power struggle that prevails in many minds — the ‘power’ as a journalist and ‘ultimate power’ as a politician.

“A journalist lives with the ‘perception’ of power, because politicians give him importance and he has connectivity with people-who-matter. But the actual ‘taste of power’ comes only on entering politics,” he says.

So, was it for this ‘taste of power’ that he entered politics?

Shukla is candid in his confession.

“I will not deny and have no hesitation in admitting that as a political correspondent I had the desire to be like the politicians I met. Many journalists desperately want to get into Parliament and become ministers, but they do not like to disclose their cards, until they are sure of getting a seat, as it is difficult to make it without the right opportunity.

“My fundamentals were different. Once I decided to enter politics, I saw no reason in hiding my aspirations. Wanting to try my luck, I came out in the open and contested the Rajya Sabha elections. I was fortunate to win with a huge majority of votes.

“Pretensions do not help. It is not correct to masquerade as a journalist and at the same time pursue a different agenda. Times have changed. And for those willing to continue with journalism even after entering politics, there are huge opportunities to contribute in newspapers.”

That last delcaration is something Shukla knows better.

He continues to write in national dailies and maintains the perfect equilibrium between the two professions. In a recent column,  he blasted those paying tributes to film star-turned politician Rajesh Khanna after his death, though they ignored him when he was alive.

Shukla wrote, “This breathless coverage may have served as an eye-opener for the younger generation and conveyed in some measure the cult status Kaka [as Khanna was fondly called] enjoyed in his hey-day, but to those of my generation — a generation that got a front-row view of Khanna’s many highs and lows – this almost theatrical display of public mourning by those who did not spare a thought for Kaka when his life was at its lowest ebb, smacked of hypocrisy.

“Few know of the trials and travails Khanna was subjected to in the past 15 years.

Those Bollywood personalities who are now paying him public homilies are the very same people who not only distanced themselves from Kaka, but also made fun of him ... Films that were coming his way would suddenly vanish at the insistence of these stars, who would pressure the producer or director to ensure that Khanna was not cast in the film.”

Khanna connection

Notwithstanding  the party he represents, Shukla writes further with honesty and alacrity, “I must also mention that many Congress leaders made fun of Khanna and tried to ensure that he remained in political wilderness ... Many would spread baseless rumours about him [during the campaigning] not being able to make it on time and waking up only after noon ... That is why those who are now shedding tears for Kaka seem nothing more than opportunists to me.”

Shukla first met Khanna in 1974 in Mumbai. True to his word of maintaining long-term relationships, he was among the couple of people in Delhi with whom Khanna shared his joys and sorrows and he remained close to the superstar till the end.

Upright about his feelings, Shukla is a refreshing change from the mundane image of an Indian politician. With his cool and easy demeanour, he manages to get any kind of staunchest opposition turn into a favourable situation.

“I am of the firm opinion that there is no place for personal enmity in politics. It is a matter of believing in different ideologies. So, fighting at an ideology level is fine and if you pursue with this mindset, relationships remain cordial,” he says.

Welcoming professionals, he maintains that experts from different walks of life were required to change the face of Indian politics. “There is definitely a dearth of good and efficient people in politics and it would be good to see right-thinking professionals dominate the political system,” he suggests.

“The irony is that parents want their sons and daughters to be doctors, engineers and MBAs and choose a safe career. But at the same time they do not hesitate to criticize politicians. The result is that children do not strive to enter politics and this paves the way for others with medieval mindsets,” he added.

Shukla was born on September 13, 1959 in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

His father was a lawyer and the family led a humble life. It was only after his elder brother got into journalism that Shukla became familiar with the profession. He joined a small publication and earned Rs.100 (Dh6.60) as monthly salary.

His ambition to grow brought him to Delhi. He says, “I got exposed to an altogether new world and thank the several editors and senior journalists who gave me the opportunity to work with them.”

He was one of the few journalists who worked at various levels — district, division, state, national and international. And the exposure led to understanding the nuances of administrative set-ups better.

“My association with former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, helped catapult my journalistic career. I accompanied him on different tours and the relationship strengthened when he was in the opposition.

Fearless journalism

“He encouraged and appreciated my work and let me handle my duties professionally without ever asking me to write against his opponents. He motivated me to do fearless journalism.”

Asked if other political leaders asked him for favourable reports and how he handled such situations, Shukla says: “Yes, there were many who wanted the story to be moulded according to their fancy.

“I had to convince them that by doing so I would lose my credibility as a journalist. I would explain to them about stating facts and promise to certainly also present their point of view. Thereafter, the judgment would be left to the readers. This way, the equation remained good.”

Shukla appreciates sincerity and hard work. That’s probably the reason why he and Anuradha Prasad chose to marry.

Anuradha is chairperson of B.A.G. Network, a firm that produces feature films and runs television channels.

The two met while working as journalists in the same building in Delhi.

Shukla is forthcoming with details: “Anuradha was with the news agency Press Trust of India and I represented Sunday magazine. We would often meet and grew fond of each other. We married in 1988.”

Crediting his wife for her strength and vast knowledge, he says: “We share common interests and she often advises and guides me. Her inputs are vital, but there are times when I do not agree with her opinion and ignore her suggestions. If she is proven right, then obviously she scolds me!

“A thorough professional, she never lets her brother, Ravi Shankar Prasad, a prominent BJP leader, or myself interfere in her business ventures. And Anuradha has this enormous capacity to tell both of us to keep away from her work. Our recommendations too never work!”

The couple has a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter Vaanya, with whom Shukla says he tries to spend value time.

But since along with politics, he also has sports issues related to BCCI and IPL to deal with, the fond father always finds himself devoid of enough time to devote to his daughter.

Cricket has been Shukla’s passion since school days. And he acknowledges the support he got from prominent people in the field of sport. That’s how he first joined the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association and was later “encouraged” to get into BCCI, wherein he held different positions for almost 20 years.

As its vice-president, he was instrumental in organising the Indo-Pak cricket series in 2004.

Cricket diplomacy

Heading IPL since last year, Shukla is keen that India and Pakistan should continue to play with each other.

“There may be security concerns for the two teams to play in Pakistan, but I see no reason why the matches cannot be held in India. Cricket should not turn into a political issue. After all, the two countries played even after the 1971 Indo-Pak War, the 1999 Kargil War and the attack on Parliament House in 2001,” he says.

“My feeling is that cricket can help the two nations. The bonhomie developed during the last series in Pakistan remains etched in people’s minds when Indians got an overwhelming reception and shopkeepers there refused to take money from the visitors. It was a golden era of the Indo-Pak relations.”

What politicians fear 

The IPL chief felt that if the two countries continued to play regularly, winning or losing by either side would seize to matter after some time and the euphoria of creating a war-like situation would ultimately vanish.

A firm believer in the philosophy of making efforts and then being content with the results, Shukla does feel disillusioned at times. “That’s when inner strength helps,” he says.

What do politicians generally fear, I ask him.

Shukla is prompt: “Insecurity is the main ingredient of politics. You cannot be sure of anything. With re-elections every five years, there is constant anxiety.”

But what about those who do good work in their constituency? “Then there is the concern about uncertainty of ministership. An Indian Administrative Service officer can sit pretty in office for the next 30 years and feel the security of a job. But politics means taking a risk,” he responds.

Well, it does not seem that politicians live their lives with the Damocles sword hanging on their heads all the time. And if that were the case many would have left. “Not that, but uncertainty is certainly prevalent,” Shukla clarifies.

Shukla, though, does not have to worry. He has his feet dug firmly on the political ground. And what works in his favour is that he has managed to accomplish that without inviting any enemies or political adversaries.