Saturday, December 15, 2018
By Rajiv Shah
A public relations officer (PRO), even as maintaining anonymity, is supposed to “manage” reputation of his or her client, reflecting the client’s views in order to influence opinion and behaviour. A PRO is also known to use, the world over, media and communication to build, maintain, manage and plan publicity strategies and campaigns, even as dealing with enquiries from the public, particularly media, organising promotional events such as press conferences, open days, exhibitions, tours and visits. A PRO is also supposed to final touches to press statements for his or client.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s PRO Jagdish Thakkar, who passed away in New Delhi at the age of 72 on December 10, a Monday, after prolonged illness, was a PRO of a different type. One who was picked up to work as PRO by Congress’ Amarsinh Chaudhary, who was Gujarat chief minister between 1985 and 1989, he remained on the post, without a break, till Modi came to power.
Thakkar’s “clients” included Congress’ Madhavsinh Solanki (1989-90), Chimanbhai Patel (1990-94) and Chhabildas Mehta (1994-95), followed by top Modi opponent in the BJP Keshubhai Patel (1995) and Suresh Mehta (1995-96), BJP rebel Shankersinh Vaghela (1996-97) followed by Dilip Parikh (1997), and was again picked up by Keshubhai Patel (1998-2001) in his second term.
On becoming Gujarat chief minister in October 2001, Modi removed almost the entire staff from the chief minister’s office (CMO), considering them all supporters of Keshubhai Patel, including top IAS officials, but Thakkar continued to be the client of the new chief minister. The reason attributed for his “success” is, he was too low profile, very soft spoken, and the joke about Thakkar, at least among the scribes that covered Gandhinagar Sachivalaya, was, he wouldn’t just capture the mindset of his boss but also quickly prepare a “prefect” press note to be sent for typing even before the briefing ended!
To quote a well-known Gujarati scribe, Prashant Dayal, “The information department officials never worried about writing press releases during the chief minister’s public rallies at multiple places. As the chief minister spoke, Thakkar would write the press note, and by the time the address was over and the chief minister’s team was ready to leave the venue, Thakkar would send the press note to the official and instruct for release it media.” Not tech-savvy, quite unlike Modi, he would write all his press notes by hand, never using the computer keyboard.
Other “qualities” of Thakkar helping journalists in every possible way – till, of course, it didn’t harm the boss. Thus, one reason why reporters always “liked” to be with him was, he not only behaved badly with anyone, but would go out of the way to allow scribes to freely use facilities available in the chief minister’s office (CMO) to send articles not just to their office but even abroad. Dayal recalls, before the days of mobile phones and computers, he would write for a New York-based daily run by NRIs. Thakkar would allow him to use the fax machine without any issues, even if the articles were “anti-establishment.”
Recalls Kishore Anjaria, who worked as PRO with the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board (GWSSB) for a long period, and today, retired from government service, is an active Gujarati journalist, another reason why Thakkar was chosen for the chief minister’s office (CMO) was his “knowledge of English.”
Thakkar was picked up by IAS official PK Laheri, who served in the CMO under different chief ministers, finally to become Gujarat chief secretary under Modi, recalls Anjaria further, adding, he was perhaps the only official in Gujarat who put at rest broke the general thinking that a new boss always brings with her or him his own PRO to work with – “so much of trust he was able to cultivate in every new incumbent”.
One who disliked seeing his name appearing in print, Thakkar was so low profile that he would not discuss virtually nothing, least of all something controversial, with journalists. A man of few words, when one would press upon him to speak out about unpleasant things about a past chief minister, he would just say, with a smile, “Let me open my mouth after I retire!”, something he never did. He would say, “All chief ministers had pluses and minuses. But I have had excellent memories with them all”, but refrain from speaking anything more.
A workaholic, one doesn’t recall if Thakkar ever went on leave to relax. Apart from dishing out press notes in virtually no time, he would forward appointment requests from scribes to the chief ministers. One who retired as government official of the Gujarat information department in 2004, Thakkar made known his desire to quit work government service. He was co-opted by Modi that year, was asked to continue as PRO in the CMO. “Saheb has asked me, I can’t refuse”, he said.
I covered Gandhinagar Sachivalaya for the Times of India from 1997 to 2013, and would interact with Thakkar routinely. Modi met me one-to-one twice, both before the 2002 Gujarat riots, and would also interact with me during the lunches he would serve for journalists on the occasion of the Gujarati New Year, but refused to meet me one-to-one. Thakkar gave me the reason: “Saheb says, you write whatever he tells you. He doesn’t like that.” My telling him that I wouldn’t didn’t help either! Did my stories in the Times of India embarrass Modi so much? I don’t know.
After I retired from the Times of India in January 2013, I didn’t interact with Thakkar much – except on phone. While he never picked up the phone instantly, he would return back as and when he found time. After he went to Delhi with Modi, I asked him what his job was. And this was his reply, straight and to the point: “What could it be? The same… Preparing press notes.” I further queried: “In Gujarati like before?” And he replied, “No, not just in Gujarati…”, but didn’t add more.
A version of this article first appeared in The Wire