As always, time has flown. The last two years have been consumed in a particularly inordinate, and chaotic, hurry. The media, which SP Singh first as a print journalist and later as the brain behind Aaj Tak, impacted in a decisive fashion, has had its hands full. It has been full time, demanding job to report, comment and analyse events that are even now shaping India of the next millennium.
Pictures and words struggle to capture the defining moments of the nation’s pell mell entry into the 21st Century. The formation of a saffron-led Government at the Centre, the momentous Pokhran-II nuclear tests, the life on the edge experience of the Vajpayee regime, Jayalalitha Jayaram’s tea party, Congress under Sonia and the sight of wagon loads of young troops heading for the icy inclines of Kargil.
Even as the nation awaits the final outcome of the border clash with Pakistan, the media is playing an exceptional role, bringing back pictures from very near the actual front, clips of air operations and of poignant funerals in villages that dot the countryside. Reporters have bunkered at forward base camps, telegraphing details of ongoing operations gleaned from men trickling back after fierce fire fights at 16,000 feet.
SP Singh would have plunged head long into the challenge of reporting events which are certain to have the effect of depth charges on India’s self-image as a nation. He was among the few top notch journalistic brains who had the capacity to quickly grasp the wider implications of an emerging situation while others were still grapping at the peripheries. This is perhaps why he could bring to Aaj Tak a degree of depth in perspective not usually seen on TV newscasts.
One of the reasons that SP Singh could focus his remarkable skills with telling results was because he did not let any form of dogma get in the way of a clear headed understanding of events. He demonstrated that the newsperson’s first credo is to approach information in a neutral, searching manner, rather than to move around news which fits that.
As one ponders the many lessons that SP Singh taught us, it is difficult not to take into account a growing sense of intolerance in our public debates and a parallel polarization within the media- both print and television. The pace of political developments has been frenetic, leaving little scope for considered comment.
Hustled in part by the electronic age, the need of the hour is encapsulated in an instant wisdom. It would seem that the demand for information requires quick gratification.
As the political and social structures are subjected to frequent fractures imposed by coalition governments, and crisis as wide in scope as Kargil implode on the nation’s consciousness, there is an accompanying " compulsion" to adopt "positions". Without a minute to lose, the era of competition dictates that all answers must be served neatly packaged and with a handy guide to boot.
The contentious issues remain the "secular communal" divide, the stability of coalitions, the relevance of caste- based parties, the renewed dynastic leadership of the Congress, even as some old debates have either lost their sting, or have taken a new shape. The growing irrelevance of old-style welfarism as represented in the past by NTR’s "two rupees rice" scheme is an example.
It is in these times that the cool, slightly cynical, partly sardonic journalism that SP Singh excelled in has become rather necessary. Not that his art was detached and bloodless. There was a fierce intensity to his pursuit of news and its inner connotations. There was nothing laidback about that manner in which he sharpened his words- in print or on TV . just a few sentences were enough to sketch a sharply defined canvas.
What was always an extraordinary aspect of SP Singh’s skills as a communicator was his ability to tightly control his reactions to events around him. Often his leashed sentences would have a much more telling effect than any outburst would have. To those who worked with him, learnt the value of honing and chipping a news report into a missile. The professional that he was, SP Singh would stress that what mattered in the end was how you told the story.
Over the past two years, memories of SP Singh have come and gone, often at the most unexpected moments. Sometimes while driving, or when on a touring to an area that he had described, trying to make sense of what the fragmented Mandal family was up to or even remembrance of a tale that he had related triggered by an odd word or gesture.
To many of those who worked with him, SP Singh was a oasis where one could put down for a while professional and personal worries. He keenly understood people, in fact this was his passion, never cloistered, he loved meeting people and talking about a range of subjects. It was always a bit of a surprise to see the erudition that he could drum up.
His knack for dealing with people saw him recognize when a colleague needed a leg up. In his own quiet as SP Singh would help restore confidence in a junior who could be finding the going tough. In a similar fashion, he could turn an inquiring mind onto a profitable path.
Every now and then, he would use humour to gently correct a colleague who could be getting his news copy just a bit wrong.
Efforts of SP Singh’s friends to put together a more concrete manner of commemoration such as an annual lecture or seminars is most welcome. It could be a small way to return the bounty that he gave those who lives he touched.